That was the beginning of a $10 million fleet of U.S. purchases that included eight Ferraris, seven Rolls-Royces, four Mercedes-Benzes, two Lamborghinis, a Porsche, an Aston Martin and a Maserati, the Justice Department said.
In 2005, he added two high-performance racing boats to his fleet for $2 million. In 2006, he bought a $38 million Gulfstream G-V jet and traded his Bel Air mansion for a luxurious villa overlooking the ocean in Malibu for $30 million. Last year, he decorated the mansion with fedoras, jewel-encrusted apparel and music-industry awards acquired during auctions of the belongings of the pop star Michael Jackson.
Nguema, the minister of forestry and agriculture of Equatorial Guinea, a poor African nation, made all of these purchases on an annual government salary of about $81,000.
This month — seven years after the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations exposed the Obiang family’s secret accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington and five years after nonprofit Global Witness discovered his Malibu mansion purchase — the Justice Department went to court to seize $70 million of Nguema’s assets.
U.S. government lawyers said his wealth was “inconsistent with his salary” and the purchases were the result of plundering the nation’s natural gas and oil reserves.
His spokesman, Greg Lagana of Qorvis Communications in Washington, said Nguema and Equatorial Guinea’s government “are deeply concerned” about the U.S. action. Nguema’s purchases, Lagana added, involved “no wrongdoing.”
The case has some anti-kleptocracy campaigners asking: If Nguema’s spree was so ostentatious and obviously based upon “extortion, misappropriation, embezzlement, or theft of public funds,” as the government alleges, then why did it take so long to file the case?
And what does it mean in the search for the assets of other dictators?
“This is positive, but is it going to take five years to recover any of the other dictators’ assets?” asked Robert Palmer, a campaigner for Global Witness, which lobbied for action against the Obiangs.
The United States has weathered criticism for the pace of its search for assets belonging to the families of the deposed dictators of the Arab Spring, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In an interview in Cairo last month, Hasham Gaafar, a senior attorney in the Egyptian prosecutor’s office, said Swiss and British authorities have been more responsive to Egypt’s request to freeze and seize assets of former president Hosni Mubarak. Gaafar said U.S. officials “are not meeting our expectations.”
Justice Department officials are quick to note that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. created the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative just this year, assigning about five full-time attorneys to manage cases.