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Who's Bad Now?

The U.S. government is finally attempting to seize tens of millions of dollars in assets -- including a serious stash of Michael Jackson memorabilia -- from Equatorial Guinea's playboy president-in-waiting. Took long enough.

For the past seven years, various arms of the U.S. government have been investigating Teodoro "Teodorin" Nguema Obiang Mangue, the corrupt, playboy son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, who owns a $30 million-plus mansion in Malibu, California. Thousands and thousands of pages of documents have been compiled by investigators -- led by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Justice Department and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) -- detailing massive corruption, money-laundering, and general debauchery on the part of Teodorin, yet no legal action resulted.

That changed today when the Justice Department filed civil forfeiture complaints seeking approximately $70.8 million of Teodorin's assets -- his Malibu mansion, a rare Ferrari, and a $38.5 million Gulfstream G-V jet, and roughly $1.1 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a "white crystal covered 'Bad Tour' glove" -- which the government "alleges is the proceeds of foreign corruption offenses and was laundered in the United States," according to a statement by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton.

It is significant and laudatory that the U.S. government has finally taken real, consequential action against Teodorin. But it's unfortunate that the investigation dragged on so long that it allowed him to ship the majority of his U.S.-based assets overseas, where they are now likely beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. In particular according to the filing, the $38.5 million Gulfstream G-V jet is, as of Oct. 12, located back in Equatorial Guinea. Moreover, with billions of dollars of U.S. oil company investment in Equatorial Guinea, the United States continues to be reluctant to censure that government over significant and repeated human rights violations.

The Obiang saga started in 2004, when the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report (opened after a Los Angeles Times story I wrote the prior year) that found that Teodorin's father -- Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled since seizing power in 1979 coup -- controlled as much as $700 million in state funds at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., deposited overwhelmingly by U.S. oil companies. The Senate panel said Riggs Bank (later bought by PNC) opened multiple accounts for Obiang and helped the president stash his wealth in offshore shell corporations.

A detailed report last year, also by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, found that Teodorin, who had been appointed Equatorial Guinea's minister of agriculture and forestry, used shell companies to evade money-laundering laws and funnel more than $100 million into the United States. He used the funds to buy the Malibu property, a personal jet, and a small fleet of luxury cars.

The U.S. Justice Department and ICE opened an investigation at least four years ago. Documents from the investigation, on which I first reported in 2009, quote sources alleging that Teodorin supplemented his modest ministerial salary of $5,000 per month with a "large 'revolutionary tax' on timber" that he ordered international logging firms to pay "in cash or through checks" to a forestry company he owned. Investigators suspect a large chunk of his assets was derived from "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct," stated a 2007 Justice report detailing the probe.

The complaint today was unsealed in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California and a separate civil forfeiture complaint was filed in Washington, D.C. "The complaints announced today allege that, on a modest government salary, Minister Nguema amassed wealth of over $100 million," said Breuer. "While his people struggled, he lived the high life -- purchasing a Gulfstream jet, a Malibu mansion and nearly $2 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia.... The Department of Justice is seeking to seize them through coordinated forfeiture actions. Through our Kleptocracy Initiative, we are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world's corrupt leaders."

Loud and clear, it may well be, but it sure took long enough.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

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