Report: French Bank Let Associates of Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Move Funds Unhindered
A report leaked to OCCRP's Lebanese media partner Daraj reveals how French bank BNP Paribas allowed associates of Lebanon's Central Bank Governor, Riad Salame, who is currently under investigation for money laundering and embezzlement, to transfer funds with minimal due diligence.
In 2013, Nabil Aoun, a Lebanese stockbroker and former president of the Lebanese Broker Association, reportedly initiated a transfer of 1.8 million euros in favor of Rise Invest, a Panamanian company beneficially owned by Marianne Houwayek, a close associate of Salame. In the same year, Houwayek purchased an apartment in central Paris for the exact amount transferred.
The transfer, originating from a Swiss company associated with Aoun, was justified as a "parental donation" and was one of many transactions flagged by a European financial intelligence unit investigating Salame's wealth amid accusations that he exploited his position as head of the central bank to enrich himself, his relatives, and his associates.
The leaked report concludes that a link between Salame and the funds deposited in Rise Invest's bank account with BNP Paribas "could not be excluded." It raises concerns about BNP Paribas' insufficient effort to ascertain the origin of the 1.8 million euros and its allowance of the transfer based on minimal documentation, including a nondescript piece of paper, bearing Aoun's name, which stated that he was acting on behalf of Houwayek's father.
Aoun corresponded with the bank through a "private" and "discreet" email address, which the report suggests might belong to Salame. In his note, Aoun specified that the transfer was taking place in a "private capacity" and not as part of a "commercial activity."
BNP Paribas declined OCCRP's request for comment.
Anne Leung, a financial crime compliance expert, told OCCRP that when a bank opens an account for a corporate customer, it should inquire about the account's purpose and the expected business activities.
"This usually takes the form of salaries or business expenditures," she said, adding that "it's a red flag to have a personal dealing like a parental donation go through a business account."
Leung also emphasized that since Panama is an offshore jurisdiction, it would have been reasonable to expect the bank to scrutinize the transactions passing through Rise Invest's account even more closely than usual.
Aoun and Houwayek did not respond to requests for comment.
Salame is under investigation for money laundering and embezzlement in several European countries. Last week an Interpol red notice was issued against him on behalf of France, and media reports have suggested that Germany is following suit.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After publication, Nabil Aoun’s attorney responded saying that “Mr. Nabil Aoun has not taken part in the allegedly suspicious activities and schemes described in the press as constituting the grievances raised against Mr. Salamé and his entourage.”
He added that Mr. Aoun has fully cooperated with European magistrates and “made himself available to attend before them in Luxembourg and France," that "he will provide the investigating authorities with any further assistance if so required,” and that Mr. Aoun is “fully confident, as far as he is concerned, as to the outcome of the ongoing investigations.”