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Malibu Bad Neighbor 

A dictator in training buys his way in, as politically active superstars stay mum

Wednesday, Jan 17 2007
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THE PRESTIGIOUS GATED COMMUNITY of Serra Retreat in Malibu has two manned guardhouses to keep unwelcome visitors out, yet its homeowners’ association has no control over who buys in.

Perhaps that is why there was no outcry among the politically sensitive denizens when Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the quasi-prince of Equatorial Guinea, quietly purchased a 16-acre estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road in April 2006 for $35 million in cash — last year’s California state record.

The exotic-car-loving playboy newcomer to the exclusive cliff above Malibu Pier, heir to one of the most ruthless dictators in the world, now sits behind two guard shacks with the likes of Dick van Dyke, James Cameron, Larry Hagman, Mel Gibson and other biggies.

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Yet Malibu — an image-conscious city that just weeks ago officially changed the name of De Butts Terrace to Paradise View Way to accommodate the finer sensibilities of its residents — has been surprisingly silent about its infamous new resident.

His father, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang, is dying of prostate cancer, and the president’s express wish, according to human-rights groups, is for the younger Teodoro to take over as president and dictator. Unless the president is deposed while on one of his many cancer-treatment trips to the West, Big Teodoro’s word will remain the only law in the tiny but cash-rich nation he controls with an iron hand. And his son, called Teodorin, or Little Teodoro, is believed next in line for the job.

Perhaps his politically active Malibu neighbors don’t know that Equatorial Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, with only 540,000 inhabitants, has neither a free press nor free speech. Its people are among the world’s poorest, surviving on less than $1 a day, yet because of plentiful oil and natural gas, the country is the second richest in gross domestic product per capita, just behind wealthy Luxembourg.

But unlike in Luxembourg, no money gets to the people. The Obiang family — including Little Teodoro — and its closest friends, are among the world’s super-rich, recipients of enormous investments and various forms of tribute paid by American oil companies.

According to anticorruption organization Global Witness, Transparency International, Amnesty International and testimony from U.S. congressional investigations, the family has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into its own pockets. These organizations say Exxon Mobil leads the pack, paying between 20 percent and 35 percent of its revenue from oil and natural gas to the Equatorial Guinea government — a corrupt and bureaucratic tangle in which Obiang family members hold more than half the ministerial posts and control income from major economic sectors. According to congressional testimony, Little Teodoro of Malibu controls the forestry industry.

Yet the 36-year-old eldest son of the dictator, who holds the job of minister of forestry, or “Minister for Chopping Down Trees” — as dubbed by the New York Daily News — officially earns just $5,000 monthly.

Last year, when he bought the $35 million Malibu estate, the transaction was named by Forbes as the sixth most expensive sale of a home in America, setting off global criticism among human-rights groups about how, exactly, Teodorin came up with the dough.

The “Minister for Chopping Down Trees” actually openly admits to controlling significant riches from his country’s natural resources, offering this spin in a sworn statement to a South African court last year, and obtained by the L.A. Weekly: “Cabinet ministers and public servants of Equatorial Guinea are by law allowed to own companies that, in consortium with a foreign company, can bid for government contracts . . . It means that a cabinet minister ends up with a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account.”

In addition to controlling the forestry industry, Teodorin Obiang Mangue owns the nation’s only TV station, as well as Radio Asonga, the nation’s main radio station. Three years ago, according to the U.K.’s Guardian and other reports, Radio Asonga declared that his father, President Obiang, is a god “in permanent contact with the almighty” and has the authority to “kill anyone without being called to account.”

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA, including The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, have covered Little Teodoro fairly extensively, but California media give him a free pass.

A rare mention of his arrival in Malibu appeared in a disapproving editorial in the Los Angeles Times late last year — strangely without any news report in the rest of the paper. Of the Malibu newspapers, only the Graphic at Pepperdine University has mentioned that the record-high home sale involves an exceedingly controversial buyer with a globally newsworthy dark side.

Robert E. Williams, associate professor of political science at Pepperdine, tried to alert Malibu papers, but never heard back from reporters. “My guess is that the small local papers don’t want to explore this story, as a big part of their revenue comes from real estate advertising,” Williams says.

Williams criticizes well-known real estate agent Jeff Hyland, who handled the sale, saying, “I don’t think it is too much to ask realtors not to deal with dictators,” and adding, “We need a greater public awareness to put pressure on Washington” so that the federal “antikleptocracy” initiative pushed by the Bush administration and Congress finally does as promised: prevent dictators from using funds drained from poor countries.

Hyland, of Hilton and Hyland, who is past president of the Beverly Hills Board of Realtors and former director of the California Association of Realtors, and whose Web site declares that he’s got “ability and sensitivity in selling high-end real estate,” did not return inquiries made by the Weekly. Yet records show he earned 4 percent on the deal, which would translate into a staggering $1.4 million. Teodorin Obiang Mangue’s lawyer, George I. Nagler, and the Beverly Hills Board of Realtors also did not return phone calls.

What came to Little Teodoro so easily in Malibu was denied him in New York. A few years ago, when he sought to buy a stunning apartment on Fifth Avenue, he was kept out by the homeowners’ association, which found him unsuitable.

CRITICS IN OTHER COUNTRIES have focused intensive investigative efforts on Little Teodoro’s real estate purchases. When he bought two luxurious homes in Cape Town, South Africa, two years ago, he didn’t use his own name on the deeds — but a prominent South African attorney, Chris Schoeman, was soon after him anyway.

Schoeman, who is pursuing “foreign sovereign debts” in a civil case aimed at liquidating Little Teodoro’s two homes on behalf of a client allegedly cheated by him, believes Teodorin Obiang Mangue bought the 15,000-square-foot Sweetwater Mesa Road mansion, private four-hole golf course, pools and ocean-view lands with money stolen from the treasury of Equatorial Guinea.

“The purchase of the Malibu property supports our contention that the ruling kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea is happy to continue plundering the national coffers,” Schoeman told the Weekly. Obiang Mangue’s assets in South Africa were frozen pending a decision by South Africa’s high court in February.

Teodorin Obiang Mangue told the court in South Africa he kept his name off his real estate documents because: “I did not wish my name to be associated with the properties in any way is [sic] concerned . . . because I did not want the newsmakers, journalists and photographers to know where I lived in Cape Town . . . for the simple reason I did not wish to be pestered by photographers, etc., invading my privacy whenever I was in Cape Town.”

His desire for privacy — photos of him, for example, are exceedingly rare — has clearly worked better in Malibu.

According to one resident near Serra Road, nobody got the word about Teodorin. “This is the first I’ve heard about it,” says a woman who was afraid to give her name, saying, “Those African dictators play by a different standard.” Nor did the Malibu sheriff’s station know Obiang Mangue was in the area. “We do not hear anything unless there is trouble,” says Deputy Shawn Brownell, with community relations.

Malibu City Attorney Christi Hogin says she was “certainly unaware of this particular transaction,” but says that regardless of U.S. antikleptocracy laws, “cities do not have the authority to preclude individuals from buying property and moving into a city. The purchase of residential property is a private transaction.”

According to incorporation filings, Little Teodoro Obiang Mangue used the newly formed Sweetwater Mesa LLC to buy the estate, and is also the owner behind Sweetwater Malibu LLC and Sweetwater Management Inc. He started TNO Records and TNO Entertainment — TNO as in Teodoro Nguema Obiang, producing two techno records in 2003, but nothing since.

Although he didn’t feature her on his two albums, he dated Grammy-winning rapper and Barbershop actress Eve for years, but she broke with him amid rumors published in New York and foreign media that his father was a cannibal — ghoulish tales told by refugees fleeing the nation.

“There is no proof of cannibalism, but there are plenty of rumors,” Dr. Sarah Wykes of Global Witness in London told the Weekly. Wykes has followed the Obiangs for years, and says, “I think Obiang is happy to entertain these rumors in order to keep people in fear.” (The claim is that the president ate the heart and brain of his uncle, the infamously bloodthirsty Francisco Nguema, after overthrowing him as president in 1979.)

In recent years, President Obiang has been the focus of investigations by the CIA, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Global Witness, Transparency International and others, which Wykes says have unearthed ample evidence of murder, torture, imprisonment of political opponents and other human-rights abuses.

Amnesty International found that political opponents are routinely imprisoned and ordinary people thrown out of their homes without warning, to make room for “urban development” by the Obiangs. Transparency International rates Equatorial Guinea 152nd out of 159 countries on its human-rights index, listing it one of the worst for family-controlled government corruption. Sex trafficking and child labor reported by the CIA in 2006 are so extensive that Equatorial Guinea ranks at the bottom of the U.N.’s Human Development Index, below Kazakhstan, Syria and Algeria.

Watchdog groups and experts estimate the loot siphoned off by the Obiang family ranges from $300 million to $800 million — per year.

AGAINST THE BACKDROP of the misery of the people of Equatorial Guinea, Little Teodoro is a big spender. He globetrots from London to Paris, Cape Town to Los Angeles, and air-shipped his Bentley from London to Los Angeles, according to foreign newspapers. When he’s in Europe, tabloids gossip about his partying with Russian beauties. According to Harper’s Magazine, one Christmas weekend he spent nearly $700,000 to rent billionaire Paul Allen’s 300-foot yacht, Tatoosh, to entertain rapper Eve — only to have her airlifted to shore after an argument.

In U.S. Senate hearings in 2004, Exxon Mobil was criticized for failing to be forthcoming about its investments in Equatorial Guinea. But executive vice president Andrew P. Swiger did admit that his firm co-owns an energy company, Abayak, in partnership with “the first lady of Equatorial Guinea.” According to Swiger’s testimony, Exxon Mobil pays first lady Constancia Mangue de Obiang 15 percent of all revenue from Abayak.

The hearings were conducted after congressional investigations into Riggs Bank, where former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet funneled money, as did the Obiangs. Bank records show that $718 million was deposited in 30 different Obiang family and government accounts there. Riggs Bank was fined $16 million, and collapsed after the scandal, but the Obiang funds were released and transferred to offshore accounts.

Chris Schoeman, the South African lawyer, has asked American oil companies to make public their arrangements with the Obiangs, but, not surprisingly, has received no responses. Exxon Mobil answered the Weekly by e-mailing an opening statement by Swiger from the hearings in 2004.

Now, Schoeman has asked to meet with U.S. senators Joseph Biden and Carl Levin after he has completed his case against Little Teodoro in South Africa in February.

He may find some political traction, particularly with Levin, who in the 2004 hearings declared to Exxon Mobil’s Swiger: “I have to tell you, I do not see any fundamental difference between dealing with an Obiang and dealing with a Saddam Hussein.” Schoeman wants the U.S. to confiscate Teodorin’s Malibu estate on grounds that he bought it using tainted money in violation of the Bush administration’s anticorruption laws.

But getting action from the U.S. government might be a greater challenge even than waking up the wealthy and often politically hypersensitive residents who live behind two guard shacks, sharing their exclusive domain with a dictator in training.

“Our promotion of human rights and democracy is in keeping with America’s most cherished principles and it helps to lay the foundation for lasting peace in the world,” said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a speech on human rights in 2006.

Shortly after that, she welcomed her “good friend” President Teodoro Obiang to Washington on an official state visit.

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