Swiss prosecutors allege that the Israeli billionaire and business associates bribed a wife of the former Guinean president to obtain lucrative mining rights.
Lawyers, bankers and professional advisers in Europe and the United States enabled corruption in one of the world’s poorest countries, Swiss officials allege in a highly-anticipated criminal case that opens today.
Prosecutors in Geneva allege that Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz forged documents and masterminded a “corruption pact” over five years to pay millions of dollars in bribes to obtain lucrative mining rights in Guinea, West Africa. Steinmetz and his company, BSG Resources, bribed Mamadie Touré, a wife of Guinea’s then-president, Lansana Conte, to develop the Simandou iron ore mine, prosecutors said in an indictment provided to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Prosecutors have also charged former Steinmetz adviser Frederic Cilins, and Sandra Merloni-Horemans, the director of an advisory firm that worked for Steinmetz’s companies. Both allegedly forged documents and participated in the bribery scheme, prosecutors said.
Wells Fargo Bank in Florida and Philadelphia, JPMorgan in London, attorneys in Manhattan and Florida, a Swiss wealth manager and the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca provided services that enabled the corruption, according to the indictment. The lawyers, banks and advisers are discussed in the indictment but have not been charged.
“The Simandou case is of enormous importance, as it is an extremely rare occurrence of company officials being held to account for classic bribery methods,” said Daniel Balint-Kurti, a London-based freelance journalist who spent years investigating the case. “Skilled practitioners of the legal, financial and PR arts are central to enabling corrupt deals,” Balint-Kurti said.
The prosecutor who opened the case in 2019 said he would seek prison terms of up to ten years, according to Reuters. Steinmetz has previously denied wrongdoing. “The charges have no basis in fact or in law,” Marc Bonnant, Steinmetz’s attorney, said last month. “Beny Steinmetz never paid a cent to Mme. Mamadie Toure,” said Bonnant, who also contested prosecutors’ allegations that she was married to President Conte at the time of the alleged payments.
Cilin’s attorney, Jean-Marc Carnicé, told ICIJ that his client “did not corrupt any public official and did not use any forged document or did not forge any document.” Cilins will “plead full acquittal,” Carnicé said.
Merloni-Horeman, through a lawyer, declined to answer questions. “My client is not a public personality and does not wish to have a name in the media,” said attorney Corinne Corminboeuf Harari.
Prosecutors allege that Steinmetz conspired with others between 2005 and 2012 to promise and grant “advantages” to Conte and Touré as part of a “corruption pact.” Touré was then Conte’s “fourth wife and a very influential person in his entourage” who “intervened directly and personally in BSGR’s Guinea project,” according to prosecutors. Touré is not a defendant in the criminal case and has previously helped related investigations in the United States. She has been summoned to appear as a witness on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported.
Touré was paid approximately $10 million through a web of offshore companies and foreign bank accounts in Israel, the Bahamas, Switzerland and the United States, prosecutors said. In one 2011 transaction, prosecutors allege, Touré received half a million dollars in a Wells Fargo account in Miami. Global Witness, a nonprofit investigative organization, previously revealed that Touré owned multiple properties in Jacksonville, Florida.
Steinmetz’s company BSGR also used bank accounts with JPMorgan in London and with Société Générale in Paris, among others, to allegedly pay bribes. Wells Fargo told ICIJ that it was not a party to the legal case in Switzerland. “Wells Fargo follows applicable laws and regulations, has robust policies in place to adhere with legal obligations, and appropriately cooperates with legal authorities,” a spokesperson said. The other banks declined to comment or did not respond.
Creating an offshore ‘illusion’
As part of the criminal case, Swiss investigators homed in on Toure’s offshore companies. ICIJ’s 2016 Panama Papers investigation revealed that Touré was granted a power of attorney over Matinda Partners and Co. Ltd. in the British Virgin Islands.
Swiss prosecutors allege that a similarly named company, Matinda & Co Ltd. Sarl, signed contracts with Steinmetz’s BSGR and another offshore company, Pentler Holdings Ltd, in the BVI. Steinmetz’s BSGR falsely inserted Pentler in the Guinea deal as a purported joint venture partner with the rights to certain success fees, prosecutors said. Instead, Pentler was used to create “the illusion” of an independent company. “The interposition of Pentler also made it possible to finance and channel bribes to Mamadie Toure,” prosecutors allege. In one example cited in the indictment, Matinda & Co Ltd Sarl allegedly signed a fake invoice for Caterpillar engines to conceal a bribe.
In two cases, prosecutors allege, $750,000 moved through multiple bank accounts, including one controlled by a Miami attorney, before reaching Touré.
Two of the shell companies named in the indictment, Matinda Partners and Co Ltd. and Pentler, were created with the help of Swiss wealth manager, Albert Bilman, according to prosecutors and documents from the Panama Papers investigation reviewed by ICIJ.
In 2006, the year that Swiss prosecutors allege Touré received the first bribes, Bilman contacted Mossack Fonseca’s office in Geneva to create Matinda. Bilman, who then worked for Geneva company Agefor, asked Mossack Fonseca to grant Touré a power of attorney that allowed her to negotiate and sign documents on the company’s behalf.
Bilman told Mossack Fonseca to list Matinda’s shareholder as a nominee company owned by the Panamanian law firm, according to Panama Papers documents. In general, nominee companies can make it harder for banks and investigators to identify the people behind a company. Swiss prosecutors now allege Touré owned Matinda.
Bilman helped set up Pentler Holdings Ltd. and knew it received money from a Beny Steinmetz company, according to emails and invoices prepared by Mossack Fonseca.
In response to ICIJ’s questions, Bilman denied having had communications with BSG Resources and said that he never worked for Touré. “I never saw her, spoke to her on the telephone or had any contact whatsoever with this person,” Bilman said. The real beneficial owner of Matinda was “always declared,” he said.
ICIJ identified an email from the Panama Papers archive that Bilman sent to Mossack Fonseca in 2010 in which he recalled speaking to an employee of Steinmetz’s companies and writing about a payment to Pentler. Reminded of the email, Bilman said: “I sincerely do not remember such an exchange; besides the supposed email you mention, I have never been in contact with BSG.”
Bilman said that authorities interviewed him in 2013 but that he has not been contacted since.
Swiss prosecutors allege that a key role in the corruption scheme was played by Antwerp-born financial advisor Sandra Merloni-Horemans. Merloni-Horemans, 50, paid or helped pay bribes to Touré from 2006 to 2012 worth $8.5 million during her time as the director of Onyx Financial Advisors, prosecutors allege.
Onyx Financial Advisers was the go-to company for Steinmetz’s BSG Resources, according to thousands of emails, invoices and other documents from the Panama Papers investigation. Documents show that Merloni-Horemans had a busy and cordial relationship with Mossack Fonseca and once shared her personal email address to facilitate out-of-hours work.
Swiss prosecutors allege, in one case, that Merloni-Horemans helped prepare a fraudulent $500,000 luxury yacht rental contract. Some of the money sent overseas under the guise of the rental was instead paid to bribe Touré, prosecutors allege.
In another case, prosecutors allege that Merloni-Horemans helped prepare fake documents for a fictitious $12.49 million land deal (9 million euros) in Romania that was instead used in part to bribe Touré.
Merloni-Horemans allegedly helped falsify paperwork to record that a New York company, Tarpley Belnord Corp, paid to buy a company that ultimately held land in a region once famed for its spa resorts and where former communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, once vacationed. Steinmetz indirectly controlled Tarpley Belnord Corp and no land was sold, prosecutors allege.
“The fabrication and the use of all these forged documents had the goal of hiding from banks and authorities that, in reality, Beny Steinmetz financed and ordered all the payments” that passed through certain Swiss accounts and some of which were used to bribe Touré, prosecutors said.
Tarpley Belnord Corp listed a Manhattan attorney as its New York contact point, according to the Panama Papers documents. He did not respond to requests for comment.
By Will Fitzgibbon, January 11, 2021, published on OCCRP