One morning last February, our colleague Dima Sadek approached us with a confidential document. She told us it carried incredulous details revealing the amount of wealth accumulated by Riad Salamé, governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon (BDL) over the past decade: more than $2 billion deposited in banks in Panama, Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands.
At first glance, the $2 billion seemed unrealistic, especially seeing the lack of information about who prepared the report. However, given its details, the subsidiary documents, as well as the professionalism in its formulation, we could not ignore it.
Named A Report on the Financial Investigations, the document revealed details about the banking system set up by Salamé, who succeeded in evading the checks and controls imposed on dollar transactions by adopting, according to the document: “a complex mechanism that is difficult to fully understand in its various aspects.”
The document contained photographs and numbers of accounts in name of Salamé’s brother Raja who, according to the report, operated as his front for many years, while Marianne Al-Hoayek, the BDL’s office director, had transferred more than $400 million from her accounts to those of the Salamé brothers.
One of those accounts (No. 0026310), opened in April 2011 at the LGT Bank in Zürich, is of particular importance.
According to the report, the “only and main” transfers from this account were intended to pour more money into the brothers’ personal accounts in several countries, including: Panama, Jersey and the British Virgin Islands.
The biggest and most dramatic surprise was found in the details of the transfers, which included $90 million sent on May 16, 2012, from the Cham Holding Company owned by Rami Makhlouf, who is the cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. This, if proven, opens the file of Salamé relationship with the Syrian regime …
Timing of Acquiring the Document
Before diving into further details, we believe it is necessary to discuss the aspect of ‘timing’ with regards to the current situation.
We obtained the document at an exceptional moment, in the midst of an economic crisis that held Lebanon in its grip since October 17, 2019, and precisely during a period witnessing a decline in the size of the popular demonstrations and an increase in the number of Lebanese people standing in front of banks begging for their money, which they were told was no longer available.
Suddenly, we had before us a document claiming that Salame’s wealth exceeds $2 billion – at the very least. The topic was more than tempting.
Salamé has been BDL governor for more than 25 years. He is the one in charge of monetary policy, including accumulated debts, financial engineering, capital controls, the failure to pay Eurobond benefits and “haircut” policies. And now this document stated his wealth amounted to over $2 billion, while the Lebanese are bankrupt and living in a bankrupt state!
He is, undoubtedly, not the only one responsible, but a key player in the situation. The first challenge for us was to determine who prepared the report, which we had not managed to uncover. For weeks, we introduced the document to economic, legal, political, diplomatic, and security sources in Beirut and Paris. They all agreed on its relevance and importance without being able to identify its source.
However, mainly due to the language used, the consensus was that it was prepared by a private investigation firm, possibly commissioned by another party for either political or personal reasons.
When we aligned our information with that of our colleagues in international institutions, we were able to verify some details in the document, but the source remained unidentified. So, the report could not be published, despite the amazing details in it.
The pace of our investigation slowed down due to the emergence of the coronavirus, which seemed to appear as a close ally of the Lebanese authorities, exacerbating the economic crisis.
In light of our new priorities in times of corona, we could have forgotten all about the anonymous document. And the truth is that we would have delayed our research, were it not for the successive steps taken by Salamé himself.
In the context of the deteriorating economic situation and its consequences, which includes 50% of the Lebanese living under the poverty line, Salamé issued a statement announcing that Marianne Al-Hoayek was appointed as a distinguished consultant to the BDL.
A few hours later, an anonymous Twitter account started posting details about the foreign bank accounts of Salamé, his brother Raja and Marianne Hoayek.
Once again, our investigation could have stopped at that point. The tweets were based on the same anonymous document. However, Salamé’s MTV interview clarified the situation.
He said the document was prepared by the International Cristal Credit Group (ICCG), which according to him is notorious for its fake reports. Salamé also unveiled the name of the company’s director, Kevin Rivaton, and said that its headquarter was in Lyon in France.
For the first time in weeks, we got a clue about the entity that prepared the report. Until the moment of writing of this article, we had not been able to contact Rivaton to inquire about the subject, but our research contradicted Salamé’s description of the company.
Contrary to what he said, the available information about the company showed its credibility. ICCG was founded in 1997 in Lyon, but had branches in more than 10 countries, including Britain, Hong Kong and the USA. In 2016, it opened branches in Ivory Coast and Mexico. Its official presence in France, its abiding with French law, and the fact that it had never been incriminated by French authorities, makes the claim that ICCG is known for fabricating information and documents very weak.
Of course, some things may need more investigation and examination, but the company’s list of partners and customers, including the American-French Chamber of Commerce and various international organizations, does not imply a bad reputation, as our central bank governor claimed.
Salamé did not stop there. In another MTV interview, he informed the public that he had inherited a fortune of more than $23 million, before he was appointed BDL governor. Salamé said he will take legal action against ICCG and, naturally, we will be closely following any such action.
We will not prosecute him, as that is not our role. Our decision to publish the document was for the sole purpose of informing the public, after Salamé himself had announced its existence. We are not sure whether it is fake or if part of it is forged.
We will not prosecute Salamé. We will not be part of a campaign against him alone, without his accomplices in the corruption. We will wait, along with the Lebanese people, for any legal action to be taken. However, meanwhile we will not applaud him either, like most other Lebanese media have done.
The Role of the Judiciary
With the rest of the Lebanese, we will wait for the judiciary to play its role, while we, as journalists, ask questions and look for convincing answers that do not undermine our readers’ intelligence. During our research to reveal the entity that had prepared the document, we were able to acquire information that raises many questions about the governor who not too long ago was about to become president.
This was not difficult to achieve. Wikileaks documents confirm our questions and suspicions. But that is a topic for another day.
The millions Salamé said he earned or inherited are not enough to justify the lifestyle he is living. Billionaires, not millionaires, are the ones who can organize their children’s weddings in classified palaces such as the Castle of Rambouillet, one of France’s most famous palaces, which was one of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s favorite hangouts, and later became the summer abode of French presidents.
The questions are not limited to Salamé’s lifestyle. And they will become more urgent when it comes to his way of managing one of the country’s most important public institutions, especially seeing its responsibility for the current state of bankruptcy of the country and its citizens.
Why did he decide to bring back Marianne Hoayek under such circumstances? Why was she hired in the first place some 20 years ago?
In an interview with British magazine Bespoke, Hoayek spoke confidently about her special relationship with the governor, and mentioned details about the internship she did at the BDL, even before getting her master’s degree, and how Salamé asked her not to attend college but to remain an employee at the central bank.
At that time, Marianne was not even 25 years old and her academic achievements were mediocre. She hardly had any work experience. And yet Salamé appointed her with the mission to restructure the BDL.
This may not be the starting point of the story. But it is undoubtedly a starting point for asking a few questions, without the need for documents, whether authentic or fabricated.