Alleged bribe was loan, ex-Guinea mines minister tells FBI in interview played for jury

2 May 2017 6:46pm

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27 April 2017. By Richard Vanderford.

Money that former Guinea mines minister Mahmoud Thiam received from powerful Chinese businessman Sam Pa was a "loan" without a written contract or provision for interest payments, Thiam said in a recorded FBI interview played Thursday at his New York corruption trial.

Thiam and Pa entered into a verbal agreement that saw Pa provide Thiam with millions of dollars, but Thiam never paid it back after the two had a falling out, Thiam said in a taped December interview at the FBI's New York offices.

"It's not a quid pro quo," Thiam told agents questioning him on Dec. 13 in a windowless interview room. "It's a loan. I asked Sam Pa for a loan. He gave me a loan."

Federal prosecutors have charged Thiam, a naturalized US citizen who in 2009 worked as Guinea's minister of mines, with laundering through the US an estimated $8.5 million in bribes from entities connected with Hong Kong-based China International Fund.

The money allegedly bought Thiam's support for an investment agreement that gave CIF subsidiaries the exclusive rights to exploit Guinea's lucrative mining sector, among other concessions from the cash-strapped West African country.

The video offered jurors, in Thiam's own words, an explanation for how he received millions of dollars in a Hong Kong HSBC account.

His lawyer, Aaron Goldsmith, in opening statements Monday didn't provide an account of how Thiam might have legitimately received the money, simply saying that prosecutors wouldn't be able to prove it was a bribe.

Thiam, who lives in New York, was arrested in December at his luxury apartment near the mayor's mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Thiam described in the interview that followed an unusual loan from Pa, a senior figure in what's known as the 88 Queensway Group. Pa himself is reportedly a target of this and other corruption investigations.

"It was a verbal understanding," Thiam said of the loan. "No interest rates. Nothing."

Thiam also said that he had introduced Pa to several heads of state. The meetings would first involve a group of people, but Pa would later ask to meet the president privately.

"What happens at those meetings, I don't know," Thiam said. "That was his modus operandi."

He said, though, that when Pa asked him about putting a government official "on salary," he advised Pa not to give him more money than he might earn at his regular job.

Three to four thousand dollars per month was fine, but the $25,000 per month Pa had proposed would raise red flags, Thiam said.

"It's difficult to say if someone is on the take. It's not always clear," Thiam said to FBI agents. "When it's within the range, it's legal … When it's outside the scope, that's corruption."

US law doesn't include a defense that a bribe similar in value to one's normal earnings is legal.

Thiam in the interview said that he ultimately had a falling out with Pa and never had to pay him back.

Pa, in Thiam's words, let the matter drop when the two stopped talking after Thiam refused to work for him upon leaving Guinea's government.

"He basically cut me off in 2011," Thiam said to agents, to which one replied, "What about the money?"

"He never brought it up again," Thiam said. "He cut me off completely."

"It was a strange relationship," Thiam said.

US District Judge Denise Cote, who is presiding over the case, earlier rejected defense arguments that jurors shouldn't be allowed to see the video of his post-arrest interview. The defense had argued that the FBI ignored a clear request for a lawyer.

Thiam's trial is scheduled to wrap up next week.

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