By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Guinea government minister accused of laundering $8.5 million in bribes he took in exchange for helping a Chinese conglomerate secure mining rights told jurors in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday that the money was a personal loan.
Mahmoud Thiam, taking the stand near the end of a week-long trial, said Chinese tycoon Sam Pa was a friend who lent him the money to help him take care of his family in New York while he moved to his native Guinea to serve as minister of mines in 2009.
Thiam, 50, a U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty to money laundering in one of several corruption cases around the world tied to Guinea's mining sector.
Thiam testified that there was no written agreement, interest or repayment terms for the loan with Pa, and that he never repaid it. He said his relationship with Pa had since "deteriorated."
He denied the money was a bribe to help a joint venture of the China International Fund and China Sonangol, both closely tied to Pa, obtain lucrative mining rights in Guinea in 2009, as prosecutors allege. Pa is not charged in the case.
Thiam also admitted during both direct and cross-examination that he lied repeatedly to banks, concealing the source of the money and the fact that he was a government minister.
But he denied prosecutors' allegations that he was lying to conceal bribes, violating money-laundering laws.
He said he lied to avoid being designated a "politically exposed person," or foreign official susceptible to bribery, because banks often close such people's accounts as a precaution.
"My primary concern was to be treated as Mahmoud Thiam, private citizen," he said.
After Thiam finished testifying, lawyers delivered their closing arguments. Thiam's lawyer, Aaron Goldsmith, told jurors that prosecutors had offered no solid evidence the money was a bribe.
"Mahmoud got money from Sam Pa," he said. "Mahmoud lied about his work. That's about all the evidence you've got in this case, related to those charges."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elisha Kobre told jurors there was a "mountain of evidence" showing the payment was a bribe.
Thiam lied to banks not only about his role as a government minister, but about the source of the money, saying it was from consulting fees or land sales, Kobre said.
"Why all the lies?" he said.
Jurors are expected to start deliberating tomorrow.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)