Reporter's Diary: 'Kobi' Alexander's Namibia
CNBC Senior Correspondent
SWAKOPMUND, NAMIBIA -- You instantly notice something is different when you look into the night sky here in Africa, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then, you are reminded. You are on the opposite side of the world now—the constellations are all turned around. Same sky, different hemisphere. That begins to explain Namibia, where former Comverse Technology CEO Jacob “Kobi” Alexander has come to start a new life—and maybe avoid prosecution on options fraud charges in New York.
Everything here is just a little bit different from the U.S., from a gloriously desolate landscape—unlike any desert on earth, they say--to the way people do business here. No one “cuts to the chase” in Namibia, the way we insist on doing back home. A meeting begins slowly. A little greeting. Casual chit-chat. Coffee, anyone? Tea? For Alexander, who helped invent voice mail, and turned Comverse from a start-up into a $1.5 billion a year company, doing business here will mean cracking that Namibian code. If that is what he is really up to.
Among the charges in his 35 count federal indictment is money laundering. Authorities say Alexander began moving millions of dollars out of the U.S. last year, when it became obvious he might be indicted for backdating Comverse options.
Some officials here in Namibia suspect his business ventures in this country are more of the same. Like 215 units of affordable housing, built for below cost, and sold for below market value. Then, you are reminded. Namibia, like many parts of the developing world, has a housing crisis. Government workers, who are paid roughly US$400 per month, can afford little more than a shack to live in. The “Kobi homes” have tile floors, finished ceilings, and, Alexander’s representatives say, a healthy dose of pride for their new occupants. Looking into the eyes of the residents of the impoverished townships around Walvis Bay, where we are reporting for CNBC today, it is hard to imagine there is anything sinister about building real homes for these people. Then, you are reminded. An attorney for Comverse investors claims the project is being built with shareholders’ money (a charge Alexander’s attorney denies).
The children in the townships here are poor—tragic, almost—but like any child, full of potential. So what is the harm in Alexander’s education initiatives—an academic competition for high school students, and a college scholarship program for science and technology? (We incorrectly reported in our first video dispatch from here on Wednesday that the education money was going to the Ministry of Education. In fact, we are told, the plan is to pay the students directly.) Then, you are reminded, again. Shareholders’ money. And of all the places in the world that need help with education, why Namibia? Could it be because Alexander is trying to stay here—and out of the U.S. courts? Could it be because in this young country—just 17 years old—money laundering, per se, is not a crime?
Asked if his client is trying to buy off Namibia, Alexander’s attorney, Richard Metcalfe, said, “Absolutely not.” Metcalfe says his client is investing with his own money, as he is entitled to do. And Alexander, an Israeli citizen, is continuing the esteemed Jewish tradition of t’zedakah—good works, charity, empowering those less fortunate. And what better place to do that than here? Even the shareholders’ attorney, Patrick Dahlstrom of Pomerantz, Haudek, Block, Grossman & Gross, concedes Alexander can probably do a lot of good here.
Having covered some of the biggest white collar cases in the past 20 years, from Archer Daniels Midland to Enron, I know that nuance is always one of the first casualties of the process. Prosecutors like to paint defendants in black and white, and so do defense attorneys. The fact that the defendant in this case is fighting the charges from Namibia adds a layer of nuance as thick as the morning mist that rolls off the massive desert sand dunes here (that sight alone is worth the trip, by the way).
Tomorrow, Alexander will be back in court for a hearing in his extradition case, and we will be there. (It’s a procedural hearing, maybe one of many. This is Namibia, remember?) And we will continue to track every turn in his case—and his travels. Is he a technical genius, or a criminal one? A philanthropist for all continents, or a modern-day Robin Hood? That’s our Search for Kobi Alexander. Same guy, different hemisphere.