An investigation into Haiti's President-elect Jovenel Moïse for money laundering has begun just weeks before his inauguration, a case that could destabilize the country yet again.
On January 20, Judge Brédy Fabien took his first steps towards investigating the money laundering allegations against the president-elect by calling the highest executives of the state-owned Banque Nationale de Crédit (BNC) to testify about one of Moïse's bank accounts, reported Le Nouvelliste.
The judge's action was the first time authorities have publicly moved on the money laundering probe since an official judicial investigation was launched in September 2016.
The BNC bank account stands at the heart of an administrative report from the Central Financial Intelligence Unit (Unité Centrale de Renseignements Financiers - UCREF), a semi-autonomous government institution that receives warnings from financial institutions of potential money laundering.
The UCREF first began its administrative investigation in 2013, which eventually turned into last year's judicial investigation. However, the report -- which has been circulating online for months -- appears to be raw intelligence and analysis rather than part of a formal judicial inquiry, and, during a January 18 press conference, the head of the UCREF, Sonel Jean-François, emphasized that these were only partial findings.
Nevertheless, the report contains some highly contentious details. It documents several large transactions deemed suspicious and that could not be justified as Haitian law required. These included what the document says was more than $5.5 million deposited on Moïse's aforementioned account at the BNC.
"The observed deposits to this account are made in cash, and are substantial," the report says. "We have observed several daily deposits concerning very significant amounts, which exceed the threshold requiring a 'declaration of the origins of funds.' We cannot justify the origins of these deposits as we do not yet possess supporting documents."
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering
In total, the probe is looking into 14 of Moïse's and his wife's bank accounts that they held between 2007 and 2013. Other notable transactions and assets were documented, including 45 vehicles owned by the president-elect.
"In light of the aforementioned information, it is possible that Mr. Jovenel Moïse handles funds that have nothing to do with his companies," the UCREF concluded, implying that the president-elect was laundering money.
InSight Crime’s attempts to reach the president-elect or his representatives to obtain comment were unsuccesful, but in previous statements to the press, President-elect Moïse has vigorously denied the allegations and has noted that although this report should have been kept confidential, it was leaked to the public on August 23, 2016, the day his campaign was launched.
The president-elect also said that he had "hired lawyers to obtain the reparation of his reputation" during an interview with Radio France Internationale, and decried the report as "political persecution."
Moïse, a businessman with no experience in politics or administration apart from a run as head of the Northwest Industrial Chamber of Commerce (Chambre de Commerce et de l’Industrie du Nord-Ouest), claims that the deposits to the BNC account at the heart of the allegations were made in Haitian gourdes and not in dollars, as the UCREF asserts.
Between 2007 and 2013, a dollar was worth roughly between 35 and 40 Haitian gourdes. If made in Haitian currency, the cash deposits would have been closer to $150,000 and could have been under the legal threshold requiring justification.
"I'm an entrepreneur. I've worked in Haiti from 1996 up to today. I've had excellent relations with all the country's banks that have granted me loans," argued the president-elect in response to the allegations.
UCREF's Jean-François said during a January 18 press conference that Moïse's lawyers had sent the UCREF an alleged bank document showing the account to be in gourdes.
But the official reasserted that his unit's findings were sound, based on the documents shared by the financial institutions and related to the 14 bank accounts.
"No mistakes were made in the report by the UCREF," he said, before adding that it was the bank's responsibility to transmit relevant documents that could clear up any mistake, and possibly as a way of shifting the responsibility of a potential error away from the unit to the state-owned bank.
The head of the UCREF further argued that, "Many focus on the dollar or gourdes account, but the investigation provides data, elements that sustain the report's conclusions," reported Le Nouvelliste. Jean-François added that it was currently the judiciary's responsibility to conduct a deeper investigation and administer subsequent proceedings if necessary.
InSight Crime Analysis
The investigation into the president-elect has clear and considerable political ramifications. Without strong regulatory and judicial institutions, its results may not satisfy anyone and could permanently damage Moïse's legitimacy. This could further destabilize Haiti's political situation following a contested and delayed election.
There are already growing signs of public frustration with the investigation as the inauguration day nears. In mid-January, four senators signed an open letter addressed to the Senate's new President Youri Latortue, two weeks after the official confirmation of the ballot results, asking that the investigation into the president-elect be wrapped up before inauguration day on February 7.
On top of the senators' open letter, Haitian news outlets reported the launch of an international petition on January 23, asking parliament members to postpone the inauguration. And the Haitian Observatory for Human Rights called for the judiciary investigation to be "reinitiated," according to AlterPresse.
Haiti's Public Prosecutor Léger Danton told the Miami Herald that he hoped to receive Judge Brédy Fabien's conclusions before February 7. If Fabien confirms the UCREF's allegations, then Haiti may face yet another presidential vacuum. The country has repeatedly found itself without an elected leader, and 23 presidents have been overthrown since the island nation's independence.
Even if Moïse's name is cleared, many will still have doubts concerning a president who promised to tackle corruption during his campaign. Although the president-elect may have won 55 percent of the votes in November's election, this number corresponds to barely 600,000 votes in an nation populated by ten million inhabitants, noted The Guardian.
In addition, the Miami Herald reported that the president-elect is under scrutiny for having allegedly obtained illegal loans from the state-owned commercial Haitian Popular Bank (Banque Populaire Haitienne). The case is also being administered by Judge Brédy Fabien.
More broadly, Moïse's case speaks to the lack of trust in the country's institutions and its politicians. The leakage of the UCREF's report, the slow-paced judiciary investigation and the outstanding uncertainties concerning the president-elect's BNC bank account are just the latest chapter.
If the account was in gourdes, then documents may have been falsified by internal elements of either the BNC or the UCREF -- both of which are state institutions. And if the deposits were indeed made in dollars, then the president-elect still has a lot of explaining to do.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Caribbean
In addition, Moïse's is but one case that is swirling around Haitian politicians. In January 2017, Haitian Senator-elect Guy Philippe was arrested and extradited to face drug trafficking charges in the United States. Philippe was the subject of a Haitian arrest warrant and had been on the US Drug Enforcement Administration's Most Wanted List following a 2005 US indictment. Yet he was allowed to run and win a senatorial race in 2016.
A second senator elected in November 2016 is suspected of changing his name to hide a US conviction for human smuggling, according to the Miami Herald. And the new Senate President Latortue has faced allegations of criminal activities. In a US embassy cable from 2006 released by Wikileaks, then-Ambassador Janet Sanderson wrote that, "Youri Latortue may well be the most brazenly corrupt of leading Haitian politicians."
The diplomatic cable goes on to note that Latortue had a powerful network, which included family members in high office and drug traffickers.
Allegations of corruption have reached as high up as the presidential palace with at least two of Haiti's previous administrations.
Opponents of former President Michel Martelly claimed the president was "surrounded by a network of friends and aides who [had] been arrested on charges including rape, murder, drug trafficking and kidnapping," according to the New York Times. And former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide faced corruption charges in Haiti as well as drug trafficking allegations voiced by defendants in US courts.