Small Group of Lawyers Launches Big Battle Against Corruption

In Paris' 4th Arrondissement, on a side street popular with pedestrians in the exclusive Marais District, there's a large home that’s attracting some big attention. The entrance to the 17th century mansion is guarded by a pair of forbidding wooden doors, carved to depict the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus.

Tunisian President Ben Ali's French mansion
Tunisian President Ben Ali's French mansion

According to reports, the residence has two vast courtyards, baroque murals on the vaulted ceilings, and has been home to foreign dignitaries and the playwright Caron de Beaumarchais. Perhaps the most incredible thing about this property, however, is its current owner: Just two months before his country ignited the Arab Spring, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali reportedly bought this mansion for $54 million.

The Marais mansion is among the many French assets of Ben Ali now frozen as part of an initiative to recoup funds that were taken as a result of alleged corruption by the Tunisian regime. This effort is thanks, in large part, to a lawsuit filed by a little-known human rights group in France called “Sherpa.”

The headquarters of Sherpa is housed in a cramped office building on Paris’ Rue de Milan. The one-room office is littered with stacks of thick, colorful folders, labeled with far-flung locales like “Gabon” and “Equatorial Guinea.” Sherpa is made up of a group of volunteer lawyers who scour financial and property records in order to trace assets back to corrupt leaders and stem illicit capital flows. The director of the nonprofit is Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere, a slight, intense woman fueled by nicotine and a passion for bringing down the dictators whose assets she tracks.

“These people grew up in developing countries — don’t they want to do something good for their country? But it’s quite a naïve reaction, I think,” Perdriel-Vaissiere told CNBC in an interview.

The work the pro-bono lawyers do is unglamorous and labor intensive, she says, because it is work that law enforcement should be doing.

“We would prefer that the public prosecutors do their job properly. But they don’t,” says Perdriel-Vaissiere.

Sherpa’s biggest case yet? It’s come to be known as the “Bien Mal Acquis” case, or the case of “Ill-gotten Gains.” It focuses on the ruling families of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo.

Luxury cars linked to the family of Equatorial Guinea President Obiang.
Luxury cars linked to the family of Equatorial Guinea President Obiang.

Sherpa lawyers said they uncovered a multitude of assets in France, including 112 bank accounts linked to the ruling family of the Republic of Congo, 39 luxury properties linked to the family of Omar Bongo, the former president of Gabon, and a mansion and fleet of luxury cars worth over $6 million linked to the family of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. But despite the preponderance of riches, French prosecutors declined to pursue the case, citing insufficient evidence.

“States keep on, you know, saying that they are going to do their utmost to fight corruption. … But the fact is that not a single state in the western part of the world is really willing to take legal actions,” Perdriel-Vaissiere told CNBC.

Sherpa joined forces with the Berlin-based anti-corruption group Transparency International, spending three years appealing the prosecutor’s decision, taking their case all the way to the French Supreme Court. It was there that a landmark decision was made, ordering that the “Bien Mal Acquis” case had to go on.

“So far we are the only country where an N.G.O. is allowed to bring a criminal case … and the decision is very broad … so we were very happy,” Jacques Terray, the head of Transparency International in France, told CNBC.

So far, due to the combined efforts of Sherpa and Transparency International, authorities have seized 11 cars, worth over $6 million, from the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president. The government of Equatorial Guinea has objected to the asset seizure, calling it "unwarranted" and contrary to international law.

The son’s official salary as a government minister is less than $100,000 per year, yet his possessions include a 10,000-square-foot apartment near the Arc de Triomphe, searched earlier this month in a raid by French police. These assets, Sherpa and Transparency International allege, are financed by the spoils of corruption.

“They were acting as if they were owning the country … with impunity. And I think not even any sense of guilt,” says Terray.

The goal? To get the money back to people it’s been taken from, says Perdriel-Vaissiere. But it’s not always that easy, she says.

“The difficulty that we may face is that we don’t want to give the money back to the very same people who have embezzling it for years,” she says.

But Perdriel-Vaissiere has hope. “If one kleptocrat is convicted, the others might be less willing to embezzle funds. We have to move forward, and a lot needs to be done.”

"Filthy Rich"