By Lazarus Amukeshe | 21 September 2020
“For us, it is like operating a taxi … we do not perform due diligence on clientele as charters are ad hoc and we operate within the realm of regulations … with safety first being our priority,” says Dianne Burger, a manager at charter company Wings Over Africa.
Burger responded to questions on whether the company performs background checks on high-profile clients.
Documents seen by The Namibian show that US financial authorities flagged payments of around N$14 million as suspicious made by controversial South African businessman Walter Hennig’s company to a Namibian aviation firm between 2010 and 2012.
This information is contained in the ‘FinCEN Files’, the product of a 16-month-long investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed News, and more than 100 news partners, including The Namibian.
It offers a unique, bird’s-eye view of the illicit flow of money.
The investigation is based on top-secret bank reports filed with the US Treasury Department’s intelligence unit, the Financial Crime Enforcement Network, other documents and dozens of interviews.
It covers transactions worth over N$32 trillion (US$2 trillion) between 2000 and 2017 – spanning over 180 countries globally.
Transactions are flagged as suspicious when they reflect possible insider trading, money laundering, terrorism financing or other crimes.
There is no suggestion in the suspicious activity reports filed with the US department of Treasury’s FinCEN that Wings Over Africa or any of their clients at the time were involved in criminal activities.
Suspicious activity reports are merely a trigger for closer scrutiny of transactions.
‘CHALK AND CHEESE’
Detailed questions sent to Hennig last week for comment on his payments to Wings Over Africa were not answered at the time of going to print.
Funds ‘for flights’ were paid from Hennig’s company Palladino Investments Limited.
Wings Over Africa says during the period payments were made, Palladino Investments was their client and they had indeed flown Hennig.
Documents show the funds entered Namibia through the company’s Namibian bank account. Payments made by Palladino to Wings Over Africa amount to more than US$2 million.
When converted at historic rates this equates to N$14,7 million – one payment of N$858 000 in 2010, five payments totalling N$9,7 million in 2011, and one payment of N$4,1 million in 2012.
References for Palladino payments are coded, making it difficult to interpret what they were for. However, Wings Over Africa says the funds received were for chartered and cargo flights.
Wings Over Africa says they followed procedures set out by national aviation regulators and the amounts it was paid state that the business jet market is a completely different market than the normal charter market.
Income and expenses on these aircraft are like chalk and cheese.
The company says they paid third parties such as pilots, crew, clearance, handling, insurance, fuel and maintenance from money received.
Wings Over Africa did not name the destinations it flew Hennig to, saying they only keep documentation relating to flights for five years.
“Hennig flew on numerous occasions as we operated his aircraft as well,” the company says.
It says Hennig is not known by the owners of Wings Over Africa personally.
“Hennig was only a client, and [we] only worked through his staff. The office in Namibia [we] knew did developments and the management of properties,” said Wings Over Africa.
At the time of the payments, Hennig was reportedly also involved with diamond mining in Angola.
From documents it appears that some other payments made by his companies, which were flagged as suspicious, also landed in Angola.
Wings Over Africa says it has stopped flying Hennig since the aircraft used to accommodate business charters is no longer part of their fleet.
According to information from the Business and Intellectual Property Authority register, Henk and Dianne Burger are the owners of Wings Over Africa.
The business is family owned and opened its doors in 1998. It has five aircraft currently and its other operations include the Rio Longa lodge in Angola.
Other than chartering its own planes, Wings Over Africa also manages jet aircraft for owners.
According to its website it offers safari trips and scenic flights in Namibia, and also flies to Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Angola, the Congo, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa.
Its clientele are mainly tourists and business executives.
Hennig’s Palladino Investments is incorporated in one of the notorious tax and corporate havens east of Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, and it is from here that funds flowed, leading to Wings Over Africa’s million-dollar payment.
Islands such as these are where the wealthy are said to stash money, mainly obtained through controversial business deals, or set aside to avoid tax.
The stashed cash from these islands is then allegedly used to fund clean and legitimate business activities around the world.
The activities of Hennig’s company between 2007 and 2012 made headlines in the past few years, and attracted the attention of US prosecutors.
The prosecutors scrutinised Hennig’s other company, Palladino Holdings, for alleged bribery.
This allegedly took place through his company’s joint venture with US hedge fund Och-Ziff Capital Management Group, formed to invest in natural resources.
It was found that it paid bribes, leading to a criminal indictment and 24-month prison term in 2016 for a consultant, Samuel Mebiame, working for the joint venture.
Mebiame, the son of former Gabonese president Leon Mebiame, was accused of bribing officials in three African governments on behalf of Hennig’s Palladino and others to secure the awarding of mining rights.
At the time, Hennig’s company recruited the son of a former president of Gabon in Africa to secure mining rights through several means – at times through paying bribes in cash, making donations and buying government officials expensive cars.
Documents seen by The Namibian show that about N$2,8 million (US$175 000) was paid to Samuel Mebiame by Palladino Investments, in some cases Palladino Holdings, the companies related to Hennig.
Leonie Dunn, director of Namibia’s Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC), said this month that dirty money in any economy is a serious crime and should be continuously exposed to protect the financial system.
She said last year alone the FIC detected a total value of potential proceeds of crime amounting to N$17 billion in Namibia, and details of this was handed over to investigating and prosecuting authorities.
“This will ultimately safeguard Namibia’s financial system and ensure it contributes to economic development and the general welfare of Namibians,” Dunn said.
The Namibian reported earlier this year that there is a lack of coordination and inaction by key financial and law enforcement agencies in Namibia and this has hampered Namibia’s fight against the flow of dirty money in the country.
There is now a call to create a centralised government unit to patrol illicit financial flows in the country.
* This article was produced by The Namibian’s Investigative Unit with assistance from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Burkina Faso-based Cellule Norbert Zongo Pour le Journalisme d’Investigation en Afrique De L’Ouest. Send us tips at [email protected].