Reports surfaced last week that a judge in Montreal granted a court order to seize a Bombardier jet alleged to have been purchased by former Nigerian Oil Minister Dan Etete, who was connected to the Malabu OPL 245 oil deal/scandal. Lawyers acting on behalf of the Nigerian government are pursuing litigation in several countries seeking to recover north of $1 billion misappropriated from the government.
The owner of the plane is a company called Tibit Ltd., which is registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). The sole director of Tibit is believed to be a woman named Giuseppina Russa of J. Russa Consultants, a company operating in Montreal. Russa, however, denies she still operates as a director of the company, claiming to have asked for removal from the position several years ago.
According to reports, Etete paid $57 million for the plane in 2011. He is not the first (and may not be the last) senior Nigerian politician to buy or try to buy a Bombardier jet. In the early 2000s, the convicted Governor of Delta State in Nigeria, James Ibori, was seeking to buy a Bombardier jet using a BVI company by channeling millions of dollars through multiple accounts, including those of his own lawyer. Ultimately, he failed and was sent to prison for 13 years, alongside said lawyer who was sentenced to 10 years.
The challenge to the financial crime compliance officer is how to establish which client is making a plane purchase for a legitimate business need and which is a crook. All over the world, bankers struggle to deal with and properly establish a client’s source of funds. While the perception that wealthy people operate in a different way than the rest of us is a legitimate one, there are some levelers we should employ when seeking to establish the legitimacy of such a transaction. For instance, the airport: Airport protocols are to ask everyone—regardless of where you sit on the plane—all the same questions.
Compliance professionals can learn from this. It’s time for them to hold difficult conversations, pose awkward questions, and train frontline colleagues to do the same. I always advise colleagues and staff to keep in mind that the funds and assets they are dealing with belong to them personally; they have worked hard for this ownership, and their actions reflect this. In other words: Their actions respect value and do not unnecessarily waste money. This is a good guide to go by and will often facilitate how to locate bad actors with bad money.
Very recently within the coronavirus pandemic, some have posed the question, “Is it one rule for them [the political leaders] and one rule for the rest of us?” Of course, the answer is “no,” and the same should apply to the financing and purchasing of jet planes. Do you need to hide behind an opaque offshore company? Do you need to channel multiple payments through multiple accounts?
Sometimes it is our failure to confront and challenge these actions, transactions, opaque companies, and aggressive agents that facilitate the commissions of financial crimes such as money laundering. We fail, because we sometimes show too much respect to too much money. We have recently witnessed the power, manipulation, and influence of money with American financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. More money can buy more things, but it cannot be allowed to buy immunity, anonymity, or a free pass regarding anti-money laundering laws.
As compliance professionals we must not bend to the money and corrupt power; we need to stay strong and stand up to those who may become aggressive and seek to intimidate us. We have to ask the awkward questions, and if the client doesn’t answer the questions to your satisfaction, hold your ground. Do not yield, and ensure the client respects you, your firm, the laws, the regulations, and your right to have the answers.
Plane talking should be met with plain talking.