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Originally: Haiti investigating alleged corruption under Aristide rule

Posted on Fri, May. 21, 2004  
 
jcharles@herald.com


PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haiti’s new government is investigating nine allegations of corruption and mismanagement by the Aristide administration, from suspect long-distance telephone contracts to misuse of government funds.


The government will also probe the Aristide government’s contract with Miami lawyer Ira Kurzban, a lobbyist for Haiti, said Finance Minister Henri Bazin and Central Bank chief Raymond Magloire.


”We will be looking into all the scandals and misuse of government money . . . those things that were illegal and violated procedure,” Bazin told The Herald. “We’re looking into corruption and mismanagement, both.”


Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue recently tasked the Central Bank, government ministries and agencies to look into the nine allegations against officials and supporters of the government of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.


The allegations, mostly from Aristide opponents and independent businessmen, emerged during his rule but gained momentum after he resigned Feb. 29 amid a bloody revolt.


Government and Central Bank officials admit it will be an uphill struggle because of their lack of experience in such investigations, the involvement of private companies whose true owners are unknown, and government ledgers so messy that it might be impossible to trace who received money and why.


Bazin said the government may hire a foreign forensic accounting firm such as Kroll Inc., hired in the mid-1980s to track the Duvalier family dictatorship’s wealth.


Latortue told The Herald that Washington and European countries are also helping track down foreign bank accounts that may be held by Aristide, his wife Mildred, relatives and supporters. He declined to elaborate.


U.S. prosecutors in Miami are investigating Aristide’s alleged links to drug traffickers and reports that Aristide relatives hold about $250 million in European banks, federal sources told The Herald last month.


Magloire said a preliminary review of Central Bank accounts showed no looting of government funds in the days leading up to Aristide’s resignation.


But Magloire and Bazin said there are other allegations to investigate.


One of the key investigations will focus on a half-dozen small, U.S.-based long-distance telephone companies that have suspect deals with Haiti’s government-owned Teleco.


The deals, which allegedly involved commissions paid to Aristide government officials, gave Teleco far less of the income from the foreign calls than it should have received, Central Bank officials said.


”It was a significant amount of money, millions a month, not coming in,” Magloire said.


But he acknowledged that proving corruption will be difficult because Teleco’s ledgers were so badly kept that a credible financial audit is impossible.


Senior government officials said they will also investigate complaints that Aristide persuaded Taiwan, Haiti’s largest aid donor, to divert some of its aid from the government to two Aristide-controlled private foundations that carry out social welfare programs.


Three Haitians told The Herald that Taiwanese Embassy officials in Port-au-Prince had acknowledged to them that Aristide requested the diversion. They asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisals.


Wang-Der Chi, chargé d’affaires at Taiwan’s embassy in Haiti, said his government never gave money directly to the two foundations — La Fanmi Selavi and its successor, the Aristide Foundation.


`IRREGULARITIES’


Magloire also said an initial sweep of government payments handled by the Central Bank turned up strong indications of massive overbilling and large commissions paid to Aristide supporters, but he offered no details.


”When we make a more extensive investigation we hope any blatant irregularities will show up,” he added.


Also to be investigated are special franchises issued to Aristide supporters to import rice free of duty, and government funds paid to the Aristide foundations and armed pro-Artistide thugs known as chimeres.


Magloire said his investigators are also looking into the Haitian government’s contract with Kurzban, an Aristide supporter registered in Washington as a lobbyist for Haiti.


Magloire said that although the Aristide government’s contract with Kurzban required him to represent the Central Bank and Teleco, “he never did any work for either. He was working for the president.”


Kurzban, in fact, represented Teleco in a dispute over telecommunications giant MCI’s debt to Teleco, said MCI attorney Robert Sink. He declined to say how much MCI ended up paying Teleco.


”It is completely untrue that I did not represent all of the clients who I was retained to represent. And, in fact, I did substantial work for all of the clients,” Kurzban told The Herald, declining to elaborate, citing attorney-client privilege.


”The efforts of the puppet, U.S.-installed government in Haiti to denigrate President Aristide’s name by making false and scandalous accusations will ultimately be found to be untrue,” Kurzban said.


NO WITCH HUNTS


Justice Minister Bernard Gousse said he wants the nine investigations to move legally and with caution to avoid charges by Aristide supporters that the interim government is engaging in a politically inspired witch hunt.


”We don’t want to move on political motivation,” Gousse said.


But Bazin, the finance minister, said that it’s high time to clean up Haiti’s corruption. He cited a report last year by European-based Transparency International that ranked Haiti as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.


Bazin said he also plans to establish an anti-corruption commission to investigate future allegations and prosecute those involved.


”Something has to be remedied. We cannot go on like that,” he said. ‘It is bad for the moral fabric of our society . . . It’s taxpayers’ money that is being looted. We want to make sure no such things happen again.”