Bad week for billionaires as some of world’s richest tangle with the law

by - 11 min read

Bad week for billionaires as some of world’s richest tangle with the law

by - 11 min read


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  • The world’s richest are getting richer, but all that wealth and power doesn’t necessarily put them beyond the reach of the law, as some are discovering this week.
  • The figure of 18 Canadians killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 under-reports the significance of the crash for Canada.
  • More than 100 new dots have appeared on the world map in the past 20 years or so, and these master-planned cities are a massive new investment vehicle and the latest economic driver for the global south.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Billionaire behaviour

It’s rarely a bad time to be a billionaire.

In 2018, the world’s richest people saw their collective fortunes grow by 12 per cent, or $2.5 billion US a day.

That’s part of a long-term trend that has seen the planet’s über-wealthy — the top one per cent — take home the equivalent of 27 cents of every dollar of global income growth over the past four decades, while the Earth’s poorest 50 per cent got a 12-cent share.

In even starker terms, in 2016 the top 61 billionaires  had as much wealth as half of the world’s population, some 3.8 billion people. And as the concentration of money rose in 2017, the number fell to 43, and then last year to just the top 26.

Yet all that wealth and power doesn’t necessarily put them beyond the reach of the law.

Nirav Modi, an Indian diamond merchant worth $1.8 billion US, is currently sitting in a British jail cell after his arrest yesterday on charges of bank fraud regarding a $2 billion loan with Punjab state’s National Bank.

Luxury jeweler Nirav Modi, left, and actress Naomi Watts attend a dinner to celebrate the opening of the first Nirav Modi boutique in the U.S. on Sept. 8, 2015, in New York. (Diane Bondareff/Associated Press)

The 48-year-old had fled India last June as police probed allegedly fraudulent letters of guarantee, but was spotted out and about in London’s toney neighbourhoods by a newspaper reporter, then turned in by a sharp-eyed bank clerk.

Authorities in India have seized a number of properties and 11 luxury vehicles belonging to Modi, including a Porsche and a Rolls Royce, and are in the process of auctioning off a collection of 173 paintings.

He had offered to post a guarantee of $880,000 Cdn pending his extradition hearing, but the British court rejected his request for bail, with the judge noting dryly that she believed he “may have the means of escape.”

Just across the Channel in France, two foreign billionaires are now facing prosecution.

Suleyman Kerimov, ranked as the world’s 257th richest person with a fortune of $6.4 billion, has been indicted for tax fraud over the “suspicious” purchase of five lavish villas in the south of France.

Billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, a powerful Russian oil and metals magnate, watches a soccer match at Al Nasr Stadium in Dubai on Jan. 16, 2012. (Sergei Rasulov/AFP/Getty Images)

He had previously been on trial for money laundering in connection with the purchases, but the charges were dropped last summer. (Kerimov is also among the close to two dozen oligarchs facing U.S. sanctions over Russia’s presumed interference in the 2016 presidential election.)

Now he is free on a 20-million euro ($30.26 million Cdn) bail.

The reopening of his case comes just a day after French authorities disclosed that they have arrested Belhassen Trabelsi, a Tunisian billionaire who fled Canada in 2016 to escape deportation to his homeland over accusations of corruption.

Belhassen Trabelsi sits outside the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board offices in Montreal on May 7, 2013. The elusive Tunisian billionaire disappeared from Canada as he was set to be deported to his homeland in 2016, but has resurfaced and is under arrest in France. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The 56-year-old, who is the brother-in-law of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, amassed a vast fortune, including hotels, banks, media companies and a major construction firm over his relative’s 23 years of rule.

His wife and four children were granted asylum in Canada, and are believed to be living in Montreal.

Meanwhile, a Thai billionaire has been sentenced to 16 months in jail on poaching charges. Premchai Karnasuta, who owns one of the country’s main construction firms, was arrested by rangers in a national park in February 2018, and found to be in possession of the carcasses of several protected animals including a Kalij pheasant, a barking deer and an endangered black leopard.

Thai billionaire construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta leaves The Thong Pha Phum Provincial Court in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, on Tuesday after being sentenced to 16 months in prison for possessing the carcass of an endangered Kajij pheasant and other rare animals. (Associated Press)

His driver and his cook, who were also arrested in the jungle, received lesser sentences.

Premchai is currently free on $17,000 Cdn bail pending an appeal.

And in the United States, Robert Kraft, the owner of the Superbowl champion New England Patriots, today rejected a plea deal that would have seen charges of receiving paid sexual acts in a Florida massage parlour dropped in exchange for a small fine and an admission of guilt.

Robert Kraft, CEO of the New England Patriots, attends the Super Bowl LIII Pregame at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The 77-year-old Kraft is the world’s 244th richest person, according to Forbes magazine, with an estimated net worth of $6.6 billion US.

It’s not clear if Florida prosecutors have offered the same deal to John Childs, another Boston billionaire and major Republican donor, caught up in a related prostitution sting.

Forbes’ latest billionaire ranking, released earlier this month,  lists2,153 people with a net worth of at least $1 billion US.

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The real Canadian toll of ET Flight 302

Reporter Susan Ormiston has been in Addis Ababa covering the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

The tragedy is in the detail.

Eighteen Canadians died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, more than from any other country except Kenya — an unusual and tragic statistic, given that the flight originated in East Africa.

But even that figure, which refers to people travelling on Canadian passports, under-reports the significance of the crash for our country.

Were we to count the number of people living in Canada who died on that flight, it adds at least another four casualties. And those are only the ones we were able to confirm over the past week in Addis Ababa.

Pallbearers arrange flag-draped coffins during a burial ceremony of victims of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Orthodox church in Addis Ababa on Sunday. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

There was the family living in Hamilton and applying for permanent Canadian residency, Caroline Karanja and her three children. Only baby Rubi was listed as Canadian, born last year in Canada; Karanja was born in Kenya.

Her husband Paul Njoroge, also a Kenyan, was working for a bank in Bermuda and was to join his family next month while they visited family outside Nairobi. They were then to return to Hamilton, a new home and a new life in Canada.

“I booked their flights,” he said with so much anguish, as he spoke to us at the crash site. “I woke up Sunday morning and the first thing I saw was a Bloomberg alert that Flight 302 had crashed. I knew it was their flight.”

His mother-in-law, visiting Canada to help with the kids, also died. She’s not one of the “18” either.

Another father, Jack Wang, was travelling on a Chinese passport, but he and his family lived in Vernon, B.C., where they run a car repair business. His wife and two daughters hugged him goodbye in the Kelowna airport on March 9. He was travelling to Kenya to pick up a document, one last thing he needed to complete his permanent Canadian residency application.

“For him it was very important. He did everything for me and my sister,” his daughter Allison Wang told me last week in Addis Ababa. She’d just been to the crash site.

“He [dad] spent his time, his money, he invested everything we have, here, for us.

“When we dropped him at the airport in Kelowna he just said wait four or five days. ‘After I come back we will celebrate,’ those were the last words he said.”

There is one other detail of tragic timing which explains in part who was on that flight, coming from Canada. It was March break in Ontario the week of March 10, so several Canadian families, by passport or not, were travelling long distances to visit extended family — like the Vaidyas from Brampton, Ont. Two parents, two kids and their grandparents travelling on a family holiday to visit relatives in Mombasa, and so looking forward to a safari.

Hiral Vaidya lost her in-laws in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, six in one family including her husband’s parents and sister from Brampton, Ont. She scooped up a bag of soil at the crash site. ‘I couldn’t find anything else,’ she said. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

There are people who died on that flight whose family lived in Canada. There were dual-nationals who were named on another country’s casualty list. There are Canadians who were close to passengers from other nations.

All those connections made it hard at first for embassy staff in Addis Ababa to manage a circle of support. It wasn’t only families of the Canadian “18” who needed help. The circle grew.

“As we’re obtaining more info about each story, each individual, we’re finding more and more connections,” said Canada’s Ambassador to Ethiopia, Antoine Chevrier, when he visited the crash site.

“It’s difficult to not become emotional.”

Canada’s loss in this devastating tragedy is really a picture of our nation — interconnected globally, and with long ties to the African continent.

– Susan Ormiston

Purpose-built cities

More than 100 new dots have appeared on the world map in the past 20 years or so. These master-planned cities are a massive new investment vehicle and the latest economic driver for the global south. Producer Michelle Gagnon traveled to Malaysia to see just what this kind of development looks like.

As we hurtled along the newly paved highway heading for the end of the road, our expectations were suddenly heightened.

“You’ll never see anything like this again,” Sarah Moser casually declared.

Moser knows what she’s talking about. A professor of urban geography at McGill University, she runs one of the largest research labs studying new cities.

New cities are just that — entire cities built from scratch. Their sell is that they’ll help jumpstart national economies, moving them away from resource-based business and towards high tech, real estate and other high-yield industries.

More than 40 countries have bought into the idea, and some have several master-planned cities on the go — Morocco has 15, Indonesia 10, and Malaysia has five.

We crossed a bridge and a phalanx of towers suddenly unfurled — we’d made it to Forest City.

Forest City in Malaysia, seen in the background, is built on artificial islands created by piling up sand. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

It’s a private, gated city being built on four artificial islands at the tip of peninsular Malaysia. Strategically located on a key shipping channel, it’s just two kilometres across the strait from Singapore, Southeast Asia’s strongest economy.

Nothing is accidental here. This is a master-planned city designed for 700,000 people, built on land that didn’t exist five years ago.

“It’s just sort of overwhelming and kind of counterintuitive to come to a place that went up overnight,” Moser explains. “They only started building the land in 2014 — not constructing the buildings — they just started putting sand in piles to make islands in 2014.”

Malaysia’s Forest City has seen construction progress at a breakneck pace, but as yet few residents have moved in. At dusk, only a few windows in the community are lit, with the rest of the homes and offices remaining dark and unoccupied. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Now, cranes hover over dozens of towers that loom over hundreds of villas — all under construction, all at the same time.

Moser marvels at the pace, but isn’t surprised by its progress; the project belongs to an international consortium led by China’s top real estate developer.

“Only China can build this fast. No one else,” she says. “They’re extremely experienced right now in land reclamation and in construction.”

By October 2018, half of the first island itself had been built — and half of that land was being built on. The first 150 keys to finished apartments were handed over last September.

Try as we might, though, there wasn’t a resident to be found in Forest City.

So, despite the busloads of investor tourists that rolled in daily, and the countless foreign workers constantly building and grooming and cleaning, it was the emptiness of this aspiring metropolis that was truly arresting.

– Michelle Gagnon

Watch The National’s in-depth look at how and why nations are creating master-planned cities:

Master-planned cities have become a development model, a way for countries in the developing world to jump-start economies and provide a roadmap for the future. But does reality live up to the pitch? 16:02

A few words on … 

A true, fan experience.

Quote of the moment

“George Conway, often referred to as Mr. Kellyanne Conway by those who know him, is VERY jealous of his wife’s success & angry that I, with her help, didn’t give him the job he so desperately wanted. I barely know him but just take a look, a stone cold LOSER & husband from hell!”

– U.S. President Donald Trump  takes to Twitter to attack one of his fiercest critics — who happens to be married to one of his closest advisors.

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, left, and her husband George Conway arrive for dinner at Union Station on the eve of the 58th presidential inauguration in Washington on Jan. 19, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Police ‘strongly believe’ that Christchurch suspect planned to attack third mosque (CBC)
  • Rising flood levels threaten Mozambique disaster relief effort (Guardian)
  • Cockpit recording of doomed Lion Air 737 captures pilots’ frantic search for fix (Reuters)
  • Amnesty International accuses U.S. forces of possible war crimes in Somalia (Deutsche Welle)
  • North Korea boasts of strong Russia ties amid stalled nuclear talks (Yonhap News)
  • Could AI make better policy than politicians? (Quartz)
  • EU hits Google with third, $1.7 billion antitrust fine (CNN)
  • Ontario girl found safe after Amber Alert, no charges for father, police say (CBC)
  • Rodent seen tidying up tools in garden shed (Sky News)

Today in history

March 20, 1986: Sondra Gotlieb’s slap flap

The statement from the Canadian Embassy in Washington called it “an incident of a purely personal character,” but the slap that Sondra Gotlieb delivered across the face of a staffer made international news. The ambassador’s wife — a high-profile hostess during the Reagan years — was peeved about having to rejig her seating plan for a state dinner after a last-minute cancellation and took it out on her social secretary. Today, it might be considered assault. But in the less-enlightened ’80s, it was simply gossipy grist for the mill.

The wife of Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. sparks a furor when she slaps her social secretary before a swanky Washington, D.C., dinner. 1:51

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This story originally appeared on CBC