How Africa’s richest woman bought her way out of scrutiny from Western banks

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Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of an erstwhile Angola president has got her assets frozen by the Angola government as she was accused of making the country lose over $1 billion with her husband alleged s an accomplice even after dos Santo denied the allegation while attributing it to political hunting. The Luanda Leaks however published documents of transaction that serve as evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars of public money were embezzled by dos Santos. Giants like Barclays, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank turned down Dos Santos as she fell prey to compliance officers who have been hired by some banks to curb and combat money laundering scandals after the 2008 financial crisis. Dos Santos opened two Portuguese banks because it is much for kleptocrats to move illicit money through that means. The Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, Paris-based advocacy and legal group, originally passed the leaked files—known collectively as the Luanda Leaks—to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). ICIJ then shared the files with reporters from 36 news organizations in 20 different countries, who spent 8 months combing through them even at that, Dos Santos still denied doing any wrong. Being the first bank to drop Dos Santos-linked businesses, Citi was handed a cease-and-desist order in April 2012 for breaching anti-money-laundering program. In 2013, Barclays also cancelled a deal with AEBV but according to the meeting’s minute, Barclays paid AEBVs board $250, 0000 settlements to avoid a lawsuit.
After a lot of rejections and sanctions from Santander, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Barclays and Dutch bank ING, all seemed not lost for Dos Santos as she resorted to her banking empire which she started in 2005 with Banco BIC, the bank which would later become a major player in the industry through lending of money to Dos Santos’ father government. Dos Santos also invested in real estate starting with the creation of Silaba Real Estate in the Isle of Man, BPI Portugal was used to open offshore accounts for the firm as other banks in South Africa and UK refused to open accounts for Silaba. It was also leaked that Dos Santos bought a Malta-based holding company by opening an account for Athol Ltd at BPI and purchasing properties through it. Reports emanating from Expresso, a Portuguese newspaper says Dos Santos alongside he husband and her father are being investigated by authorities in Monaco. In 2015, another dos Santos-owned Maltese holding company, named Winterfell 2, spent about $220 million on a roughly 65% stake in Portuguese engineering company Efacec. Dos Santos raised around $175 million in loans to finance the purchase, of which around $150 million came from a handful of Portuguese banks, including BPI, according to an internal investigation by the Bank of Portugal, the country’s central bank. An anti-money laundering expert, Graham Barrow said BIC Portugal took a high risk by accepting $28 million from BIC Angola without the knowledge of the source of the money.
On Nov. 16, the day after dos Santos was fired, Sonangol UK made three payments worth $57.8 million in total to Dubai-based Matter DMCC, according to files obtained by Expresso. Once the transfers had gone through, Sonangol UK’s account was overdrawn, a bank statement shows. Matter’s owner was dos Santos’ longtime business partner Paula Oliveira. Dos Santos’ key aide, Mario da Silva, was listed as a director of the company. The day before dos Santos was fired, an employee at Fidequity, a management services firm at the center of dos Santos’ empire, emailed a contract between Matter and Sonangol to Sonangol, the files show. The contract was signed by Oliveira. In an interview with the BBC, dos Santos denied that she was looting the company on her way out the door, saying Matter was in charge of subcontracting major consultancies that worked for Sonangol. She insisted she couldn’t have been planning to steal the money because she didn’t know she would be fired. “I did not know that I would be dismissed on the 16th of or whatever date of November it was,” she said. “I’m not clairvoyant, I don’t know what goes in the mind of the president and, you know, I have no reason to believe that I would be dismissed on that particular day.” Dos Santos’ alleged money laundering through Portuguese accounts shares similarities with previous European financial scandals, where allegedly corrupt actors used less-scrutinized banks in poorer EU countries like Latvia and Estonia to shift hundreds of billions into Europe’s banking system. From there, they can move it around the world with comparative ease.

The combination of Portugal’s debt crisis and its regulators’ history of lax enforcement made Portugal’s banking system an easy target, Barrow said.