NEW YORK (AP) — Guinea's ex-minister of mines gave away nearly total control of his country's valuable mining sector in exchange for $8.5 million in bribes, enabling him to live lavishly in New York, authorities alleged after his arrest on Tuesday.
Mahmoud Thiam was held without bail after prosecutors told a judge he was hiding assets overseas and could utilize contacts abroad to easily flee.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elisha Kobre said Thiam reported only $30,000 in assets despite earning $1.2 million annually. He said Thiam lied repeatedly to banks and the Internal Revenue Service.
A criminal complaint in Manhattan federal court charged Thiam, a U.S. citizen, with surrendering most of Guinea's resources for mining iron ore, gold, diamonds and raw material for aluminum to a Chinese conglomerate from 2009 to 2011 in return for $8.5 million in bribes.
Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said Thiam was accused of "enriching himself at the expense of the people of the Republic of Guinea."
"We cannot allow the United States to be a safe haven for the spoils of official corruption," Caldwell said.
Thiam, who's 50 years old, lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children and is no flight threat from an investigation he's known about for years, said his lawyer, Andrew Solomon.
Solomon called the charges "quite ancient" and said they would be tossed out. He urged U.S. Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV to free his client.
The lawyer said most of Thiam's annual income paid off debts, including $24,000 in monthly housing costs.
"Mr. Thiam is not leaving his wife, three children and two dogs based on a complaint that on its face is beyond the statute of limitations," Solomon said.
The complaint, charging Thiam with two counts carrying a potential penalty of up to 30 years in prison upon conviction, said Guinea is among Africa's poorest countries partly because of public corruption. It said Thiam covertly received bribes by opening a bank account in Hong Kong and misreporting his occupation to the Hong Kong bank to conceal that he was a public official.
Thiam then transferred some of his bribe proceeds from the account to a U.S. bank account, a Malaysian company that facilitated and concealed the purchase of a $3.75 million estate in Dutchess County, New York, private preparatory schools for Thiam's children and at least one other West African public official, the complaint said.
The complaint said Thiam, who also maintains a residence in Manhattan, was known in 2009 as Guinea's minister of mines, geology, energy and hydraulics before his title was changed a year later to minister of mines and geology.
It said he had substantial powers over mining in Guinea, including defining and directing government policy on mines, negotiating mining permits and granting permits and concessions to private entities seeking to conduct mining operations in the country.
The complaint said his power was magnified because Guinea then had a military dictatorship that needed money and sought investors seeking valuable mining concessions.