May 26, 2015 | Quote

He’ll Tell You Where to Find Gaddafi’s Missing Billions—If He Gets His Cut

In August 2014, Erik Iskander Goaied formed a company to locate what he claims is $150 billion or more in U.S. currency, gold, diamonds, and other assets. This is the loot that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had squirreled away outside of Libya before he was deposed in 2011. Goaied claims to have a contract with the Libyan government that lets him keep 10 percent of what he finds, which means that if he locates even a fraction of the money he insists is sitting in bank accounts, as well as warehouses, around the world, he will instantly become a billionaire.

Lots of people have been looking for this money. The Libyan government has tried for years to repatriate assets Gaddafi either deposited or laundered outside the country. Investigators say they think they’ve found much of it already in banks in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, and those funds have been frozen.

Goaied, for his part, insists he found $12.5 billion of Gaddafi’s cash sitting on pallets in a Johannesburg airplane hangar a few years ago. And that, Goaied says, is just a taste of what he can find and bring home to a country that’s been wrecked by civil war and decades of Gaddafi’s corruption. His finder’s fee will be a comparative pittance.

Libya sorely needs the cash. The country is arguably a failed state, with rival factions in the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern city of Tobruk vying for control. Whoever ends up running Libya will need billions to rebuild the country. If Goaied were legitimate, he could be Libya’s next hero.

And legitimacy is exactly what Goaied wants. Three months after he started his company, called the Washington African Consulting Group, Goaied registered with the Justice Department as an agent of the “Libyan Government Prime Minister’s Office,” claiming that he’s working in the United States trying to help the people of Libya recover what’s rightly theirs.

Under a 1938 law meant to weed out corrupt influence, individuals conducting political work on behalf of foreign countries are required to disclose that fact to the government. Registrations like the one Goaied filed are standard operating procedure for thousands of lobbyists, lawyers, spin doctors, and political advisers representing more than 100 countries to the U.S. federal government. To demonstrate his bona fides, Goaied included an 18-page contract between his company and a “National Board” that was set up, he says, to repatriate Gaddafi’s ill-gotten gains, pursuant to an official Libyan government decree.

Misrepresenting oneself to the U.S. government as a foreign agent could trigger prosecution for false claims, punishable by as much as five years in prison. So one assumes that Goaied’s claims are legit. After all, why would he be crazy enough to say he’s working for the Libyan government if he’s really not?

That may be exactly the question he wants you to ask.

Registering with the Justice Department gives Goaied’s loot-hunting an air of credibility and legitimacy— and, arguably, the imprimatur of the U.S. government. Over the past three years, at least three different groups of investigators have tried to find Gaddafi’s money, and each has claimed to have a binding agreement with the Libyan government. But only Goaied has sworn to the U.S. that he’s Libya’s chosen man.

Those assurances helped persuade a powerful Washington lobbyist and political fundraiser, Ben Barnes, to agree to advocate on Goaied’s behalf and try to influence U.S. policies concerning Gaddafi’s assets. And Goaied appears also to have persuaded U.S. officials that he’s the real deal, because his contract and his registration forms are still on file at the Justice Department, in a database of “active” foreign agents.

Maybe they all missed the fact that Libyan officials, as well as the United Nations, have accused Goaied of peddling fake documents to at least three different governments in an effort to stake a claim to the missing billions. The Justice Department documents, the Washington influence man: They’re illegitimate attempts by Goaied to position himself to acquire Gaddafi’s treasures, according to these sources. A scam, in other words.

But if Goaied is indeed a con man, his scheme is one of the more improbable bankshots to riches. And it says a lot about the shadowy scene of foreign influence in Washington that most people never get to see.

Goaied may be the most unlikely of the Gaddafi loot hunters, who have included former U.S. government officials, Libyan businessmen, and financial investigators working for the United Nations. Soft-spoken with intense eyes, he says he was born to Tunisian and Swedish parents, is 49 years old, speaks five languages, and has worked as an oil company consultant, a land manager, and a commercial pilot. When I asked him how his past experience had prepared him for his present occupation, he didn’t have a clear answer. But he said he had an extensive network of contacts in South Africa, where he’s done business since the late 1990s. That’s where Goaied claims that up to 80 percent of Gaddafi’s assets are sitting right now.

This is not a completely far-fetched idea. The ties between Libya and South Africa run deep. During the era of apartheid, Libya helped fund South African liberation groups and trained militants with the African National Congress. After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and became president, he made two official visits to Tripoli. Mandela was one of the few foreign leaders to embrace Gaddafi, and certainly the most esteemed, at a time when much of the world saw the Libyan dictator as a terrorist-abetting pariah with a penchant for garish clothing and European women.

South Africa was also accused of laundering Libyan money for years, according to several experts on illicit financing. And ever since Gaddafi fell, stories have circulated in the press about billions in cash, gold, and diamonds socked away in South Africa bank accounts or in warehouses. One news outfit reported an anonymous allegation that a crew of “ex-special forces” had ferried Gaddafi’s loot out of Tripoli over the course of 62 airplane flights. And the South African media, as well as Libyan authorities, have identified Bashir Saleh, Gaddafi’s former chief of staff and the head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, as a possible money mule.

Saleh reportedly fled to South Africa after Gaddafi was killed and was seen hobnobbing with government officials and luxuriating in five-star hotels. Interpol has issued a “red notice” for Saleh on behalf of Libyan authorities, who are seeking his arrest on charges of “felony embezzlement of public money” and other financial crimes, as well as abuse of official power.

But when I told several financial investigators that Goaied said a hundred billion dollars or more was sitting in South Africa, their reaction was the same: They laughed.

Gaddafi’s net worth had been reported at around $90 billion when he died. But by the time investigators started looking for his assets, more than $60 billion had already been identified and seized by banks in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

“What we had to find were those assets not recognized by seizures,” said Yaya J. Fanusie, a former CIA economic analyst who worked for Command Global Services, a company that was looking for Gaddafi’s assets a few years ago. The firm hired ex-IRS and Treasury Department officials with years of money-tracking experience and coordinated with officials at the United Nations, which has its own team of experts who’ve been looking for Gaddafi’s money.

There was little in the way of official records and ledgers to go on when Fanusie was on the trail. He and his colleagues conducted interviews looking for names of Gaddafi’s relatives or associates who might have opened foreign accounts or transported assets out of the country.

“We couldn’t just walk into a bank and say, ‘Where’s the Libyan money?’” Fanusie told me. His team estimated that, at most, there was about $9 to $10 billion in assets left to find around the world.


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