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Ex-Guinea minister pleads not guilty in U.S. to laundering bribes

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former minister of mines in Guinea pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to U.S. charges that he laundered $8.5 million in bribes he received from a Chinese conglomerate to help it secure mining rights in the West African country.

Mahmoud Thiam, a U.S. citizen who served as Guinea's minister of mines from 2009 to 2010, entered his plea in federal court in Manhattan to one count of money laundering and one count of transactions in criminally derived property.

His plea came after Thiam, 50, was arrested on Dec. 13 in one of the latest cases to focus on allegations of bribery involving individuals tied to Guinea's mining sector.

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According to the indictment, beginning in 2009, Thiam received bribes from representatives of a Chinese conglomerate to help it obtain highly-valuable investment rights, including near total control of Guinea's mining sector.

The Chinese conglomerate was not named in court papers, but a key deal in the case matched the description of an agreement reached in 2009 involving a joint venture majority owned by China International Fund and China Sonangol.

Prosecutors said that to secretly receive the bribes, Thiam opened a Hong Kong bank account and misreported his occupation to conceal his status as a government official.

He then transferred millions of dollars from that account to, among other things, provide funds to a Malaysian company that facilitated buying a $3.75 million upstate New York estate and to pay for private schools for his children, the indictment said.

In court papers filed on Monday, Thiam's lawyers said their client was entitled to a presumption of innocence, and said it was not clear that prosecutors can prove that an illegal quid pro quo took place.

Those court papers were filed in support of Thiam's bid to be released on bail. A federal magistrate judge in December ordered Thiam be detained after the prosecution argued that he posed a flight risk.

The case is U.S. v. Thiam, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 17-cr-47.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)