By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) - A former government minister in Guinea went to trial in New York on Monday on U.S. charges that he laundered $8.5 million in bribes he took in exchange for helping a Chinese company secure valuable mining rights.
In an opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorinda Laryea told jurors in Manhattan federal court that Mahmoud Thiam, a U.S. citizen, used the money to fund a "lavish lifestyle" including a mansion and private schools for his children in New York.
Thiam, 50, has pleaded not guilty to money laundering. His lawyer, Aaron Goldsmith, told jurors Monday that prosecutors did not have the evidence to prove he took bribes.
Thiam was living in New York and working as an investment banker before returning to his native Guinea to serve as minister of mines in 2009 and 2010, overseeing the West African country's valuable mineral reserves, Laryea told jurors.
Laryea said that Thiam helped negotiate a 2009 deal giving the company valuable exclusive mining rights in Guinea in exchange for payments from the company's executives.
"Instead of honestly serving the people of Guinea, he used his government position to line his pockets," Laryea said.
Thiam later returned to New York and transferred the money he received to bank accounts there while trying to conceal its source, violating U.S. anti-money laundering law, Laryea said.
Laryea told jurors that the government would present testimony from Guinean government officials and bank employees, bank records and emails to prove the scheme.
Goldsmith did not dispute that Thiam received money, but said the government would not be able to prove that it was a bribe.
"They don't have a witness for that," he said. "They cannot connect those dots."
The Chinese company was not named in opening arguments or court papers, but the deal in the case matches the description of an agreement reached in 2009 involving a joint venture majority owned by China International Fund and China Sonangol.
Thiam's case is one of several corruption cases tied to Guinea's mining sector.
Only days after Thiam's arrest in December, Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz was put under house arrest by Israeli authorities on charges that he bribed officials in Guinea to secure mining rights for his company, BSG Resources.
The case is U.S. v. Thiam, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 17-cr-47.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)