Ex-Guinea minister charged with laundering bribes goes to trial

Brendan Pierson

April 24 (Reuters) - A former government minister in Guinea

went to trial in New York on Monday on U.S. charges that he

laundered $8.5 million in bribes he took in exchange for helping

a Chinese company secure valuable mining rights.

In an opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorinda

Laryea told jurors in Manhattan federal court that Mahmoud

Thiam, a U.S. citizen, used the money to fund a "lavish

lifestyle" including a mansion and private schools for his

children in New York.

Thiam, 50, has pleaded not guilty to money laundering. His

lawyer, Aaron Goldsmith, told jurors Monday that prosecutors did

not have the evidence to prove he took bribes.

Thiam was living in New York and working as an investment

banker before returning to his native Guinea to serve as

minister of mines in 2009 and 2010, overseeing the West African

country's valuable mineral reserves, Laryea told jurors.

Laryea said that Thiam helped negotiate a 2009 deal giving

the company valuable exclusive mining rights in Guinea in

exchange for payments from the company's executives.

"Instead of honestly serving the people of Guinea, he used

his government position to line his pockets," Laryea said.

Thiam later returned to New York and transferred the money

he received to bank accounts there while trying to conceal its

source, violating U.S. anti-money laundering law, Laryea said.

Laryea told jurors that the government would present

testimony from Guinean government officials and bank employees,

bank records and emails to prove the scheme.

Goldsmith did not dispute that Thiam received money, but

said the government would not be able to prove that it was a

bribe.

"They don't have a witness for that," he said. "They cannot

connect those dots."

The Chinese company was not named in opening arguments or

court papers, but the deal in the case matches the description

of an agreement reached in 2009 involving a joint venture

majority owned by China International Fund and China Sonangol.

Thiam's case is one of several corruption cases tied to

Guinea's mining sector.

Only days after Thiam's arrest in December, Israeli

billionaire Beny Steinmetz was put under house arrest by Israeli

authorities on charges that he bribed officials in Guinea to

secure mining rights for his company, BSG Resources.

The case is U.S. v. Thiam, U.S. District Court, Southern

District of New York, No. 17-cr-47.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Bill

Trott)