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Report Links De Grisogono to Money Laundering in Angola
An investigation alleges the jewelry brand was a central piece of a scheme that funneled billions of dollars of public funds into the pockets of members of the former first family.
An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 36 media partners, dubbed “Luanda Leaks” after the Angolan capital, has exposed decades of allegedly corrupt deals made by Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former president José Eduardo dos Santos, and her husband, Sindika Dokolo, to siphon vast amounts of the Angolan government’s money to their own accounts through shell companies.
Based on more than 715,000 confidential and business records as well as hundreds of interviews, the investigation, which was made public Jan. 19, also highlights the many consultants, lawyers and financial institutions that helped dos Santos grow her fortune.
Dos Santos is the richest woman in Africa; Forbes has her fortune valued at $2.1 billion as of Wednesday.
Yet her native Angola remains one of the poorest countries on Earth. The average life expectancy is only 60 and about 5 percent of infants die before their 1st birthday.
Angola is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.
In its investigation, ICIJ reported that dos Santos, her husband and their intermediaries built an empire comprised of more than 400 companies and subsidiaries, including at least 94 in “secrecy jurisdictions”—tax havens—like Malta, Mauritius and Hong Kong.
They awarded the companies consulting jobs, loans, contracts and licenses worth billions of dollars from the Angolan government.
Their empire included diamonds and jewelry on a few levels, including stakes in the country’s diamond mining sector, but the report focused most on the link between the couple and Swiss jewelry brand De Grisogono.
Media outlets have been reporting on the couple’s connection to De Grisogono for years, including Forbes and The New York Times.
National Jeweler, too, has covered the connection.
In late 2017, gemstone expert Yianni Melas, known in the industry for his Instagram handle @gemexplorer, put the brand front and center by going on a hunger strike to boycott the sale of a De Grisogono necklace set with a 163.41-carat Angolan diamond.
Melas’ issue: That the brand was making the rich leaders of Angola richer while the people of Angola remained so poor.
The necklace ended up selling for $33.7 million and setting an auction record for a D-flawless diamond but not before stirring the conversation about the company and its backers, as Melas had intended.
Now, the investigation by the ICIJ has detailed exactly how they are linked and the Angolan government’s involvement.
Funding the Jeweler
According to the NY Times, which had access to the documents compiled to create Luanda Leaks and published its own story Jan. 19, luxury jeweler De Grisogono was hit hard by the financial crisis and left in serious debt.
Dokolo, dos Santos’ husband, decided to step in, taking a controlling stake in the Swiss brand in 2012 through two shell companies incorporated in Malta.
His business partner in the deal: Sodiam, Angola’s state-owned diamond company.
Records obtained by ICIJ and the Times show Sodiam—and, essentially, Angola and its largely impoverished people—financed the acquisition and pumped more than $100 million into the jeweler, which fell deeper into the red over the years.
Yet, the Times report states, the jeweler’s financial struggles didn’t stop De Grisogono’s “rich patrons,” including dos Santos, from taking pieces without paying for them, and it didn’t stop the jewelry brand from spending millions funding a star-studded Cannes Film Festival party.
Though dos Santos has denied she was a stakeholder in De Grisogono, the Times reported that “several emails and documents call that into question.”
Dokolo, meanwhile, has said he had wanted to use his stake in the company to integrate the country’s diamond industry, from mining to retail.
But any benefits for Angola and its people never came to pass, and they seemingly never will.
According to the Times report, Sodiam never took control of De Grisogono or recouped its investment despite being a partner, and the government currently owes Banco BIC, an Angolan lender in which dos Santos owns a stake, about $225 million for all the money it has sunk into the jewelry company.
Sodiam has since divested its stake in De Grisogono under Angola’s new president, João Lourenço.
When dos Santos’ mining licenses expired, it also decided to put them up for sale to new exploration partners.
De Grisogono, meanwhile, has seen more struggles and reorganization in recent years.
Disappointing sales led it to eliminate several jobs in early 2018 and scale back production, focusing on more affordable fine jewelry.
At the end of 2018, De Grisogono founder Fawaz Gruosi left the company and stepped down from his role as a board director. The company said at the time, according to a press release, it wasn’t a “sudden move,” as Gruosi had been “stepping aside from the day-to-day operations for some time.”
Last April, the brand appointed a new CEO, naming former Piaget executive Céline Assimon to the role.
The future of De Grisogono, in light of this latest report and its recent financial struggles, remains unclear.
The company did not respond to National Jeweler’s request for comment on the ICIJ’s report, though it has given other media outlets a “no comment.”
Three U.S. retailers that carry the brand—Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Net-a-Porter—did not respond to email inquiries seeking comment on the report or to offer statements by press time.
As for dos Santos, an Angolan court froze her major assets in December as part of a corruption investigation, of which the main focus is $38 million in payments from the state oil business Sonangol to a shell company in Dubai hours after dos Santos was fired as head of Sonangol.
The Angolan government also is trying to recover $1.1 billion it says it’s owed by dos Santos, her husband and a close associate.
Her U.S. attorneys, from the firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, did not respond to an email request for comment by press time.
But, according to ICIJ, through her lawyers dos Santos and her husband have denied wrongdoing and said they did not profit from political connections.
The two could face years in prison if they are convicted.
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