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In October, the Obama administration took hold of some $71 million in seized assets from the son of an African dictator. Among the yachts, cars, jets and a $30 million mansion in Malibu, the items included $1.8 million worth of Jackson memorabilia, attained when Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, went on a celebrity memorabilia splurge inside the U.S.
But Nguema hasn’t been charged with any crime in his homeland, nor has he been convicted of any crime in the U.S., so a California federal court has looked unfavorably on the U.S. government’s attempts to moonwalk away with the items.
The U.S. accuses top government officials in Equatorial Guinea of being terribly corrupt. While more than 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, the country’s leaders allegedly have used the nation’s valuable natural resources of timber, oil and minerals to their own advantage. Nguema, who was appointed by his father to be a forestry minister, is said to be in the “inner circle,” hoarding profits for himself by means of bribery and corruption.
Nguema moved to the U.S. in 1991 to attend Pepperdine University and, according to the government, his expenses at the time were paid for by a U.S. oil company operating in his country. The emigrant had enormous wealth, though, so he spread it around, moving assets in and out of the country. In 2010, after Jackson died, Nguema is said to have acquired a treasure trove of Jackson memorabilia, including one of the singer’s famous gloves.
To take action against alleged corruption in the African country, U.S. officials filed a complaint against Nguema with the intention to seize his assets.
Nguema made a strong objection to the seizure. According to a court filing in January, his lawyer stated:
“Although some of E.G.’s practices may be different from those of Western industrialized nations, that does not mean – as the Government’s Complaint assumes – (a) that everyone who works for the Government, including Minister Nguema, is ipso facto corrupt; (b) that none of Minister Nguema’s fortune, including his property in the United States, was acquired lawfully; or (c) that E.G. has identical ethics, anti-nepotism, public corruption and/or conflict of interest laws as the United States, such that the alleged conduct, even if true, would violate the laws of E.G. – a condition precedent to the Government’s forfeiture action.”
Last week, a California federal judge agreed with this assessment.
The judge notes that a complaint for forfeiture in rem is subject to a heightened pleading standard. The judge says the government must show that Nguema amassed wealth in a manner illegal under his country’s laws, but that the government’s complaint against him was “framed in a vague, generalized manner” that didn’t trace how his assets were derived from ill-gotten gains.
For instance, Nguema is alleged to have participated in extortion, refusing to approve timber exports until the exporter paid a “tax,” but the U.S. government didn’t specify particular instances or Nguema’s role. Similarly, the government failed to specifically show how allegedly misappropriated funds from a convicted Washington bank specifically showed his participation or how the property was tied into a money laundering operation. The government had alleged that the Jackson glove and Nguema’s other property was used to mask the source of his criminal activity, but the judge says the complaint failed to allege sufficient particularity.
Before Nguema gets back his prize possessions, though, the judge has allowed the government the opportunity to amend its complaint.
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