The real dic­ta­tors of Po­tomac

One lux­ury sub­di­vi­sion in Mary­land, two African strong­men

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MAX BEARAK

The 22-year reign of one of Africa’s most ec­cen­tric and self­serv­ing dic­ta­tor­ships came to an end last month when the pres­i­dent of Gam­bia, Yahya Jam­meh — whose full ti­tle was His Ex­cel­lency Sheikh Pro­fes­sor Al­haji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jam­meh Ba­bili Mansa — fi­nally ceded power to his demo­crat­i­cally elected ri­val and fled to a sim­i­larly tiny fief­dom far­ther south along the con­ti­nent’s western coast.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now his host, has led Equa­to­rial Guinea for 37 years, mak­ing him the world’s long­est-serv­ing head of state. Both men came to power decades ago in coups and bru­tally quashed dis­sent while en­rich­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies. In­ves­ti­ga­tions by ac­tivist groups and Western gov­ern­ments have found ev­i­dence that both si­phoned off vast quan­ti­ties of money from state cof­fers. With that money, they lived lav­ish lives, amass­ing dozens of ex­pen­sive cars and houses around the world while the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple in their coun­tries con­tinue to live in poverty.

If their pro­cliv­i­ties weren’t al­ready sim­i­lar enough, it so hap­pens that both men own pala­tial mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar houses right next door to each other, at 9908 and 9909 Bentcross Dr., in a lux­u­ri­ous sub­di­vi­sion of Po­tomac, Md., about 20 miles from down­town Wash­ing­ton.

Bentcross Drive is a rib­bon of man­sions. Their loop­ing drive­ways, man­i­cured lawns, ten­nis courts and swim­ming pools are guarded al­most uni­ver­sally by iron gates with pass­codes and se­cu­rity cam­eras. Prom­i­nent signs warn against tres­pass­ing.

The sub­di­vi­sion, Fal­con­hurst, is home to doc­tors, lawyers, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives and even pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball play­ers. Cal­bert Cheaney, whom the Wash­ing­ton Bul­lets (now Wizards) picked sixth over­all in the 1993 NBA draft, sold 9908 Bentcross to Jam­meh’s fam­ily trust for $3.5 mil­lion in Septem­ber 2010, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic prop­erty records. A 2013 CNNMoney.com ar­ti­cle, head­lined “Where the money mak­ers live,” listed Po­tomac as the most af­flu­ent town of more than 25,000 peo­ple in the United States — and Fal­con­hurst is a war­ren of its rich­est.

The World Bank’s lat­est fig­ures in­di­cate that the av­er­age Gam­bian earns $460 a year. Equa­to­rial Guinea has the high­est per capita in­come of any sub-Sa­ha­ran coun­try, but is so un­equal that two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion lives in ex­treme poverty and in­fant mor­tal­ity rates are some of the worst in the world.

Fal­con­hurst, as fate would

it, is wedged be­tween two ma­jor thor­ough­fares: River Road and Democ­racy Boule­vard.

Nei­ther Jam­meh’s nor Obiang’s house had cars in the drive­way last week, and D.C.-based ac­tivists from Gam­bia and Equa­to­rial Guinea said that both res­i­dences usu­ally re­main un­oc­cu­pied. Sohna Sal­lah, vice chair­woman of the Demo­cratic Union of Gam­bian Ac­tivists, said that as far as she knows, Jam­meh has been to the Po­tomac house twice since it was pur­chased, while his wife uses it on a monthly ba­sis for shop­ping ex­cur­sions and to see their daugh­ter, who at­tends board­ing school in McLean, Va.

The list­ing for Jam­meh’s house on Mary­land’s prop­erty records por­tal says it has 11 bath­rooms. The 8,818-square­foot house sits on 2.3 acres of land. Obiang’s house on Bentcross is big­ger, at 9,261 square feet, and was bought for $2.6 mil­lion in 2000. The Obiangs also own a sec­ond house in Po­tomac that is, rel­a­tively speak­ing, more mod­est.

In fact, none of the houses is ex­or­bi­tantly ex­pen­sive by U.S. stan­dards. But they are only three out of a con­stel­la­tion of vil­las owned by the two men’s fam­i­lies in far-flung lo­cales in­clud­ing Morocco and Mal­ibu, Calif.

The am­bas­sadors of both Gam­bia and Equa­to­rial Guinea did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment on their states’ roles in pur­chas­ing or us­ing these houses.

Tutu Ali­cante, a U.S.-based ac­tivist con­cerned with hu­man rights in Equa­to­rial Guinea, ex­plained why lead­ers such as Obiang and Jam­meh would want to buy houses in Po­tomac in the first place.

“There are big pub­lic re­la­tions firms in Wash­ing­ton that spe­cial­ize in ca­ter­ing to dic­ta­tors, if you can be­lieve it,” he said. “Some­one like Obiang comes to the U.S. maybe twice a year, say, for a checkup at the Mayo Clinic and an ap­pear­ance at the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly meet­ing. Af­ter the Gen­eral As­sem­bly meet­ings in New York, the firms bring them down to D.C. and con­nect them with cor­po­rate lead­ers and help them white­wash their im­age with shiny events.”

“The most dis­gust­ing days in this coun­try are the days of the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly,” echoed Kam­bale Musavuli, a hu­man rights ad­vo­cate from the Congo. “Banks, P.R. firms, mar­ket­ing firms fall­ing over them­selves to court them.”

One U.S. bank played a key role in help­ing Obiang laun­der money from his coun­try’s oil boom into im­mense pri­vately held wealth. In a 2004 in­quiry, the Sen­ate Per­ma­nent Sub­comhave mit­tee on In­ves­ti­ga­tions found that ac­counts in Riggs Bank, which closed in 2005, were the des­ti­na­tion for Equa­to­rial Guinea’s oil rev­enue. Se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials held more than 60 ac­counts at the Wash­ing­ton branch of the bank, val­ued at up to $700 mil­lion.

The bank would then trans­fer mas­sive sums of cash to off­shore shell com­pa­nies it cre­ated for Obiang, who could then spend the money on a house in Po­tomac, for in­stance. The Sen­ate com­mit­tee also found that some of Obiang’s money came from oil funds ex­plic­itly es­tab­lished to be re­dis­tributed among Equa­to­rial Guineans.

Obiang has es­caped pros­e­cu­tion in part be­cause go­ing af­ter heads of state presents an ar­ray of com­pli­ca­tions. A Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial who was not au­tho­rized to speak with news or­ga­ni­za­tions and spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity said: “In ad­di­tion to pos­si­ble im­mu­nity is­sues, heads of state some­times have sig­nif­i­cant con­trol over the de­gree to which their law en­force­ment of­fi­cials can co­op­er­ate with U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors. More­over, it can be very dif­fi­cult to con­vince wit­nesses and oth­ers with ev­i­dence of for­eign cor­rup­tion to come for­ward — they of­ten are wor­ried about their eco­nomic well-be­ing, and some­times even their safety or the safety of their fam­ily mem­bers.”

On the other hand, Obiang’s son and pre­sumed heir has been the sub­ject of sweep­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions in the United States, France, Switzer­land and the Nether­lands re­gard­ing his mul­ti­tudi­nous as­sets.

In 2014, Teodorin, as he is known, set­tled a case brought by U.S. fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors and agreed to sell a $30 mil­lion man­sion in Mal­ibu as well as a Fer­rari, but was al­lowed to keep a Gulf­stream jet and $2 mil­lion worth of Michael Jack­son mem­o­ra­bilia, in­clud­ing a di­a­mond­stud­ded glove, a jacket the star wore in “Thriller” and six life­size stat­ues. He also avoided crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion.

In a state­ment, pros­e­cu­tors said Teodorin “re­ceived an of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment salary of less than $100,000 but used his po­si­tion and in­flu­ence as a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter to amass more than $300 mil­lion worth of as­sets through cor­rup­tion and money laun­der­ing.”

The United States doesn’t have an “ill-got­ten wealth statute” that would al­low in­ves­ti­ga­tors to act on the sim­ple sus­pi­cion that a gov­ern­ment em­ployee couldn’t pos­si­bly be earn­ing enough to af­ford cer­tain as­sets. So even though Jam­meh isn’t a head of state any­more, it might still be very dif­fi­cult for U.S. author­i­ties to mount a case for seiz­ing his prop­erty.

“To bring a civil for­fei­ture case, we need ev­i­dence of the crime and the link to the as­set we seek to for­feit,” the Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial said. Ev­i­dence can be hard to come by, but non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions that work in Equa­to­rial Guinea, for in­stance, have helped U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors by per­suad­ing wit­nesses of cor­rup­tion to come for­ward.

Sal­lah, the Gam­bian ac­tivist, said she was re­turn­ing to her coun­try for the first time in eight years to try to col­lect some of that ev­i­dence.

She is hop­ing that of­fi­cials from the cen­tral bank will be con­fi­dent enough of Gam­bia’s weeks-old democ­racy to help her pin­point in­stances of il­le­gal with­drawals that Jam­meh made from the state trea­sury.

That would be the first step to chal­leng­ing Jam­meh’s own­er­ship of houses such as the one on Bentcross Drive. Jam­meh’s house is listed as be­long­ing to “Trustees of the MYJ Fam­ily Trust,” which ac­tivists in­clud­ing Sal­lah have long known is tied to Jam­meh’s fam­ily but now can en­deavor to make the link tan­gi­ble.

When asked how many other for­eign power bro­kers own prop­erty in Fal­con­hurst, Eric Ste­wart, a real es­tate bro­ker who has sold houses in Po­tomac for 25 years, said the com­mon prac­tice of list­ing care­taker trusts as own­ers makes it hard to tell.

Ste­wart is try­ing to sell the house on the other side of Obiang’s on Bentcross, which cur­rently be­longs to Serdal Adali, a Turk­ish busi­ness­man whose com­pany pro­vides “full con­tin­gency sup­port to US Mil­i­tary and Coali­tion forces” in places such as Iraq.

Adali once served jail time and was barred from Turk­ish soc­cer sta­di­ums for match-fix­ing when he was on the board of the wildly pop­u­lar Istanbul club Be­sik­tas. Adali bought the house from Ay­man al-Hariri, the bil­lion­aire son of slain for­mer Le­banon prime min­is­ter Rafiq al-Hariri and heir to his fa­ther’s huge con­struc­tion com­pany.

Fal­con­hurst is flush with money, both ill-got­ten and not. But Nixon Cler­mont, a part-time cab­driver who grew up around Po­tomac, said he feels a twinge of dis­gust when he drives around the neigh­bor­hood and sees what he takes to be ev­i­dence of mis­used state wealth.

“I’m from Haiti, man. In Haiti, my peo­ple can’t find the food to eat,” Cler­mont said. “Our am­bas­sador used to live here. Paid for with money that could have saved peo­ple. It makes me so an­gry, man. So sad.” Julie Tate con­trib­uted to this re­port. More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/world­views

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