NOTE from Congo Watch Editor: Thanks to The Sentry in Washington DC for sending me their report, copied here in full.
BREAKING: ‘CONGO HOLD-UP’
Africa’s Biggest-Ever Data Leak Reveals Dirty Millions Stashed in Washington DC Real Estate
November 19, 2021 (Washington, DC) – Red flags for corruption, money laundering, and other financial crimes were ignored as millions of dollars linked to the former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) traveled through a maze of business transactions and were stashed in quiet residential neighborhoods surrounding the US capital Washington, DC, according to a new investigative report by The Sentry, “Embezzled Empire.”
The Sentry’s revelations come today in the first wave of “Congo Hold-up,” a series of investigative reports by an international consortium of non-profit organizations and media outlets. The millions of leaked bank records obtained by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) and the French news group Mediapart and shared with The Sentry and other consortium partners by PPLAAF and European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) represent the largest confidential data leak in African history.
Michelle Kendler-Kretsch, Investigator at The Sentry, said: “The Congo Hold-up leak is the clearest evidence to date of the powerful combination of tools the Kabila family had their fingertips to embezzle public funds, including a bank and a maze of companies all under their control. How the former president’s brother purchased millions of dollars’ worth of real estate in the US and South Africa, it appears in part using funds diverted from the Congolese government, is only one of many scandals now being revealed using this massive trove of leaked bank statements, emails, contracts, bills, and corporate records. This level of detail offers an unparalleled view of the previously-secret machinery used to plunder Congolese public funds.”
John Prendergast, Co-Founder of The Sentry, said: “Rarely is the world afforded such a clear and comprehensive view into the ways a state can be captured -- every theft of public money, backroom deal, and shell company, and every failure along the way to stop the chain of illicit transactions. With this magnitude of evidence in the Congo Hold-up leak, there should be no delay in bringing the corrupt perpetrators, their accomplices, and international enablers to justice.”
At a time of political turmoil, Francis Selemani, the brother of former DRC president Joseph Kabila, funneled steadily more money into real estate investments abroad, especially in the US. The Sentry’s investigation reveals how Selemani’s nine-year tenure in a senior management position at BGFIBank DRC gave the Kabila family and their allies access to a financial institution they could use to launder the proceeds of corruption. Oversight of BGFIBank DRC’s activities was badly deficient, as the bank’s own internal audit found, enabling the Kabila family to circulate funds clandestinely throughout their business network.
Justyna Gudzowska, Director of Illicit Finance Policy at The Sentry, said: "When the brother of a notoriously corrupt ruler is able to launder millions of dollars into real estate just a stone's throw from the US capital, it's high time to close the loopholes that allow this type of activity to flourish. The real estate industry has been far too happy to turn a blind eye to dirty money stolen from the world's poorest countries, and the exemption for real estate professionals in the US anti-money laundering framework should be revoked without delay."
J.R. Mailey, Director of Investigations at The Sentry, said: “The Congo Hold-up leak is a paper trail of 3.5 million documents that leads to one central conclusion: banks are the arteries of a kleptocracy. They provide a place to park looted state assets, a vessel for paying and receiving bribes, a veil to disguise the origin and destination of illicit funds, and a conduit for stashing money in property abroad. The investigations published as part of this consortium provide a glimpse into how one of the world’s poorest countries has hemorrhaged untold wealth—but they also provide governments, law enforcement agencies, and financial institutions with the evidence needed to take meaningful action. The findings should prompt prosecutions, sanctions, asset seizures, hefty fines, and an overhaul of several countries’ anti-money laundering regimes.”
In the US, the full spectrum of anti-money laundering requirements only covers some of the professionals involved in a real estate transaction. Real estate professionals can provide valuable financial intelligence on possible illicit motives but are subject to fewer government reporting requirements than financial institutions.
Selected excerpts from The Sentry’s report:
- Although President Joseph Kabila’s final term as head of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was set to end in December 2016, he clung to power and delayed elections for another two years. While the eyes of many observers were fixed on the election stalling tactics in Kinshasa, Kabila’s brother Francis Selemani purchased numerous luxury homes in the United States and South Africa, it appears at least in part using funds diverted from the Congolese government.
- At the time, Selemani was managing director of BGFIBank DRC, the Congolese subsidiary of Gabon-based BGFIBank Group.
- Selemani and the Kabila family used a network of companies and the bank they controlled to misappropriate public funds, transferring millions abroad and purchasing millions of dollars in foreign real estate.
- Because many of Selemani’s real estate acquisitions were all-cash purchases, he was able to avoid the standard due diligence performed in connection with bank financing—due diligence that might have raised questions about the source of his wealth.
- Selemani and the Kabila family moved substantial sums through BGFIBank DRC with little to no resistance. Among the most problematic transactions, according to an internal audit at BGFIBank DRC, were multimillion-dollar transfers involving an obscure company called Sud Oil.
- Among the bank records in the Congo Hold-up leak are documents revealing that between 2015 and 2018, Sud Oil sent more than $12 million to accounts and companies owned or controlled by Selemani.
- Investigations by The Sentry, Congo Research Group, and other members of the Congo Hold-up consortium show that Sud Oil received at least $85 million in funds from a range of Congolese government institutions, including the Central Bank of Congo, the DRC’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, the Congolese state-owned mining company Gécamines, and the country’s electoral commission.
- Selemani purchased 17 properties for a total of $6.6 million in the affluent suburbs of Washington, DC, and Johannesburg, South Africa.
- The Sentry identified a range of irregularities, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies in transactions connected to bank accounts held by Selemani and his companies that are red flags for money laundering and other financial crimes. Funds received from public institutions lacked justification, and the sources of funding for some transfers were misrepresented.
- Selemani and his companies received almost $3 million in US and South African bank accounts for which the wire transfers bore apparently inaccurate details.
- Selemani used corporate vehicles that obscured his identity as the owner of all but one of the 17 real estate purchases discovered by The Sentry. Selemani had originally purchased nine properties in his own name, but he then transferred ownership to a commercial company and to trusts he controlled, including by selling them to his own company, in a series of operations that is a red flag for money laundering through real estate.
Key recommendations (complete recommendations in the report):
- Open an investigation into these real estate purchases. Authorities in the United States and South Africa should investigate the source of funds used by Selemani and his relatives to buy properties in their respective countries. If appropriate, they should pursue legal mechanisms to forfeit and seize properties purchased with the proceeds of corruption or other illicit means.
- Conduct a thorough internal investigation. Any financial institution that has engaged in a correspondent banking relationship with BGFIBank DRC or processed transactions involving the bank should conduct a thorough internal investigation to ascertain whether it has participated in violations of law or contravened internal policies. The investigation should include a review of the financial institution’s internal controls around anti-money laundering (AML) and anti-corruption compliance. Appropriate remedial action should be implemented immediately.
- Ensure that the US and South African real estate sectors comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) customer due diligence standards. The US Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) should require real estate agents and other professionals involved in real estate transactions, such as lawyers, to maintain AML programs, file suspicious activity reports, and comply with other record-keeping and reporting requirements, including the identification of beneficial ownership information and source of funds. South Africa’s Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) should vigorously enforce the 2017 additions to the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (FICA) that put these requirements in place. FinCEN and the FIC should provide training and testing to ensure compliance with established standards.
- Issue a public advisory on the money laundering risks in real estate. FinCEN should issue an updated public advisory to US financial institutions warning of the risks for money laundering through real estate, including the involvement of family members of politically exposed persons (PEPs) highlighted in this report. FinCEN should also expand and make permanent the geographic targeting order (GTO) program to cover all real estate purchases, regardless of location in the US.
Read the full report: https://thesentry.org/reports/embezzled-empire
Visit the Congo Hold-up coalition hub: https://congoholdup.com
For media inquiries or interview requests, please contact:
Greg Hittelman, Director of Communications, +1 310 717 0606, email@example.com
About The Sentry
The Sentry is an investigative and policy team that follows the dirty money connected to African war criminals and transnational war profiteers and seeks to shut those benefiting from violence out of the international financial system. By disrupting the cost-benefit calculations of those who hijack governments for self-enrichment, we seek to counter the main drivers of conflict and create new leverage for peace, human rights, and good governance. The Sentry is composed of financial investigators, international human rights lawyers, and regional experts, as well as former law enforcement agents, intelligence officers, policymakers, investigative journalists, and banking professionals. Co-founded by George Clooney and John Prendergast, The Sentry is a strategic partner of the Clooney Foundation for Justice.