Steinmetz, Covid-19 and diapers: Frenchman Frédéric Cilin breaks down his role in BSGR
French businessman Frédéric Cilins, Beny Steinmetz’s co-defendant before the Geneva Criminal Court, was the star of the third day of hearings. For ten hours, he spoke about his business with Lansana Conté’s Guinea to his dealings with the FBI.
It was after 7pm on the shores of Lake Geneva. Fatigue was beginning to set in, in courtroom number three of the Geneva Criminal Court. Since 9am, Cilins had been answering the presiding judge’s questions, who was trying to clarify the extent of his role in the business decisions made by Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) in Guinea.
Contract after contract, meeting after meeting, email after email, the 58-year-old businessman explained himself. Beside him, his three lawyers acted as archivists: one-by-one, they unearthed the mentioned documents. The debate began to feel more and more like an odds race (in the legal sense of the term), where the defence and judges took turns evoking the five hundred thousandth or four millionth piece of the extensive proceedings (to the nearest few units).
Over the course of seven years of investigation, Cilins, accused of corruption and forgery in conjunction with Steinmetz, had never before agreed to speak out. Prosecuted in the US and sentenced in 2014 to two years in prison for obstruction of justice, he had followed the advice of his American lawyers and kept silent… before radically changing his mind.
On 13 January, he was there telling his truth. “In 2005, I had no experience in the mining industry,” he said. The Frenchman and his associates, Michael Noy and Avraham Lev Ran, had worked in the import-export of consumer goods at the time. Far from being interested in iron and bauxite, they were suppliers of, among other things, nappies and para-pharmaceutical products.
“A geological scandal”
Ismaël Daou, a Malian businessman, was a game changer. “He started talking to me about business opportunities with Amadou Toumani Touré’s Mali, especially in cement and gold. […] Then he mentioned Guinea,” said Cilins. “He told me about a geological scandal, in the sense that the country was rich in minerals but that nothing was being done to ensure that Guineans benefited from it.”
The Frenchman sniffed out the bargain, made contacts and, within a few months, switched from nappies to minerals. His associates are close to the Israeli Roy Oron, a BSGR executive, whom they met in South Africa. Through this, Cilins learnt that the group Steinmetz advises was interested in Guinea (in fact, the company already had the intention of supplanting Rio Tinto in blocks 1 and 2 of Simandou).
It was decided: the Frenchman would act as a matchmaker for BSGR in Conakry. Through Daou, he managed to talk to Henriette Conté, the first lady, who agreed to open the doors of the presidential palace to him. On 20 July 2005, he met President Lansana Conté, accompanied by Oron, who sent them to the home of his Prime Minister, Cellou Dalein Diallo.
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Business was booming. Cilins was surrounded in Conakry by a geologist from BSGR and local partners such as Aboubacar Bah and Ibrahima Sory Touré (IST), the son of a military man who was close to Conté. At the end of 2005, IST introduced him to his half-sister, Mamadie Touré, who was also the president’s mistress and fourth wife. “We went to see her at her home, outside Conakry, in a very modest house. The sofas were ruined and the only thing of value was a state-of-the-art TV,” the Frenchman recalled.
In December, another meeting with Conté was organised, followed by another one a month later. BSGR quickly obtained its first permits in Zogota. Then, in 2008, he took over blocks 1 and 2 of Simandou, which had been recently withdrawn from Rio Tinto.
Success story à la Guinéenne ? If Cilins’ account is accurate, some serious questions need to be asked. According to the Geneva Public Prosecutor’s Office, it was indeed a “corruption pact” that allowed BSGR to establish itself. Cilins and his associates allegedly paid several million dollars to Touré to help her obtain concessions. What exactly were Pentler and FMA’s roles? Why was Pentler awarded 17.65% of BSGR Guinea’s capital when it had no mining expertise? Was it used by BSGR to “secure Guinean concessions” through corruption?
These are all questions that arose at the Geneva tribunal. “Pentler was paid for all the work I did in Guinea before the concessions were awarded. I’m the bringer of business. I’m the one who caught malaria and wore myself out in the Guinean administration. I did work that BSGR could never have done,” said Cilins. The presiding judge then pointed out to him that six days after the agreement between BSGR Guinea and Pentler was made, he himself had reached an agreement with Daou, Bah, IST and Touré, to distribute money and shares of the project to them.
“Is there a link between BSGR and Daou, Bah, IST and Touré’s compensation?” she asked. “Not at all. It is related, but there is no causal link,” said Cilins. “Roy Oron did not intervene in the distribution of the money to local partners?”, asked the judge. “Absolutely not”, the Frenchman said. Admittedly, it was Oron who gave him the $500,000 in cash in Conakry that was to be distributed to Bah, IST and Daou, but, he said, “it was from my partners”, who had themselves given the money to Oron in South Africa.
Millions of dollars and “falsified documents”
The interrogation continued, and the questions that followed focused more and more on Touré. Designated representative of the Guinean partners Bah and IST, she received several payments in connection with the Simandou project, including at least $3.4m from Cilins, Noy and Lev Ran. The latter even partners with her on occasion in projects to import sugar or chickens. “She wanted to start importing and exporting. She couldn’t afford to pay for the goods but she had the contacts to market them. So we pre-financed and shared the profits.”
“But why did you pay her so much money?” asked the judge. “The payments were completely transparent. They corresponded to what had been agreed upon with our local partners, of which she was the representative. We had agreed that their payment should be about 10% of what we ourselves had earned in the project with BSGR”, said Cilins. “But why her in particular?” asked the presiding judge. Cilins answered : “It was IST who integrated her at the beginning, then it was him and Bah who appointed her as a representative. Whether the money that was paid to her was then redistributed to IST, Bah or others was not my problem.”
For the Frenchman, however, Touré is much more than a problem. Since 2010, when Alpha Condé’s presidency began, documents have leaked out revealing the alleged corruption pact that the justice system is now interested in. On the one hand, an American cabinet, DLA Piper (linked to billionaire George Soros) and the Guinean government. On the other, Steinmetz and BSGR.
“There were false documents coming out, some of which were even comical. […] In a report by DLA Piper, I was even described as a Franco-Israeli, former secret agent with links to Netanyahu! The situation was becoming grotesque,” said Cilins. “I told myself that I could help find a solution so that BSGR would be able to keep its licences and so that the situation in Guinea would improve. […] I was hoping to be paid for that.”
Touré is once again back in the spotlight. In 2012, then twice in 2013, Cilins traveled to Florida, USA, where the Guinean woman lives. She appears to be the beneficiary of several payments by some of BSGR’s critics. “We wanted to get her to sign a declaration stating that she had nothing to do with the falsified documents used by DLA Piper,” said the Frenchman.
So he was playing the intimidation game. During a conversation that turned out to have been listened to by the FBI, he told her about an upcoming BSGR offensive, advised her not to talk about the “mining business”, suggested destroying documents… And ended it by offering her $2m. “It was to stimulate her. […] By finding a solution to this situation, I would have earned much more and I would have given her a cut of it”, he said.
“But, Mr. Cilins, why, in this conversation, do you keep mentioning Beny Steinmetz?”, asked the presiding judge, who referred to the various terms heard on the FBI wiretap, such as “the big boss”, “number one” and “Beny.” The Frenchman replied, under the watchful eye of Marc Bonnant, Steinmetz’s lawyer: “It was clumsy […] You’re not going to seduce Mamadie with the name Frédéric Cilins. So I gave her the right name to please her.” The judge then said: “In the recording, you say that it is the big boss who asked for the pieces to be destroyed.” Still under Bonnant’s scrutiny, Cilins replied: “I said something false to seduce her. It’s like when you sell a hoover. They sell you something great but when you get home, it doesn’t work.”
Embarrassed laughter in the room. Did Steinmetz, who seemed bored, appreciate the comparison with a household appliance? Cilins then asked for a suspension, as he was exhausted and had to return to France (where he was staying in a hotel) before the 8pm curfew.
The presiding judge wanted to continue: Switzerland had just decreed a partial confinement from 18 January and she was worried about the proceedings, which she wanted concluded by Friday evening. The suspension was decided, but the next two days would be conducted quickly, as requested by the prosecutors and lawyers. Luckily, no witnesses have taken the stand, which has lightened the programme. However, some would have had the opportunity to have their say, including the great absentee of the day …Touré.