(GIN)—The gavel came down recently on billionaire tycoon Beny Steinmetz who, the court ruled, bribed government officials in Guinea, West Africa, to enrich himself and his mining company with valuable assets of the African country.
The ruling caps a seven-year investigation into the shady and complex world of corrupt practices employed with near impunity by foreign corporations which harm poor people in resource-rich countries.
Mr. Steinmetz, whose case was heard by a Swiss criminal court, was sentenced to 3-1/2 years in jail and a two-year suspended sentence, plus a fine of $56.4 million.
Lawyers, bankers and professional advisers in Europe and the United States provided services that enabled the corruption, Swiss officials alleged, citing Wells Fargo Bank in Florida and Philadelphia, JPMorgan in London, attorneys in Manhattan and Florida, a Swiss wealth manager and the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, but these were not charged.
The Swiss-based human rights watchdog Public Eye applauded the decision: “This conviction of a high-profile business figure not only sends a strong signal to the commodities’ sector as a whole, but also demonstrates the vital need for Switzerland to finally remedy the legal loopholes that allow such predatory practices.”
“Public Eye commends the determination of the Geneva court, which refused to be fooled by the smoke and mirrors and evasion tactics of the defense team, no matter how slick.”
“The Simandou case is of enormous importance,” said Daniel Balint-Kurti, a London-based freelance journalist who spent years investigating the case. “Skilled practitioners of the legal, financial and PR arts are central to enabling corrupt deals.”
Mr. Steinmetz said he would appeal the verdict, calling it “a big injustice.”
According to the indictment, Mr. Steinmetz and two others allegedly paid or arranged payment of $10 million in bribes to the fourth wife of the late President Lansana Conte to obtain mining licenses for the Simandou mine, one of the largest iron ore deposits in the world and of forging documents to cover it up through a web of shell companies and bank accounts.
At trial, Mr. Steinmetz told the Geneva court that the $5 billion valuation for the mineral site that he obtained for less than $200 million was part of the industry’s reward for risk-taking.
“If a business takes a risk, it’s normal that it’s compensated,” Mr. Steinmetz said during the trial. The project represented “a dream for Guinea,” but one that for him turned into a nightmare.
Judge Banna took square aim at that in her closing remarks. For a profit of billions from an initial investment of $160 million, she said, “from just that single fact is evidence of corruption.”