The minister of forestry of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny West African country, refused to offer foreign companies timber export licenses unless they bribed him. He took payment in personal checks or suitcases filled with cash. Companies that paid him off could log wherever they liked, including in national forest reserves allegedly protected under the country's laws. Companies that refused to pay bribes got kicked out of the country and had their property and equipment stolen.
These allegations are contained in an amended civil forfeiture complaint filed on Monday, June 11, by the U.S. Justice Department that seeks tens of millions of dollars in assets belonging to Teodorin Obiang, the notoriously corrupt son of Equatorial Guinea's long-ruling dictator. The U.S. government charges that the assets -- which include a lavish estate in Malibu, California, and more than $1 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a "white crystal-covered 'Bad Tour' glove" -- were bought with corrupt money laundered in the United States.
The Justice Department filed its original complaint last October. Obiang's attorneys argued that the complaint be dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence of corruption; on April 12, U.S. District Judge George Wu said he would dismiss the case unless the Justice Department provided more evidence within 60 days.
June 11's filing was the government's reply. While there has long been overwhelming common-sense evidence of Teodorin's corruption, the complaint filed June 11 added substantial previously undisclosed details.
Teodorin's father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has ruled Equatorial Guinea since he took power in a 1979 coup. The country is rich in oil and has a per capita annual income of $19,300, on par with Hungary, but most of the population lives in dire poverty. That hasn't stopped President Obiang from lining his pockets: He somehow managed to place eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world's richest leaders, with a fortune estimated at $600 million.
Obiang recently appointed son Teodorin as the country's vice president and clearly intends to turn power over to him when he decides to retire. The Obiang family is being investigated for massive corruption in France and Spain, as well as in the United States. In Spain, a court is investigating a complaint that alleges that 11 of the president's relatives and associates bought properties in Madrid and the Canary Islands with $26.5 million in laundered money. Teodorin is at the center of the French case. Last September, police seized 11 luxury vehicles outside his Paris residence, near the Champs-Élysées.
According to the Justice Department, Obiang in 1993 awarded Teodorin -- then 24 years old -- logging concessions on nearly 90,000 acres of rain forest. The following year, Teodorin was named minister of agriculture and forestry. As minister, Teodorin receives a modest salary of about $5,000 per month, which the Justice Department says is "inconsistent" with his lavish spending habits. In addition to his Malibu mansion, Teodorin owns a $38.5 million Gulfstream V jet and a small fleet of luxury cars, including Ferraris, Bugattis, Maseratis, and Porsches.
The Justice Department's updated complaint contains astonishing details of Teodorin's corrupt stewardship of his country's national forests. It says that he demanded companies pay him $27 per log exported and that these "personal fees were calculated by technicians" on his ministerial staff. The complaint alleges that a Malaysian company called Shimmer paid him especially high bribes and in return was "provided unfettered access" to the country's forests, including protected reserves.