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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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Hold That Car

Exclusive: U.S. government targets the $30 million Malibu estate of Equatorial Guinea's playboy president-in-waiting -- and Michael Jackson's glove.

When it comes to being the target of international criminal investigations, the buffoonish clan that runs oil-rich Equatorial Guinea may be setting new records. Just two weeks ago, French investigators seized millions of dollars' worth of sports cars belonging to Teodorin Nguema Obiang, the son of the country's long-ruling dictator. A major investigation of the Obiang family is also unfolding in Spain, where the clan owns multiple properties.

But the United States has been slow to act against the self-styled prince of Equatorial Guinea. Until now.

I've reported extensively for Foreign Policy on Teodorin's over-the-top lifestyle in California, where he owns a $30 million estate in Malibu and where, according to former household employees I interviewed, he was renowned for sleeping all day and partying all night. (A favorite spot is the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.) The would-be heir of Equatorial Guinea once rented a yacht owned by Paul Allen to throw a party for his then-girlfriend, the rapper Eve, and even commissioned plans for a custom-built $380 million superyacht of his own.

The U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency have been investigating Teodorin -- Equatorial Guinea's minister of agriculture and forestry and his father's handpicked successor -- on suspicion of laundering funds into the United States and alleged "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct" back at home, according to documents from the government's probe. The investigation, which I first reported in 2009, was launched more than four years ago and until now has moved at a snail's pace, despite repeated congressional investigations that, in addition to the joint Justice Department-ICE probe, have produced mounds of evidence.

Some critics have argued that the U.S. government has been slow to move because American energy firms, led by ExxonMobil, have billions of dollars invested in Equatorial Guinea and most of its oil is exported to the United States. Never mind that his father, Teodoro Obiang, who seized power in a 1979 coup, runs a regime as brutal as it is corrupt.

But last week U.S. investigators finally took action. Several sources I spoke with told me that the Justice Department filed a "lis pendens" -- a written notice that a lawsuit concerning title to property has been filed -- with the Los Angeles County recorder's office. Laura Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, confirmed to me that it had filed the document [but she declined to provide further information]. (The recorder's office can take more than a week to process documents and make them publicly available.) The document, I'm told, identifies a number of Teodorin's assets as relevant to the legal action, including his mansion, a private jet, a variety of sports cars, a white crystal-covered glove from Michael Jackson's "Bad" tour, and other memorabilia of the King of Pop.

According to legal sources I spoke with, the filing does not constitute a lien on his property but makes it exceedingly difficult for him to sell his estate (or his Michael Jackson memorabilia, if he hasn't taken it back to Equatorial Guinea). Sources have told me that Teodorin doesn't come to the United States much anymore and that he has shipped his sports cars out of the country. His private jet, which he bought for $38 million, is presumably no longer in the United States either. It's not clear precisely what charges the feds are contemplating bringing against Teodorin; the lis pendens refers to a related federal case against him in U.S. District Court, but it is not public and apparently under seal.

Incidentally, Teodorin has multiple connections to Michael Jackson's siblings. He had a close friendship with pop star Janet and this year invited Michael's brother Marlon to Equatorial Guinea "to discuss potential partnerships in the agricultural and cultural sectors of the country," as stated in a news release.

I sent a request for comment on Oct. 12 to Qorvis Communications, Equatorial Guinea's Washington lobby shop. It declined comment, as did the Justice Department. Duane Lyons, an attorney for Teodorin at the Los Angeles office of Quinn Emanuel, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On a side note, former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, the Washington lobbyist, has filed a civil suit against the government of Equatorial Guinea. He alleges that his former client failed to reimburse him for expenses on a $2 million contract.

UPDATE: I obtained a copy of the lis pendens. The official title is lengthy but begins, "U.S. v. One White Crystal-Covered ‘Bad Tour' Glove and other Michael Jackson Memorabalia." The title goes on to list a number of Teodorin's other assets, including his $30 million estate in Malibu, a private jet, and seven sports cars: a Bugatti Veyron, a Bentley Azure, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, and three Rolls Royces.

The document says, "Notice is hereby given that the foregoing action has been commenced and is now pending in the United States District Court for the Central District of California between the parties above-named for the forfeiture of said real property."

That related case is apparently sealed so the details of the Justice Department's case are not clear. But it is certainly devoting significant resources to the task of seizing his Malibu mansion.  The document was signed by Jennifer Calvery, chief of the department's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and several of her deputies, and by Janet Hudson, a senior trial lawyer in the criminal division.

Javier Espinosa/El Mundo