US prosecutors on Friday moved to seize $144m in assets including a 200-foot yacht and a Manhattan condominium one block from Central Park, calling them the fruits of an international bribery scheme that involved the then-president of Opec.
From 2011 to 2015, two Nigerian oil men, Kolawole Aluko and Olajide Omokore, alledgedly conspired with others to bribe the country’s minister for petroleum resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, in order to win oil production contracts worth $1.5bn, according to a civil forfeiture complaint.
At the time, along with controlling the country’s state-owned oil company, Ms Alison-Madueke, 56, also headed the Vienna-based oil cartel. Nigeria’s federal high court earlier this year charged her with money laundering and she has previously denied any wrongdoing.
After awarding government contracts to shell companies owned by the two men, Ms Alison-Madueke — known as “the madam” or “Madam D” — was rewarded with a “lavish lifestyle”, according to the US Department of Justice.
The justice department action targeted Mr Aluko’s vessel Galactica Star, which its builder bills as the “world’s largest fast displacement yacht”, along with condominium units in Manhattan and real estate in Southern California located just three miles from the Pacific Ocean.
“The United States is not a safe haven for the proceeds of corruption,” said acting assistant attorney-general Kenneth Blanco. “If illicit funds are within the reach of the United States, we will seek to forfeit them and to return them to the victims from whom they were stolen.”
Though known as “a small time trader” who had previously earned around $500,000 annually, in less than three years Mr Aluko purchased more than $87m of US property and the $82m yacht, according to the complaint, filed in US district court in Houston.
According to the complaint, in a conversation with Mr Aluko that prosecutors say Ms Alison-Madueke recorded, she criticised him for his lavish spending. “If you want to hire a yacht, you lease it for two weeks or whatever,” she said. “You don’t go and sink funds into it at this time when Nigerian oil and gas sector is under all kinds of watch.”
The two businessmen allegedly purchased millions of dollars worth of property in and near London for the oil minister and her family and then furnished the homes with furniture, artwork and other luxury items from Houston-area stores that she fancied.
In January 2011, the Nigerian businessmen and unidentified co-conspirators bought a Buckinghamshire home known as “The Falls” for £3.25m. Two months later, as Mr Aluko was meeting with Nigerian oil officials to discuss a contract, he arranged to buy two properties near London’s Regent Parks: a £1.7m home at 39 Chester Close and 58 Harley House on the Marylebone Road for £2.8m.
The first property, upgraded with an elevator and new stone flooring and countertops, was intended for the use of Ms Alison-Madueke’s mother and her son, according to the complaint.
The men that month also purchased a £3.7m flat at 83-86 Prince Albert Road for the oil minister.
Ms Alison-Madueke appears to have favoured furniture stores in the Houston area, which she patronised on periodic visits to the US oil industry capital. On a single day in May 2012, Mr Aluko wired $461,500 from a Swiss bank account to one furniture store and spent an additional $262,091 at a second on the oil minister’s behalf, the complaint says.
The case was brought as part of DoJ’s kleptocracy asset recovery initiative.
Mr Aluko and Mr Omokore created two shell companies in the British Virgin Islands — Atlantic Energy Drilling Concepts Nigeria and Atlantic Energy Brass Development — to handle their oil contracts.
Though the companies, which prosecutors say were “unqualified”, failed to fulfil the terms of their deals, they were allowed to produce and sell more than $1.5bn worth of Nigerian crude oil. The pair then created additional shell companies to launder the proceeds through the US, prosecutors said.
Mr Aluko’s last known address was in Porza-Lugano, Switzerland, while Mr Omokore is described as a resident of Lagos.
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