The Kleptocrat's Webmaster: U.S. PR Firm Puts Pretty Face on a Reportedly Corrupt Ministry in Equatorial Guinea
The flag of Equatorial Guinea.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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Washington-based Qorvis Communications has continued to work on behalf of the president of Equatorial Guinea’s family and has managed the website of a government ministry currently in the crosshairs of international corruption investigations.
The President of Equatorial Guinea’s son, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, and the government ministry he ran have fallen under increasing scrutiny over the past year as corruption and money-laundering investigations in the U.S. and France have resulted in allegations that millions of dollars were siphoned out of the West African country.
Qorvis, a public relations firm with a reputation for partnering with controversial regimes, has received substantial criticism in recent years for its work on behalf of Equatorial Guinea and Teodorin. Foreign Agent Registration Act disclosures and an examination of websites connected to the country’s government reveal that despite the widening investigations, Qorvis has continued this work, including maintaining the website of Teodorin’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
That ministry was used by Teodorin, who served as forestry minister until he was appointed second vice president in May of this year, to funnel millions of dollars in public funds into a private bank account, according to allegations made by the U.S. Justice Department.
There are no allegations that Qorvis participated in any illegal activity.
The president and his family have profited from Equatorial Guinea’s considerable oil wealth and its relatively high per capita GDP. The oil revenue funds “lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty,”says Human Rights Watch in its profile of Equatorial Guinea. “The government regularly engages in torture and arbitrary detention,” Human Rights Watch adds, noting that “President Obiang and his family are the subject of multiple foreign corruption investigations.”
Qorvis — through the websites the firm manage on behalf of Equatorial Guinea and a steady stream of press releases — plays a central role in the country’s public diplomacy in Washington, promoting, among other things, the country’s natural resources management.
“The mission of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is to enhance Equatorial Guinea’s natural resources,” reads a statement on the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s Qorvis-managed website. The site explains that the ministry “focuses on the integrity and performance of the biological chain, including animals, plants, food and related sectors, and their contribution to Equatorial Guinea’s economy and well-being.”
According to the website, “The Ministry encourages high performances in all its sectors, safe trade, and protects the natural resources for the benefit of future generations.” The site, which appears to have been last updated in May of this year, states that it “is developed and maintained by Qorvis Communications, LLC, on behalf of the government of Equatorial Guinea.”
Those claims of good-business practices in Equatorial Guinea’s forestry resources contrasts sharply with an April 2011 U.S. Justice Department civil complaint — as well as more detailed amended complaints filed in October 2011 and June 2012 — alleging that Teodorin, while serving as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, inflated public construction contracts, misused public resources, and transferred millions into bank accounts he controlled.
The DOJ claims that since the 1990s, Teodorin has used his position as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry to solicit bribes and kickbacks from timber companies seeking access to Equatorial Guinea’s natural resources. Those companies who failed to pay Teodorin allegedly faced retaliation from Equatorial Guinea’s government in the form of seizure of assets and the arrest of company personnel.
Teodorin’s alleged corruption extended outside the forestry sector. The complaints charge that Teodorin demanded bribes from companies seeking government contracts. In one case “in or around 2003,” according to the June 2012 complaint, Teodorin demanded that Tromad SA Constructions, a company retained by the government to build roads, “pay him personally fifteen percent of the value of its government contract.” The DOJ says that the company refused to pay Teodorin, and its government contract was terminated. In other cases, according to the complaint, Teodorin solicited “gifts” from oil companies doing business in Equatorial Guinea.
The DOJ is moving to seize U.S.-based property that Tedorin allegedly “obtained through the abuse of public office and illegally laundered through financial institutions and businesses in the United States,” including a $30 million mansion in Malibu, a $533,000 Ferrari 599 GTO, and $1.3 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia. The complaint alleges Teodorin had a number of other “enormous personal expenditures,” including an $80 million property in Paris, $15 million in property in Sao Paolo, $8 million in various properties in Cape Town, and millions of dollars worth of art, boats, jewelry, and vehicles. In a separate complaint, the DOJ is attempting to seize Teodorin’s $38.5 million Gulfstream jet.
In court filings, Teodorin’s attorneys have denied the DOJ’s allegations and have argued that by hearing the cases, U.S. courts would improperly infringe on Equatorial Guinea’s sovereignty. “[T]he Court should decline to hear this case on the basis of comity and the related act of state doctrine because adjudicating it will infringe Equatorial Guinea’s sovereign right to create, interpret, and enforce its own laws and will significantly hinder the existing cooperative, friendly relationship between the United States and Equatorial Guinea,” wrote Teodorin’s lawyers in a January 2012 filing in the Gulfstream case.
Qorvis maintained close ties to Teodorin and the government of Equatorial Guinea in the time period surrounding the investigation.
The public relations firm was posting press releases on the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s website as late as May 2012 — over one year after the DOJ filed the initial complaint.
The Malibu mansion targeted by the DOJ provides another important link between Qorvis and Teodorin. From May 2010 until at least May 2011 — roughly the time when the initial DOJ complaint was filed — the PR firm worked directly for Teodorin “in his individual capacity” and received a $55,000 per month retainer. That contract lists the Malibu property as the “principal address of foreign principal.”
Scrutiny of Teodorin and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry isn’t limited to the Justice Department complaints. Over the past year, French authorities seized Teodorin’s Paris mansion as well as luxury cars and a lavish wine and art collection as part of a corruption investigation into Teodorin and his father.
President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mbasogo recently appointed his son second vice president of Equatorial Guinea, a position which, according to Teodorin’s attorney in France, entitles him to immunity.
The contract with Teodorin, which included an option to extend on a month-to-month basis, describes Qorvis as providing “public relations, media relations, social media, social networking, interactive, research” services for Teodorin.
Qorvis did not respond to requests for comment about its work for Teodorin or Equatorial Guinea and would not provide clarification about whether the contract with Teodorin was extended past May 2011.
Regardless, Qorvis’ work with Equatorial Guinea didn’t conclude on May 2011.
A FARA disclosure filing submitted in June of this year reveals that Qorvis continued to play a central role in portraying Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang – who Reporters Without Borders characterized as a “predator” of press freedom and Freedom House ranks among of the “worst of the worst” in a global survey of political and civil rights — as a political reformer.
The disclosure shows that Qorvis filed at least 42 press releases on behalf of the government of Equatorial Guinea between October 2011 and March 2012. Qorvis received $360,000 in retainer fees from Equatorial Guinea between May 13, 2011, and November 12, 2011, according to Qorvis’ filings.
In addition to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry site, the websites ecuatoguineano.com, africanunionsummit.com, equatorialguineainfo.blogspot.com, and africacup.net contain the disclaimer that they are “maintained by Qorvis Communications, LLC, on behalf of the government of Equatorial Guinea.” Some of those sites have been updated as recently as this month.
Qorvis also helped promote UNESCO’s controversial decision to issue a prize funded by President Obiang earlier this year. “The vote of the Executive Council of UNESCO to accept funds from the government of Equatorial Guinea to establish an international prize for research in the life sciences marked the end of a successful diplomatic campaign by the African nation to gain international support for the prize,” read a March 10, 2012, press release.
In July, a group of seven human rights NGOs blasted UNESCO’s decision to issue the prize, highlighting the corruption and money-laundering investigations against Teodorin and the “conditions in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where poverty, human rights abuses, and corruption are widespread and social services are inadequate.”
Following the decision of French judges to seek an arrest warrant for Teodorin, Qorvis promoted a series of press releases in March, decrying France’s “illegal actions” and “unjustified” decision to seek Teodorin’s arrest,” and expressing the government of Equatorial Guinea’s “’profound indignation’ over treatment it considers discriminatory.”
“Obiang’s regime is intent on trying to polish over the damage to their reputation,” Joseph Kraus, program director at EG Justice, a Washington-based group promoting human rights and political reform in Equatorial Guinea, told The American Independent. “They’ve taken a reputational hit with a number of investigations, starting in 2004 with the senate investigation into the Riggs Bank scandal, a 2010 U.S. investigation into money laundering, and a more recent one investigating Obiang’s son.”
Kraus questioned whether Qorvis’ work for Equatorial Guinea will fend off human rights and corruption complaints. “[Their efforts] are overshadowed by the bigger problems that the government of Equatorial Guinea keeps facing, including corruption investigations on two different continents against high ranking officials including the country’s vice president, Obiang’s son.”
“I think it’s safe to say that a lot of PR firms would shy away from doing business with regimes that have the types of records of Equatorial Guinea because it would look bad for their reputation to be representing dictators,” said Kraus. “But Qorvis has made the decision to work with these regimes.”