Privinvest Salesman Takes Stand in Mozambique Corruption Trial

(Bloomberg) -- For six weeks Jean Boustani, a Lebanese salesman at a shipbuilding company, sat quietly in a New York court as prosecutors summoned 20 witnesses to support charges he defrauded U.S. investors in a $2 billion Mozambican kickback scam.

On Monday, Boustani began to tell his side of the story to the jury, something many lawyers generally advise against because it exposes their clients to cross-examination.

Speaking quietly and wearing a white, dress shirt, gray slacks and a navy zip-up sweater, Boustani, 41, told the jury that to steer business projects in the Middle East and Africa, you need agents.

“If you have to deal with the government, you need to get deal makers, usually you have brokers, middlemen -- in America maybe they’re called lobbyists -- to open doors, to secure for them the licenses, concessions, to execute the project,” he said. “I was primarily seeking to find agents to develop business in Africa.”

But U.S. prosecutors argue Boustani paid tens of millions of dollars to secure business. Jurors were shown hundreds of emails and documents which prosecutors say are a “meticulously detailing of bribes and kickbacks,” that Boustani and the shipbuilder, Privinvest Group, paid out.

Boustani is one of eight people who U.S. prosecutors say created maritime projects in Mozambique to funnel bribes and kickbacks. Three have pleaded guilty and four others aren’t in U.S. custody.

The government says that Privinvest paid $150 million to Mozambican officials and another $50 million in kickbacks to Credit Suisse Group AG bankers who helped obtain financing for the loans.

In his opening statement, Boustani’s lawyer Michael Schachter didn’t dispute illegal payments were made to Mozambican officials, but said it was “the cost of doing business” in the country. He argued that Boustani didn’t defraud investors or launder money.

On Monday, Boustani told the jury how he started and eventually ended up pitching a French-Lebanese billionaire on the idea of expanding his shipbuilding business to Africa.

Having worked about five years as an auditor at Deloitte and then on a telecom project in Uganda, Boustani said he was introduced to Privinvest’s founder and co-owner Iskandar Safa.

“I told Mr. Safa that I believe Africa has tremendous opportunities and I think we can do a lot of things,” Boustani said. “He said ‘Jean, Africa is a country I do not know,’ so the understanding that we had was that I could develop opportunities in Africa. He said okay.”

Privinvest and its units were the sole suppliers for the Mozambican projects that included a tuna-fishing operation, shipyards, and a coastal security system. The company and Safa have previously denied wrongdoing.

In August, Mozambique charged 20 people in a corruption case.

Boustani’s testimony is to continue on Tuesday.

The case is U.S. v. Boustani, 18-cr-681, U.S District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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