WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is seeking to seize almost $71 million in allegedly corrupt assets from the son of the leader of Equatorial Guinea, including $1.8 million worth of pop star Michael Jackson memorabilia.
The U.S. Justice Department accused Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of longtime President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mbasogo, of amassing over $100 million and using the proceeds to fund a lavish life in the United States and abroad, including luxury cars, boats and a Gulfstream jet.
In the impoverished West African country where 70 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, the son Nguema serves as a minister of forestry and agriculture, earning about $6,800 a month in salary.
The country has valuable natural resources, including oil, gas and timber, that are allegedly being used in a variety of schemes to line the pockets of the president, his son and their close confidants, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The alleged corruption ran the gamut of bribery and money laundering schemes, including demanding fees before signing logging concessions to companies or paying a tax before getting timber exports approved, according to the complaint.
In another scheme, Nguema ran a program in which companies working in Equatorial Guinea made contributions to a program to provide metal roofs to homes for the poor, but instead Nguema and others took the money, the Justice Department said.
Companies that refused to donate faced retaliation, the U.S. authorities said.
When Nguema came to the United States in 1991 to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, he lived in a hotel room at the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel and a house he rented in the upscale town, the complaint said.
Nguema’s expenses were paid for by a U.S. oil company operating in his country, according to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department filed forfeiture complaints in Los Angeles and Washington for a $38.5 million Gulfstream V jet, a $30 million home in Malibu, a 2011 Ferrari worth more than $530,000 and the Jackson memorabilia worth almost $2 million.
“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,” said Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division.
The jet is not currently in the United States. It is believed to be in Equatorial Guinea, but if forfeiture orders are approved, the Justice Department could work with foreign governments to grab it if it were to land in their countries.
A Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for Equatorial Guinea and Nguema said officials tried to offer U.S. officials evidence “that there has been no wrongdoing,” but were rebuffed.
“We intend to carefully review the allegations of this complaint now that we finally have access to it,” said Matt Lauer with Qorvis Communications. “We look forward to meeting with representatives of the Department of Justice to provide information that we hope will resolve the issues presented.”
The Justice Department said that despite the government salary, Nguema spent tens of millions of dollars on luxury cars, yachts, a lavish estate in the posh seaside town of Malibu, and a huge collection of Jackson memorabilia.
The Malibu compound includes 12 acres that overlook the Pacific Ocean, a 15,000-square-foot (1,400-square-meter) main house, a 2,500-square-foot (230-square-meter) guest house, a tennis court and pool.
Late last year, Nguema moved his luxury car and motorcycle collection from Los Angeles to France, worth an estimated $10 million combined. Authorities there last month seized some of his vehicles, according to one court filing.
He also moved his two yachts he kept in California back to Equatorial Guinea last year, the filing said.
Between June 2010 and June 2011, he acquired a treasure trove of Michael Jackson memorabilia, some without his name being used, the court papers said. The singer died from an overdose of a mix of propofol and sedatives in June 2009.
Nguema spent $275,000 for one of Jackson’s white crystal-covered gloves used during the late singer’s “Bad” tour, as well as $80,000 for a pair of crystal-covered socks, according to the forfeiture complaint.
He also bought other items including clothing, awards and autographed music sheets, according to the court papers.
A U.S. Senate panel investigating foreign corruption in 2004 found that Riggs Bank in the United States had been a conduit for Equatorial Guinea officials’ money. The bank closed the accounts and the money was withdrawn, except for Nguema‘s.
Editing by Paul Simao