- Gabonese Samuel Mebiame arrested in New York on Tuesday
- Och-Ziff set aside $414 million to settle U.S. investigation
With the Miami villa, stopovers at New York’s Plaza Hotel and millions channeled in bribes to win mining deals, Samuel Mebiame was the relationships guy in a corruption scheme that spanned continents, according to U.S. prosecutors.
The 43-year-old son of a former Gabonese prime minister, Mebiame was arrested by U.S. authorities on Tuesday, charged with paying bribes while working for a company set up by Och-Ziff Capital Management Group LLC.
For at least eight years, Mebiame shuttled between African capitals, Paris and New York, striking deals with politicians in some of the world’s most resource-rich regions. In Guinea, he helped rewrite mining laws. In Chad, he convinced the government to strip a Canadian company of a mineral deposit, so that his firm could get the asset.
Mebiame explained all this during two interviews with U.S. law enforcement officials in June 2015, part of a five-year investigation into whether a hedge fund violated bribery laws, according to a complaint against him filed in the Eastern District of New York. The unidentified hedge fund in the complaint refers to Och-Ziff, according to people familiar with the case.
Daniel Och, a former head of U.S. equities trading at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., founded Och-Ziff and turned it into one of the world’s biggest publicly traded hedge-fund managers. Months after its initial public offering in 2007, Och-Ziff started investing in Africa. When the company said this month it had earmarked $414 million to resolve the probe, it was clear the firm might be facing one of the biggest bribery settlements in U.S. history.
Mebiame appeared in federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Prosecutors have asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione to order Mebiame to be permanently held in the U.S. while the charges against him are pending, saying he poses a “significant flight risk” due to his “considerable means and ties overseas” and minimal ties to the U.S., according to a letter filed with the court Wednesday.
Ben Tymann, an attorney representing Mebiame, declined to comment on the charges. Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman for Och-Ziff, declined to comment.
In 2008, Och-Ziff set up Africa Management Ltd., which would manage a mining company as well as investment funds. Often, Mebiame was the man on the ground, securing the deals, and, according to prosecutors, paying millions of dollars in bribes. In Guinea, he bought a government official an S-Class Mercedes-Benz and hired an Airbus private jet for his use, according to the complaint. Other deals under investigation didn’t involve Mebiame, and their details have yet to come to light.
Mebiame slept at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, banked in New York and owned companies in Panama, according to U.S. prosecutors. Sometimes, he courted officials at an $11.5 million waterside villa with a two-story marble fireplace and cherubs painted on the ceiling on Palm Island, Florida, with Miami’s skyline as a backdrop. He earned at least $3.5 million for this work, according to the complaint.
As the son of a former prime minister of the small West African nation of Gabon, he had a high-flying lifestyle that brought him into contact with the likes of Guinea’s President Alpha Conde and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, he told a former Guinean official at his Florida mansion in 2012.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. In September 2009, Mebiame fell out with his partners over a dispute about the ownership of a joint venture and threatened to spill the beans to the press.
“I will let the world know what kind of international crooks you are,” Mebiame told his accomplice, according to the prosecutors.
‘Samy from Miami’
But they made up and soon Mebiame was exuberant again. On Aug. 6, 2011, he sent his partner an e-mail about progress in Niger and signed off “Samy from Miami!!’’
One thing Mebiame and his partners seemed to underestimate was U.S. enforcement. One e-mail cited in the complaint showed how two of his partners bet each other a watch over this question: Was using correspondent banks in the U.S. to clear dollar-denominated transactions enough to get someone into trouble under anti-bribery laws?
Mebiame was staying in a hotel in Miami Beach, in the U.S. on a short-term visa, when he was arrested Tuesday. He had been scheduled to leave for Qatar on Wednesday, U.S. prosecutors said.
Mebiame has at least three bank accounts in foreign countries, including one in Cyprus, through which at least $2 million flowed solely related to the scheme to bribe officials in Guinea, and owned residences in Gabon and Paris, according to prosecutors.
Mebiame has a network of wealthy investors and high-ranking government officials across Africa who would have a motive to help him flee the U.S. and avoid a trial that might reveal details of their own illegal behavior, along with a group of co-conspirators outside of government with significant financial resources, prosecutors said.
“Mebiame would thus have extraordinary means available to him to assist in a flight from prosecution, including substantial financial assistance and possible foreign consular assistance to obtain travel documents,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers wrote in the letter to the judge.
The case is U.S. v. Mebiame, 16-mj-752, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).