DRC: Philippe de Moerloose under investigation on financial operations

By Joël Té-Léssia Assoko
Posted on Tuesday, 19 July 2022 12:47

Philippe de Moerloose, CEO and founder of the SDA Group, has built one of the largest vehicle and machinery distribution groups in sub-Saharan Africa. ©Colin Delfosse for Jeune Afrique

The Belgian entrepreneur was implicated in December 2021 over complex offshore transactions and is now at the heart of a complaint filed in Switzerland concerning the UBS bank.

A collective of three civil society organisations – Public Eye, the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) and the association UNIS – has filed a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor’s office of the Swiss Confederation over two banking transactions involving Swiss giant UBS’ branches in Zurich and Geneva. According to our information, the charge was made on 7 July.

In total, the complaint concerns two transactions with a total value of $19 million involving Belgian entrepreneur Philippe de Moerloose, chairman and founder of the SDA group, a specialist in road, mining and agricultural equipment and machinery active since 1991 in the DRC, where the 55-year-old executive grew up.

According to the organisations, these resources come from the “laundering of embezzled Congolese public funds” during the years of Joseph Kabila’s presidency.

In late 2021, as part of the “Congo Hold-up” investigation, several tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars in transactions carried out over several years through various companies in the Moerloose galaxy were singled out by these institutions and by several media outlets, due to the use of various establishments set up in offshore jurisdictions.

At the time, the entrepreneur denied any wrongdoing – as well as any proximity to the Kabila regime, an accusation that has been rejected for several years – and referenced the reorganisation of his group, whose headquarters are now established in European jurisdictions. Moerloose did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Search in Belgium

The filing of the complaint with the Swiss authorities comes two weeks after a search of Moerloose’s facilities by the Belgian justice system.

“The Belgian search is based directly on the Congo Hold-up investigations published at the end of 2021 in which Public Eye and PPLAAF took part,” PPLAAF spokesperson Julia Ntumba Kanyinda told us.

According to her, the search of the Belgian businessman’s home took place as part of an investigation into suspected “corruption of foreign public officials.”

The statute of limitations for money laundering without aggravating factors is seven years

The UBS group refused to comment when contacted by our journalist. As a reminder, Swiss law is particularly strict in its supervision of any disclosure of information on the holding of bank accounts in the country.

“The Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPC) confirms receipt of the criminal complaint in the context you mentioned. It will now be examined according to the usual procedure,” the prosecutor’s office replied in response to our question.

“The receipt of a criminal complaint is not equivalent to the opening of criminal proceedings,” the prosecutor’s office said. It now must determine whether there is sufficient evidence to indicate an offence, decide on questions of jurisdictional competence before deciding whether to open proceedings, close the case without further action, or even transfer the collected elements to another jurisdiction that would be apt, notably the canton.

The “statute of limitations for an act of money laundering without aggravating factors is seven years,” explains Ntumba Kanyinda. But in the case of “aggravated money laundering”, with the involvement of several actors, the statute of limitations can be extended to fifteen years, the PLAAF representative said.

Distribution of heavy machinery

Philippe de Moerloose’s group began trading car parts in the DRC in the 1990s and gradually diversified into car distribution, acquiring various licences for the distribution of passenger vehicles, agricultural machinery, trucks and mining equipment, not only in the central African country but also beyond, in West Africa.

From the mid-2010s onwards, the Belgian entrepreneur attempted to refocus on Europe, selling off African assets to buy Volvo Construction Equipment’s own distribution network in the UK.

At the beginning of the last decade, the group claimed revenues of more than €450 million, of which only ten per cent was generated in the DRC, SDA’s management told our journalist at the time.

SDA now estimates that less than seven per cent of 2020’s total turnover of €734 million will come from the DRC and that the distribution of heavy machinery in continental Europe and Great Britain “represents about 70% of SDA’s turnover.”

It should be noted that SDA nevertheless maintains a significant presence on the African continent, where it has subsidiaries in approximately twenty countries. Among the brands that SDA distributes there are Volvo (construction equipment, trucks, buses, etc.), as well as Hitachi and John Deere.

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