A TALE OF A CORRUPTED LEBANESE (PEP)

politically exposed person (PEP) is an individual who is or has been entrusted with a prominent function. Many PEPs hold positions that can be abused for the purpose of laundering illicit funds or other predicate offences such as corruption or bribery.

Fighting corruption in Lebanon: No more taboos? No more untouchables?

Once an unmentionable endemic, corruption seems to have gained the honor of the limelight. It is now at the forefront of the public debate in Lebanon. Today, Lebanon’s political scene is watching in amazement as government ministers compete in a race to show how seriously each of them is taking the fight against corrupt practices. They are pushing ahead with an often controversial crackdown, publicly naming suspected felons.
 
Food importers and eateries, medicines, hospitals, schools, customs and many other public and private entities have all been targeted. It is an unprecedented campaign against corruption that has revealed the enormity of the perils to the health and pockets of citizens. At its launch last year, the population, stung by years of illicit practices, was dismissive of the clampdown. The fear was that it was yet another public relations stunt by the government to win support in an unfavorable and extreme political climate. Lawbreakers figured if they lay low, they would ride the wave. Wrong, it seems…But for how long?
 
Hardly a day passes without a public announcement of new lists of offenders. Some of the country’s most popular service providers, and, more importantly, influential personalities, once deemed politically connected untouchables have all come under the spotlight.
 
“Lebanon is grappling with the ugliest facet of corruption and that is political corruption,” announced Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil at a recent conference.  Both his strong statement and the actual forum, where corruption was addressed in public from all its aspects, broke an erstwhile taboo even in a country that boasts freedom, equality and development parity.
 
The forum on March 18 was entitled ‘Fighting Corruption in Practice, not Words.’ But little did the public or the participants for that matter imagine they would hear both public and harsh self-criticism from officials across the political spectrum.
 
“We live in a regime that allows any individual to engage in corrupt practices at all levels and enjoy political protection from within and from outside the (government) institutions,” the Minister of Finance told the forum.  There is no turning back in the campaign to flush out havens of corruption, he stressed, but this is only a small step that remains incomplete without comprehensive political reform.
 
Cynicism is a national sport in Lebanon. Still, leading panelists emerged from the day-long forum with a feeling that the train of reform may finally be on track following the persistent ringing of alarm bells. Remember, Lebanon’s downward slope was once again evident in Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perceptions Index, where it ranked 136thout of 175 in 2014.
 
Corruption in Lebanon has indeed been spreading in both the public and private sectors in many blatant forms. Still, for many years it remained a taboo. “Whispered in private circles, but never discussed in public,” as the minister noted. Now it is out in the open.
 
Lebanon is not unique in its struggle to combat corruption, whether at the level of misuse of public and private funds, the absence of transparency and accountability and the spread of bribery and monopoly. But it stands out because it has managed over the years of political vacuum to embed all these traits across the public and private sector.
Evidently, the country is struggling with immense political, economic and social complexities. Some are due to its unique political and sectarian configuration, and others to spillovers of regional turmoil. But it is time to make a few personal, political and confessional sacrifices to bring it back from the brink of the failed state abyss.
 
Lebanon is blessed with huge potential: its human capital, its vibrant private sector, superior education and health services and rich culture. These assets need not be eclipsed by serious malpractices that scare away investors, undermine the economy and encourage the youth to migrate in droves in search of quality jobs that are offered on merit and not on influence and connections.
 
Realistically, there is no magic solution to all of Lebanon’s woes. For all of its political underpinnings and calculated motivations, the Government needed to start somewhere, and thus the campaign to curb illicit conduct, and show that it is pulling its weight and means business.
 
The World Bank Group, through technical and financial assistance, has for long stood by Lebanon’s side, and will continue to do so. The transparency, bidding ethics and safeguards applied in the implementation of Bank projects may well serve as a microcosm of how the government of Lebanon could navigate its institutions to uplift Lebanon to the social and economic standards it deserves.

Lebanese broadcaster LBC has just released a fascinating report detailing the curious and multi-million dollar real estate holdings of Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil.

According to documents leaked to LBC by a source claiming to be the Lebanon branch of international hacking collective, Anonymous, Bassil owns some 38 properties in areas in and around his hometown of Batroun as well as other mountain suburbs in Keserwan and Metn districts. For those who don’t already know, Bassil, 45, is also the son-in-law of one of Lebanon’s most powerful politicians and key civil war participant, retired army general Michel Aoun.

LBC ‘s “Heki Jalis” (Straight Talk) program took the documents provided by Anonymous Lebanon a step further, investigating the value of the properties with a real estate expert, revealing that the properties are worth over $22 million.

The breakdown according to the documents is as follows:

-In September 2005, just months after his political life began when his father-in-law returned from exile, property purchased by Bassil in 2004 (then 34 years old) was subdivided into 15 plots in one day and worth around $1.1 million

-In 2009, 8 properties were purchased in two batches, valued today at $227,700 and $14.5 million respectively.

-In 2010, 2 properties with seafront access were purchased, valued around $4.7 million

-In 2014, 1 property is sold for around $1.1 million

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Thus the grand total is around $22 million:

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Finally, LBC points out that Bassil’s official government salary for being minister over the last eight years accounts for $1.25 million.

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According to LBC, on his personal webpage, Bassil describes himself as being born into a “middle class family”, graduated from college in 1993 and began “working on small projects” before he met General Aoun’s daughter.

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The LBC voiceover asks: “How did he acquire so much property? Does he have other sources of revenue?

“We are not accusing, we are just asking.”

LBC also points out that Bassil has vowed to fight corruption while minister, but his promises to improve telecom and restore electricity to 24 hours per day by 2015 have largely failed. LBC reminds us that the electricity cut even during his power point presentation when he made the promise back in 2013:

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The episode ends as host Joe Maalouf notes that the property values are estimations and may not be 100 percent accurate, particularly due to the common practice of undervaluing land purchases to escape taxes. (In fact, an official at the government’s real estate office once told me most properties are recorded at half of their actual values). Also the figures were reported during the first quarter of this year, so any acquisitions after that period are not included in the report.

Maalouf promises to continue investigating the property assets of other politicians and he repeatedly states that this program is not an attack on Bassil or his political coalition. I think this would be a great journalistic initiative as there are politicians who have equally or much larger real estate assets that Bassil, including those of his political opponents.

Earlier this year I wrote a major piece for The Guardian on how the Hariri family and its cronies– considered the political nemesis of the Aounists– have acquired beach front properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars through dubious manipulations of laws while disregarding the public’s right to access coastal areas.

In the piece, I also linked to the impressive efforts of the activist group Mashaa which has revealed through Google Maps satellite images that senior politicians from all political parties have been illegally claiming the coast and establishing multi-million dollar resorts. I have also written extensively, most recently in anin-depth piece for Al Jazeera English about the major corporate deals that usurped most of downtown Beirut’s property from its original owners via Lebanon’s biggest company, Solidere, which is also closely tied to the Hariri dynasty and its many political associates and now worth over $9 billion.

You can watch the full episode of “Heki Jalis” about Bassil below. Maalouf ends by saying he looks forward to hearing Bassil’s response.

After years of propagandistic reporting, it’s encouraging to see some Lebanese news organizations begin confronting and investigating those who rule the country, often with the help of activists providing research and key documents. Let’s hope there are more investigations to come in real estate as well as other sectors.

Thanks to Firas for sharing part of the report video on Facebook. 

UPDATE: Minister Bassil has held a press conference to respond to the LBC report, claiming the properties were simply inheritance from his father and grandfather as well as the fruits of his “sweat” and “hard work.” (This doesn’t really explain why the purchases were made in his name all in the past 10 years.)

Bassil also accuses LBC of potentially orchestrating an international conspiracy to defame his political party, due probably to what he described as their anti-corruption efforts and geopolitical defiance. He has also threatened to sue  any further attempts at “character assassination.” You can watch part of his press conference here.

REFERENCES

1) http://blogs.worldbank.org/arabvoices/fighting-corruption-in-lebanon

2) http://www.beirutreport.com/2015/11/how-did-minister-bassil-acquire-22m-of-real-estate.html