Investigators Hunt Assets Linked to African Country's President, Family
U.S. authorities are investigating the flow of funds from Gabon to the U.S. to determine whether any assets are traceable to public corruption in the central African country, according to a law-enforcement document and people familiar with the matter.
As part of a broader effort to address possible foreign graft, Homeland Security agents and Justice Department prosecutors have searched for assets in the U.S. linked to Gabonese President Ali Bongo and his family, as well as his chief of staff, Maixent Accrombessi, these people said. Prosecutors could seek to seize assets they believe are ill-gotten.
The case puts Gabon in the cross hairs of U.S. policy in Africa. President Barack Obama is looking to increase trade and military ties with stable African partners like Gabon, an economy growing at about 7% this year. But the Justice Department is taking a harder tack against corruption on the continent.
Two U.S. Senate probes into the movement of foreign assets into the country since 1999 concluded that Mr. Bongo's late father, Omar, who ruled the country for 41 years, used his position to amass a personal fortune during Gabon's oil boom.
The current U.S. probe came to light last year after customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport said they found more than $150,000 in the luggage of a onetime hairdresser and aide to Mr. Bongo. Agents seized the money from the man, Derek Ashby, because he hadn't disclosed the full amount on currency forms, according to documents filed in federal court in California in July.
In September, federal agents raided the Pennsylvania home of lobbyist Joseph Szlavik, weeks after he allegedly transported cash from Gabon to the U.S., said people familiar with the matter. Prosecutors are investigating whether Messrs. Szlavik and Ashby violated any criminal laws, according to the law-enforcement document.
Bringing bulk cash into the U.S. is legal, as long as the person carrying it declares the proper amount and states whether they are carrying it on someone else's behalf. Money-laundering laws prohibit any person from knowingly engaging in a financial transaction that involves the proceeds of corruption.
Mr. Ashby told agents he hadn't bothered to count all of the cash he was carrying because he was transporting it from Gabon to Mr. Bongo's estranged wife in Los Angeles, Inge Collins, according to court documents.
"He was just unaware of the total amount he was provided," said Michael R. Kilts, a lawyer for Mr. Ashby. Mr. Szlavik declined to comment through his lawyer, Aitan Goelman. Neither man has been charged with a crime.
Since 2000, Ms. Collins has received millions of dollars in cash payments and wire transfers from Mr. Bongo and through Messrs. Ashby and Szlavik, said a person familiar with the matter.
Mr. Bongo's office said this month that it was aware of the probe of his associates but received word from the U.S. State Department this month that neither the president nor his government is under investigation by U.S. authorities. It added that the policies of the elder Bongo's presidency outlined in the prior Senate investigations "are not the policies of the current presidency" or the rest of the government. A State Department spokesman declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the Justice Department.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new asset-forfeiture program in 2010 aimed at "combating large-scale foreign official corruption."
The drive has had mixed success. Such cases are politically fraught and difficult to make, said legal experts. In the Gabon probe, the U.S. is asking about the assets of public officials with whom the State Department says it has "excellent relations."
From 2011 to 2012, Gabon held a United Nations Security Council seat and helped push through two of Mr. Obama's most difficult U.N. votes: sanctions against Iran's nuclear program and support for the removal of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
In 2011, Mr. Bongo asked the U.S. Treasury for help training Gabonese auditors to investigate corruption there, said Eric Benjaminson, then U.S. ambassador.
That same year, Mr. Bongo had 50-minute a conversation with Mr. Obama in the White House in which the U.S. leader expressed his desire for the Gabonese to increase anticorruption efforts, said Mr. Benjaminson, who was in the room. Mr. Bongo agreed, but said he faced challenges in uprooting a long tradition of corruption in the country, said Mr. Benjaminson.
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Ms. Collins married Mr. Bongo in 1994 but separated from him a decade later. Mr. Ashby, a beautician by trade, styled her hair for the wedding and was later asked to join Mr. Bongo's coterie of aides, said a person familiar with the matter.
Ms. Collins, who has also been contacted as part of the investigation, said she was cooperating with authorities and denied any wrongdoing.
Mr. Szlavik's ties to Gabon date back to at least the 1990s, when he began lobbying for Mr. Bongo's father, according to lobbying disclosures filed with the Justice Department.
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Source: Wall Street Journal