10 Politicians Who Stole Fortunes

You make the laws. You control the military, police force, trade policies, tax rates, and most facets of everyday life in the country you rule. Being a politician is certainly a power trip.

But for many politicians, power isn’t enough. They go and stuff their pockets with every chunk of change they can get their paws on, too, often with elaborate crony and laundering networks to support their pilfering habit. Here are 10 of history’s worst recorded perpetrators.

Hosni Mubarak
Stole an estimated $70 billion.

While no one doubts the corruption and wealth of Hosni and the Mubarak clan, one has to give him props for trying to hide it better than the Ben Alis did. Before he became president, he probably got most of his money from military contracts. Later, his sons took healthy cuts from businesses that invested in Egypt. In return, entrepreneurs and businesses they approved of received monopolistic allowances.

As for the rest, Mubarak invested heavily in real estate and land deals, not only in Egypt, but also in Los Angeles, London, Switzerland and elsewhere. Sources say that all told, he is worth in excess of $70 billion USD, more than Bill Gates.

Most of his assets have been frozen now, ostensibly in an attempt to give some of those ill-begotten gains back to the Egyptian people. Given the state of his health, if we could tell Mubarak one thing, it is this: “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”

Mohamed Suharto

Pocketed up to $35 billion from Indonesia.

His New Order regime started out well enough. In point of fact, during most of his 31-year presidency, Indonesia enjoyed not only strongly boosted health, living and education standards, but also a huge influx of economic growth and industrialization.

But amidst the work Suharto did to promote big business and an improved economy, a series of Chinese-run companies took root within the Indonesian infrastructure. As of the 1990s, they grew to massive proportions. They still have a major impact upon the country’s economic viability to this day. That might not be so bad, but the Suharto family earned most of its wealth through shady dealings on the side and preferential appointments to people who would protect his family’s personal and financial interests.

Then Suharto pulled a Dictatorship 101 stunt. After resigning following the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, he grew so ill that authorities deemed him unfit to be tried for the charges of corruption and mismanagement of funds. Despite the fact that the Indonesian people did in fact, not enjoy a marvelous way of life (most lived at or below the poverty level of $1 a day), there was no pressure by the citizens to prosecute him. He died without being tried.

Ferdinand Marcos

Stole up to $10 billion from the Philippines.

Most people love getting freebies. In the case of this list, you get two corrupt Filipino dictators for the price of one. Arguably, Marcos was worse than the fellow who came later, Joseph Estrada, for a couple of reasons. He had his own cult of personality, and he used it to strong-arm the country into doing whatever he wanted.

As ruler of the Philippines for 14 years, he went with a patronage style of running the show. His cronies came on board, he awarded them big bonuses and posts of authority, which would, in time, further augment his family’s own wealth. He created monopolies in tobacco, banana, coconut, sugar and manufacturing industries, to which he tied the fellow Romauldez family.

Just how rich were the Marcoses? No one really knows how many billions of dollars that the First Family and their stooges raked in, but it certainly hangs in the billions. Swiss banks have turned in $85 million since Marcos stepped down in 1986, but more is still unaccounted for.

And who could forget Imelda Marcos? Wealth breeds extravagance, but she went over the top. She had white sand from an Australian beach flown in for a resort. She also bought various properties around Manhattan, though she ‘declined to buy the Empire State Building for $750 mil’ because it seemed “too ostentatious.”

When criticized for her manner of buying everything in sight, she claimed that she was a beacon of light to which the poor could aspire. As though the poor have as little integrity as she did, and would aspire to hedonism.

Leila Trabelsi

Personal stash: $5.6 billion or more.

First up is Corruption was more than skin deep in that nasty little flock that used to run Tunisia. That includes Leila Trabelsi, the former First Lady of Tunisia, wife of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The pair looks like a couple of cats what got into the cream.

Like cats, they were awfully covetous of not only what they had, but what everyone else had, too. That’s why they tried to bleed the country dry by giving themselves stakes in all Tunisia’s primary industries, including radio and television stations, banks, airlines, car dealerships, and ISPs. This was on top of all the kickbacks they awarded themselves simply for being large and in charge.

It all came to a head in 2010 when a fruit vendor was arrested for ‘vending without a permit’ and had his stock confiscated. The vendor, a university student, knew there was no legal recourse. The first family probably ordered his stock seized since they realized they hadn’t quite milked every last ounce of their country.

So the vendor set himself on fire and died. That got people to sit up and take notice. To put the cherry on top, around the same time, a document published on WikiLeaks (from the US Ambassador to Tunisia) revealed that frozen yogurt from the French Riviera’s St. Tropez flew first class on a private jet for the Ben Ali family’s daughter’s 24th birthday party.

After the bricks hit Tunisia’s rulers’ glass house, when the first family was fleeing Tunisia, Leila popped into the central bank and drew out 1.5 tons of gold to fund their flight from infamy. Their plan was to go to France, but President Sarkozy denied their entry. They had to settle on Saudi Arabia.

Karma can be a bitch, and this was proven when enraged Saudi citizens raided the first family’s home and all their belongings. Then, a double whammy – in February, Ben Ali suffered a massive stroke after Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest. All we can say is: enjoy the money while it lasts.

Muammar Gaddafi
The world’s most stubborn dictator?

Libyan rebels may not be the most organized bunch, but soon, the Libyan Investment Authority may actually be Muammar Gaddafi’s biggest problem. A lot of Gaddafi’s country’s money comes from there, in a “to hell with fingers in the cookie jar, this encompasses the whole damn bakery” way. The Authority has investments in British Petroleum (Yes, that BP), European banks, publishing houses, and much more. If it’s a concern in Europe or the Middle East, Libya is probably somehow involved.

With an excess of $70 billion, this sovereign fund sounds pretty sweet, except for one thing: Gaddafi has been cut off. Like the financial version of an astute and dutiful barkeep, sanctions are coming in from left and right to keep him in line. Guess it’s true what they say, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Sani Abacha
Nigeria didn’t need that $5 billion, did it?

Nigeria has its very own Crimebuster. His name is Nuhu Ribadu, and he heads Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Ribadu not only takes on the corruption that is rife in Nigeria, but does so with skill and efficiency that should keep shady dealers shaking in their collective boots for years to come.

One of the worst offenders is the late former President/military dictator, Sani Abacha, who ruled Nigeria with a golden fist from 1993-1998. This King of the Kleptocrats absconded with upwards of 3% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for every year that he was in office.

If that wasn’t bad enough, from the years of 1960-1999, something like $400 billion USD (61.8 billion Nairas in 2011 money) was made off with. For a country like Nigeria, who has a wealth of natural resources, but a corresponding poverty rate, high mortality rate, low ratio of doctors to sick people, etc, that all money could have gone to worthy causes, like education and vaccinations.

But Abacha supposedly had better plans. Well, he would have, if he hadn’t been poisoned by a coterie of Dubai prostitutes who spiked his drink. Dying a beloved ruler is one thing, but it sours the affair when you die surrounded by people who were paid to ‘love you long time’. Needless to say, the rest of your country didn’t mourn him.

Mobutu Sese Seko
$5 billion from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire).

If ever there were a dictator with a more ostentatious yet prescient name, it was Mobutu Sese Seko. His full name was Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga. Literally translated, it means “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”.

True to his name, Seko tracked down and executed anyone who could conceivably be considered a contestant for his power. Political rivals, secessionists who disapproved of his policies, coup plotters and their grandmas were all fair game. That isn’t to say that he stalked from home to home, murdering them in their sleep like some political homicidal vigilante version of Halloween antagonist Michael Meyers.

Instead, he opted for far more public executions, typically hanging. He also had a nasty knack for torturing potential rivals, or people he suspected of harboring an inkling of dissent, whether or not they ever did.

Maybe he realized he was going too far, because he eventually moved to less barbaric means of dealing with rivals. He bought them off. His rule ended pretty ignominiously when he was forced to flee the Republic of Congo (as it came to be known the day after he left) for his safety. Failing health kept him from trying to fight back, and in 1997, he died of prostate cancer whilst in exile.

Joseph Estrada

Taxpayers won’t miss that $80 million…

No doubt you’ve probably heard about Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda (and all her shoes that, if sold, could take good care of the fine people of their country), but that particular breed of corruption wasn’t the only kind to taint the Philippines.

Joseph Estrada came to power twelve years after Marcos’s left. Nepotism, favoritism, stock price manipulation and shady business dealings done to protect his cronies – Estrada was a master at these things and more.

One of the more despicable things the Estrada family did was when First Lady Loi Ejercito registered her private charity, Partnership for the Poor, with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Normally, the organization gave roughly P65 million to beneficiaries like orphanages, shelters, hospitals and the like.

A few months after forming, the charity was ‘awarded’ P100 million from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. We don’t know if that’s even a real institution but it certainly sounds rotten. If all that P100 mil was going to feed the Oliver Twists of the Philippines that would be fine, but where did that check end up? The private residence of the first family, of course.

Slobodan Milosevic
$1 billion, and the guy died before he could pay for it.

Milosevic, a seemingly schizophrenic warmongering ponce, did more than just rip off the people of Serbia by embezzling millions of dollars. He was also a political opportunist posing as a nationalist who used press blackouts and suppression of the media to exert his will upon the people. He tended to yo-yo back and forth between nationalistic sentiments and derisive, even racist commentary, almost as if he couldn’t make up his mind, or maybe the voices were telling him to make a fool of himself for the world to see.

Eventually, charges of embezzlement, corruption, abuse of power all sort of petered out due to difficulties with the investigation. So, the Prime Minister of Serbia had Milosevic packed off to The Hague where he would be brought up on charges for war crimes instead. Only, that never followed through either, because he died of a heart attack in his cell before he could be sentenced.

Nicolae Ceauşescu
A moon rock and more.

Image: Romanian National Archives

Nicolae Ceauşescu started out with a promising career in Romanian politics. From 1965-1989, he served as Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party. He served as President of Romania from 1974 to 1989.

For a time, things were destul de bine (Romanian for “quite well”) in Romania, which benefited from a more open foreign relations policy, and didn’t suffer as much under the Iron Curtain’s clawed feet. Later, however, Ceauşescu, who dubbed himself “The Genius of the Carpathians,” seemed to suffer some sort of mental break down. In 1978, a two-star general who was part of Romania’s main police force defected to the United States. There, he published a book detailing a great deal of true and some alleged things going on under Ceauşescu’s regime. Spying on American industry was only one such accusation leveled at them.

Things unraveled from there. Romania’s security agency got basically turned into a piece of Swiss cheese as foreign agents infiltrated the agency, undermining Ceauşescu’s already tenuous hold on the country. When Ceauşescu couldn’t pay back a multimillion dollar debt, Romania’s economy took a dive, and dishearteningly long bread lines started forming. Ceauşescu tried to motivate his angry citizens with public service announcements shot in well-stocked grocery stores.

Is it a wonder they eventually shot him down? At the bitter end, an uncomprehending Ceauşescu and his wife were executed after an uprising in Timișoara. How much they got away with is uncertain, but it involves at least a $5 million moon rock given as a gift by President Nixon.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.