The Haitian government says it has documented at least $33 million that deposed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, his wife, Michele, and their associates withdrew illegally from Haiti's central bank and moved to foreign accounts, including some in New York, according to court papers.
Much of the money traced to American banks had been removed by the time investigators came looking for it, the court papers say, although some may still be in a safe-deposit box at a Citibank branch on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
That box came to investigators' attention May 22 when they found in the Haitian capital and Port-au-Prince a notation in Michele Duvalier's personal address book that listed "Safe No. 685" and the bank's address.
On Wednesday, a New York Supreme Court judge temporarily blocked Citibank from allowing anyone to remove anything from that box or any other rented to Michele Duvalier at that branch.
Some of the money brought into the United States may have been used to buy jewelry, according to the Haitain government's American lawyers. They also said in court papers that some of the funds were used to buy a luxury apartment in midtown Manhattan, in which Michele's brother, Ernest Bennett Jr., and his wife are believed to live.
In an affidavit filed this week in New York, Felix Gaston, deputy governor of the Banque de la Republique d'Haiti and former director of its current accounts department, said he was "personally familiar" with Duvalier's decade-long practice of ordering large amounts transferred from government accounts into his personal account.
The affidavit details dates of each transfer and withdrawal, amounts taken and the name of the beneficiary.
"These transfers, many of which were made in cash, had no relation to any governmental purpose, were not authorized by any governmental authority and were made solely as a result of Duvalier's power as absolute dictator of Haiti," Gaston said in the sworn statement.
Most of the Haitian government's money was kept in accounts at that bank, and Duvalier could order money transferred with no questions asked. Duvalier exercised dictatorial powers until he fled to France Feb. 7 in the face of a popular uprising.
Between 1974 and 1986, Gaston said, Duvalier systematically transferred money from nine government accounts to himself and associates.
Gaston said at least $13 million was transferred directly from government accounts to Duvalier and his wife. He said another $4.2 million was transferred on Duvalier's orders to Jean Sambour, described in court papers as a Duvalier aide and confidant living in France.
Duvalier also ordered U.S. dollars withdrawn from the bank's vaults, Gaston said. The court papers allege that Michele Duvalier withdrew $98,000 in cash from the vaults during trips to New York in February 1984 and last November. Some of that money was used to buy jewelry, which may be stored in the Citibank safe-deposit box, the court papers say.
Haiti's new ruling authorities, under Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, have made tracking Duvalier's wealth a top priority. It is also a popular issue with the masses of Haiti's poor, who have seen their Caribbean island nation sink deeper into squalor under 28 years of oppressive rule by Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude.
The exact amount of Duvalier's wealth is unknown. Justice Minister Francois Latortue placed it at $900 million, including about $360 million frozen in Swiss bank accounts, while and other top officials said that figure is far too high.
Raymond Foureau, director-general of the general tax division of Haiti's Economy and Finance Ministry, filed embezzlevalier, his wife and his associates. In papers initiating criminal proceedings, Foureau placed the total of misappropriated funds at $400 million.
That complaint specifically charges that Duvalier used one widely reported scheme to pocket about $2 million paid by the Dominican Republic to Haiti for use of Haitian agricultural workers during the harvest season.