At least a dozen Western companies—including some in the U.S.—were asked for millions of dollars in bribes or special favors by the forestry minister in the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea, and some complied, according to a new filing by the U.S. Justice Department.
Meantime, Equatorial Guinea’s president was in Washington Friday for what a State Department spokesperson described as “an open and frank exchange” with an assistant secretary of state, congressional staffers and civil society groups who have long complained about rampant corruption in the country.
The ruling familyof Equatorial Guinea, which is one of the largest oil producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa but whose citizens largely live in poverty, was profiled earlier this year in the CNBC Investigations Inc. documentary“Filthy Rich.”
Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mbasago, is the longest-serving head of state in Africa. His son and heir apparent, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue—also known as Teodorin—is the minister of forestry and infrastructure and a vice president in the Obiang government.
Despite a government salary of less than $100,000 a year, he has amassed an eye-popping array of wealth including the most expensive home in Malibu, CA, a fleet of cars and aircraft, and millions of dollars’ worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Last year, the Justice Department moved to seize $32 million in property from Teodorin, alleging it was obtained through extortion, bribes and money laundering, which he has denied in court papers.
In the new filing, prosecutors say Teodorin personally charged a “fee” of approximately $27 per log from companies harvesting timber in the country, amassing millions of dollars per year. The companies included Isoroy of France, ABM of Spain and Agroforestal of Italy, as well as Shimmer of Malaysia.
The filing says a manager for U.S. oil service company Global Santa Fe was threatened by members of Teodorin’s staff when he refused to provide him with payments and gifts. The demands allegedly came as often as twice a year between 2004 and 2007. Global Santa Fe merged with rival Transocean in 2007 and no longer operates in Equatorial Guinea.
And prosecutors say Teodorin tried to get Houston-based Ocean Energy to buy him a $65 million C-130 Hercules military transport plane for his personal use in 2004, but the company refused. Ocean Energy later merged with Devon Energy , which pulled out of West Africa in 2007.
The filing says Teodorin laundered money through shell companies in the U.S. with the help of two California attorneys, Michael Berger and George Nagler, who have not been charged with wrongdoing. Both attorneys declined to comment about their work for Teodorin when CNBC contacted them earlier this year.
An attorney for Teodorin did not respond to a request for a comment about the new allegations, but in an interview for the CNBC documentary, Equatorial Guinea’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Anatolio Ndong Mba, accused critics of a hidden agenda to seize the country’s oil.
“You see a group of people just sitting in a cafeteria, look across the world, and say, ‘Hey, in certain point in Africa, you have a very small country having a lot of oil. Those monkeys there, they don't have the right to have this oil. Let's go and take it from them so that we can enjoy it ourselves,’” Mba said in February.
Meanwhile, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman confirms that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson met with President Obiang on Friday in Washington for what the spokesperson called “an open and frank exchange between a government and representatives of civil society organizations and other groups,” which the spokesperson said included congressional staffers. The spokesperson said Carson requested the meeting, but would not reveal the substance of the discussions because it was “off the record.”
Despite the longstanding allegations of corruption, the U.S. has maintained mostly cordial relations with Equatorial Guinea, which produces roughly 320,000 barrels of oil per day. In 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called President Obiang “a good friend,” and he and his wife appeared with President and Mrs. Obama in 2009 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For more, tune in to CNBC's "Filthy Rich" documentary airing Monday, July 2 at 9p ET/PT.