Monday, October 26, 2020

U.S prosecutors seek to seize $3m Biscayne Bay penthouse owned by Congo minister Denis Nguesso

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After Miami’s real estate boom and bust a decade ago, one of the many foreign buyers who swooped in to snap up a luxury high-rise condo overlooking Biscayne Bay was a minister of parliament in the Republic of the Congo.

Denis-Christel Sassou Nguesso, whose father has been president of the oil-rich Central African nation since the late 1970s, transferred millions of dollars through an unknown associate to bank accounts in South Florida to buy the condo for $2.8 million in the 900 Biscayne Bay tower, court records show. At the closing of the sale, he used his alias, Denis Christelle.

In a civil forfeiture case filed in Miami, federal prosecutors say the president’s son bought the 3,500-square-foot penthouse apartment with money stolen from the Congo’s national oil company and are suing to seize the condo in what they describe as an alleged “international money laundering conspiracy.” The condo at 900 Biscayne Blvd. is listed as the defendant in the civil case. Nguesso and his wife, Nathalie Bumba-Pembe, are not named as defendants, nor have they been charged with a crime.

The “Congo condo” — penthouse unit #6107 — was purchased by Nguesso in October 2012 but he transferred the title of the property to his wife four years later to hide his ownership, prosecutors say.

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The three-bedroom, four-bath unit, located at the top of the 650-foot tower at 900 Biscayne Blvd. just across from a waterfront park with art and science museums, has been on the market for $3 million since last year, according to local real estate listings. A property manager for the Biscayne Bay building, Scott Snipes, declined to comment Wednesday.

Nguesso could not be reached for comment, and no one is listed as his attorney on the case docket in Miami federal court. A comment from the Republic of the Congo could not be obtained because its embassy in Washington, D.C., and consular services have been temporarily shut down since the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States in March.

As the son of the Congo’s president and an executive with the state-owned oil company, Nguesso was able to exert his influence over the nation’s entire petroleum industry, stealing millions and soliciting bribes to enrich himself, according to the forfeiture lawsuit filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrienne Rosen. She described Nguesso, deputy manager at Societe Nationale des Petrole du Congo, as the “gatekeeper to Congo’s oil wealth.”

According to the suit, Nguesso “embezzled millions of dollars from” the state-owned oil company and “funneled the misappropriated funds into accounts in the names of his various shell companies” to conceal his role in acquiring foreign property, including the Miami condo.

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Nguesso transferred about $10.3 million to bank accounts in South Florida opened by an associate, identified as a Gabonese native with U.S. citizenship, between 2009 and 2016, the suit says. Millions from those transfers were used to buy not only the Biscayne Bay penthouse but also cover taxes, condo fees and maintenance expenses.

Nguesso also used money he had stolen from the Congo’s national oil company to purchase a second residential property for $2.4 million in Coral Gables, the suit says. He acquired that property in his first wife’s name, Danielle Ognanosso, according to the suit. No address was listed in the suit for that purchase in 2009, but property records show her name as the buyer of a 4,200-square-foot home with a pool at 2715 Cordova St.

It’s not clear why prosecutors, who were assisted by Homeland Security Investigations, are not trying to seize that property too. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

The Congo minister’s acquisitions came years before the Treasury Department started requiring title insurance companies to identify the names of people behind shell companies in all-cash real estate transactions in Miami and 11 other U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles, because of the influx of tainted foreign money derived from corruption, bribery and embezzlement.

Rosen, the prosecutor who filed the suit, pointed out that Nguesso acquired wealth far in excess of his income as an executive with the Congo’s state-owned oil company, “living extravagantly” in Miami, Los Angeles and Paris.

During a visit to Miami in January 2016, Nguesso told U.S. Customs officials that he made $460,000 a year as a deputy manager with Societe Nationale des Petrole du Congo. and that he owned no real estate in the United States, the suit says. But from 2007 to 2017, the Congo’s minister spent $29 million acquiring properties in the Miami area and Paris and providing a “lavish lifestyle” for him and his family.

In addition, Rosen said, he brought about $3.7 million in cash into the United States between 2011 and 2016 — “and that’s just what he declared” to Customs.

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