October 10, 2014, deserves mention in any future history of the anticorruption movement, for it was on this date that a ruling kleptocratic family (colloquially known as thugs in power) conceded the obvious: that the money to fund a kleptocratic lifestyle — in this case a mansion in Malibu, a Ferrari 599 GTO, and Michael Jackson memorabilia – did not come from the family’s hard work on behalf of the citizens they rule. Rather, it came the easy way: from the wholesale theft of the nation’s patrimony.
This startling, if obvious, concession came in the settlement of a civil suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, with the support and encouragement of civil society, against an unlikely group of defendants. In the order listed in the complaint, they are: 1) One White Crystal Covered Bad Tour Glove and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia, 2) One Gulfstream G-V Jet Airplane Displaying Tail Number VPCES, 3) Real Property Located on Sweetwater Mesa Road In Malibu California, 4) One 2007 Bentley Azure, 5) One 2008 Bugatti Veyron, 6) One 2008 Lamborghini Murcielago, 7) One 2008 Rolls Royce Drophead Coupe, 8) One 2009 Rolls Royce Drophead Coupe, 9) 2009 Rolls Royce Phantom Coupe, and 10) the Ferrari 599 GTO.
Although defendants stood mute before the court, their owner, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, Second Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and (surprise?) son of the country’s president, was anything but. Through the mouths of expensive American legal talent he complained loudly and bitterly that the ten named defendants were innocent. But in settling the case, he agreed in effect that three – the mansion, the Ferrari, and some of the Michael Jackson memorabilia, were indeed guilty. Guilty? Of what?
Guilty of being acquired with the proceeds of corrupt acts Obiang committed while an officer of the government of Equatorial Guinea. That was the theory under which the Justice Department launched its lawsuit, to be forever known in the annals of American law as United States v. One White Crystal Covered Bad Tour Glove and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia et al. Similar to cases brought against the assets of the deceased ruler of Nigeria and other corrupt officials, the Department sought in the complaint to seize the ten items listed as defendants and return them to their rightful owners, the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. What makes One White Crystal Covered Bad Tour Glove and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia different from previous actions, and thus precedent setting, is that it is the first time the Department has won, or at least favorably resolved, an asset seizure case where a sitting ruling family appeared and contested the claim.
Under the terms of the settlement, young Obiang must sell his Malibu mansion, estimated to be worth $30 million, the Ferrari automobile, and some of the Michael Jackson memorabilia he bought with the proceeds of corruption. From the sale of these items $20 million will go to a charity to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea and another $10.3 million will be forfeited to the United States which will direct how it will be used to benefit Equatorial Guinean citizens. While on the “Friends of Teo” Facebook page the youngster denies the items were bought with stolen money, the settlement speaks loudly and authoritatively to the contrary.
The hardcore anti-Obiang crowd may be disappointed that the Department didn’t try “to convict” all ten defendants, and in an earlier post this writer too urged the Department to hang tough. But civil society organizations close to the case acknowledge the Department faced an uphill battle in prevailing against the ten. As my friend and colleague Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Foundations observed when the settlement was announced, what is more important than how much was seized was the message sent: other kleptocrats will now know that cultivating close ties to Washington, as Equatorial Guinea’s have, will not protect their assets from seizure. As Ken aslo notes, the case should also “set a standard that other developed countries around the world should seek to meet or exceed.” Let us hope that indeed they do.