The U.S. has gone into business with a man once convicted of money laundering to build its largest consulate in the world.
On March 31, billionaire Gilbert Chagoury stood atop the plot of land he’d dredged from the sea around Lagos, beaming in the sweltering heat alongside U.S. Consul-General to Nigeria Claire Pierangelo, as they broke ground for America’s largest consulate in the world.
As a cool spring rain fell on Washington that day, Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, of Nebraska, resigned from the House of Representatives after a conviction announced a week earlier. His crime: lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about illegal campaign contributions he’d received from Chagoury.
The pageantry in Lagos obscured the uncomfortable fact that by placing its $537 million consulate on Chagoury’s Eko Atlantic development, the U.S. government was becoming the anchor tenant for a project run by a man who was once convicted of laundering money for a Nigerian dictator and who’s admitted to making illegal campaign contributions in the U.S. Ethics groups and Nigeria experts aren’t pleased with the choice.
“We did not have input into that process, or we would have flagged that,” Matthew Page, the State Department’s lead intelligence analyst on Nigeria from 2012 to 2015, said by phone from Boston on April 11, referring to the U.S. decision to locate its mega-consulate on Chagoury real estate. “Either the U.S. government was incompetent and didn’t do that due diligence, or did that due diligence, understood who it was dealing with and basically disregarded the obvious concerns,” said Page, now an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international policy institute.
Chagoury, 76, has spent decades cultivating relationships with politicians in the U.S. and Nigeria, and has run afoul of laws along the way. In 2000, he was convicted in Switzerland of laundering money misappropriated by Sani Abacha, the notoriously corrupt Nigerian dictator. Three years ago, he paid nearly $2 million in fines to the U.S. to resolve the investigation into illegal campaign contributions that led to Fortenberry’s resignation.
Three lawyers for Chagoury didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Objections to the consulate deal were raised within the U.S. mission to Nigeria as it was being negotiated and shared with Washington, but were discounted, said a person familiar with the discussions at the time, asking not to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. The person declined to elaborate.
In response to questions from Bloomberg, the State Department said it “follows a standard and exhaustive process” that is “managed by career real-estate professionals.” It referred questions about Chagoury and his company to the Justice Department, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Transparency International’s U.S. director, Gary Kalman, said the Lagos consulate deal sends “mixed signals” about the Biden administration’s pledge to tackle international corruption. The president issued directives last year making that fight a core national security interest. While the government makes compromises in the name of national security or where options are limited such as in war zones, “this doesn’t really fit,” Kalman said by phone from Washington on April 7. “Couldn’t you find another piece of property?”
The U.S. government’s endorsement of Eko Atlantic is a potentially defining win for the project, which is being built on about 25 square kilometers (10 square miles) of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean and protected by an 8.5 kilometer-long barrier branded “The Great Wall of Lagos.” The promise of secure, well-paved streets and sparkling infrastructure was always likely to attract moneyed Lagosians and companies seeking to escape the grind and chaos beyond its gates. But the new anchor tenant bolsters the business case for the sprawling, gated luxury development in a city where most residents live in poverty.
“It gives people hope that there is a future in Eko Atlantic City because of who the tenant is,” said Yinka Omoniyi, associate partner at property consultancy Knight Frank in Lagos. “All of a sudden out of nowhere, the Americans are relocating their consulate to that site.”
Born in Nigeria to Lebanese immigrants, Gilbert Chagoury co-founded the Chagoury Group in Lagos in 1971. The conglomerate owns construction, real estate, hotel, glass and flour milling businesses. The U.S. Justice Department calls him a billionaire, but most of his assets are closely held and public records giving details of his wealth aren’t available.
His company thrived in the 1990s through its close association with Abacha, described in a U.S. Justice Department statement as “one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria.” In 2014, the U.S. announced the freezing of $458 million that Abacha had stolen, its biggest-ever kleptocracy forfeiture. Hundreds of millions more had been frozen in Switzerland after Abacha died in 1998.
A Swiss court convicted Chagoury in 2000 of laundering some of the funds Abacha had siphoned away, according to a related ruling seen by Bloomberg. He agreed to pay a fine of about 1 million Swiss francs (about $600,000 at the time) and handed back $66 million to the Nigerian government, the decision said.
Chagoury’s Swiss attorney, Luc Argand, told a PBS Frontline investigation published in 2010 that his client’s Swiss conviction was expunged two years after finalizing the plea deal. Chagoury has denied knowing that the funds were stolen.
The fact that the Swiss conviction was abroad and more than a decade old means it may not have come to the attention of the contracting officer overseeing the U.S. consulate deal, said Jessica Tillipman, assistant dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University law school. “I don’t know any COs that would want to award a contract with somebody that has a checkered criminal history,” she said by phone from Washington on April 7.
David Frame, managing director of South Energyx Nigeria, the Chagoury Group subsidiary that owns Eko Atlantic, declined to respond to questions addressed to Eko Atlantic, the Chagoury Group and Gilbert Chagoury, and referred queries to the U.S. State Department.
A devout Catholic who serves as the island nation of St Lucia’s ambassador to the Vatican, Chagoury has spent years burnishing his credentials as a philanthropist, often binding money, religion and politics. After attending a White House dinner with then-President Bill Clinton in 1996 — — following a $460,000 donation to a Democratic Party-linked voter registration group — he became a top donor to the non-profit Clinton Foundation, giving between $1 million and $5 million, according to the organization’s website.
The former president spoke at a dedication ceremony for Eko Atlantic in February 2013, just weeks after Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State ended. The State Department said an international real estate firm identified Eko Atlantic as one of a number of potential sites for the consulate in 2012. The U.S. mission in Nigeria announced in May 2019 that it had purchased about 50,000 square meters of land at the development.
A spokesman for former President Bill Clinton declined to comment, while a spokesman for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Between 2012 and 2016, Chagoury sought to help fund election campaigns of U.S. politicians believed to be “supportive to his cause” — the protection of Christians in the Middle East — according to documents filed by the U.S. in the Fortenberry case. In total, he provided about $180,000 to four U.S. political candidates, according to a deal he reached with the Justice Department. Foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing to U.S. campaigns.
Chagoury paid $1.8 million in fines in December 2019 to resolve the investigation, the Justice Department announced last March. His “unique assistance to the United States” helped close the probe, his deferred prosecution agreement said, without specifying the nature of the assistance.
Fortenberry was convicted in Los Angeles of lying to federal authorities about knowingly receiving $30,000 in donations via an intermediary. He faces up to 15 years in prison and is awaiting sentencing.
Fortenberry said after his conviction that the process had been unfair and he would appeal immediately, the Associated Press reported.