A New York banker who served as mining minister of the West African country of Guinea was jailed seven years Friday for laundering bribes from Chinese companies.
Mahmoud Thiam, 50, an American citizen, took $8.5 million from executives of China Sonangol International Ltd. and China International Fund SA (CIF) in exchange for valuable mining rights.
He was convicted in May by a federl jury in Manhattan of one count of dealing in criminally derived property and one count of money laundering.
Thiam, a resident of New York, was Guinea’s minister of mines from early 2009 until late 2010.
He faced up to ten years in prison.
“Today’s sentence sends a strong message to corrupt individuals like Thiam that if they attempt to use the U.S. financial system to hide their bribe money they will be investigated, held accountable, and punished,” the DOJ’s Kenneth Blanco said Friday.
Blanco called corruption a “cancer on society that destabilizes institutions, inhibits fair and free competition, and imposes significant burdens on ordinary law-abiding people just trying to live their everyday lives.”
Thiam came to the United States when he was seven. His father, a banker, had been tortured and killed by Guinea’s dictator.
Thiam was granted U.S. citizenship and eventually studied at Cornell University. He worked for Merrill Lynch and later for UBS in its New York office.
He left to serve in the Guinea government as the Minister of Mines and Geology in 2009 and 2010 before returning to New York.
Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said Thiam enriched himself at the expense of one Africa’s poorest countries.
He used some of the Chinese bribe money to pay his children’s Manhattan private school tuition and to buy a $3.75 million estate in Dutchess County, Kim said.
Thiam went to Hong Kong in 2009 and opened a bank account there to launder bribe money. China Sonangol and CIF paid $8.5 into the account.
The China companies signed a series of agreements with Guinea that gave them valuable mining rights.
“Thiam influenced the Guinean government’s decision to enter into those agreements while serving as Guinea’s Minister of Mines and Geology from 2009 to 2010,” the DOJ said.
To hide the bribes, Thiam told banks in Hong Kong and the United States he worked as a consultant. He also said the money was “income from the sale of land which he earned before he was a minister,” the DOJ said.
During his trial, Thiam said he lied to the banks not to conceal bribes but to avoid being designated as a PEP — a “politically exposed person.”
“My primary concern was to be treated as Mahmoud Thiam, private citizen,” he testified.
Banks are sometimes reluctant to deal with PEPs because of money-laundering concerns.
China Sonangol — a Chinese joint venture with Angola’s state oil company — and CIF landed “exclusive and valuable rights to conduct business operations in a broad range of sectors of the Guinean economy, including mining, according to the trial evidence,” the DOJ said.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.