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    01-Oct-2019

Hariri Slams 'Campaigns' after NYT Says He Gave $16M to Model

 

AFP

 

Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday blasted what he called “campaigns” against him, hours after The New York Times reported that he “gave more than $16 million to a South African bikini model.”
 
It was not immediately clear whether Hariri was referring to reports and accusations related to Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis or to the NYT story.
 
“No matter how many campaigns they launch against me and no matter what they say, do or write, I will keep working and I won’t stop,” Hariri said during a Grand Serail meeting for the “Technical Committee for Coordinating the Necessary Services in the Governorates”.
 
“I will carry out the reforms necessary to pull the country out of the crisis it is going through,” the premier added, warning that “it is clear that someone is trying to undermine stability in the country.”
 
“Today we are witnessing in media outlets some people who do not understand anything about the economy and yet they claim to be experts in this field. Any politician who does not understand the economic issues must step aside and must not give the Lebanese theories about the dollar, the exchange rates and other issues,” Hariri added.
 
The New York Times reported Monday that Hariri “gave more than $16 million to a South African bikini model who said they had a romantic relationship” after they allegedly met at a luxury resort in the Seychelles.
 
Citing South African court documents, the NYT said Hariri’s alleged transfers to the model, Candice van der Merwe, were made between his two terms as prime minister and that they started in 2013.
 
“Ms. van der Merwe was 20 years old. She had appeared in energy drink promotions and swimwear calendars, but her reported annual income had never exceeded $5,400,” the NYT said.
 
“Then in May 2013, her assets suddenly soared, thanks to a transfer of $15,299,965 from a Lebanese bank,” the newspaper added.
 
“Lady luck, it would seem, suddenly smiled on the applicant,” the NYT quoted a South African judge as writing in 2015.
 
The alleged transfer would likely have remained secret had the large sum not raised suspicions among the South African financial and tax authorities, who investigated and deemed it taxable income.
 
Van der Merwe insisted the money was a gift, and not taxable according to South African law. In subsequent court cases, she argued the money had been given to her without conditions and identified her benefactor as Hariri.
 
“Love you my Saad :),” Van der Merwe wrote in an email to Hariri in which she provided her bank account details so he could transfer the money, telling him it was so she could buy property, the NYT said. The money landed in her account shortly afterward.
 
The New York Times was unable to reach the model, but two of her previous lawyers, her current lawyer, and her father, who has represented her in tax court, declined to comment or to make her available for an interview.
 
In an affidavit cited in the court documents, Van der Merwe said she had been recruited at age 19 to travel to an exclusive resort in the Seychelles Islands called The Plantation Club that was “frequented by some of the richest private individuals in the world,” including billionaires “for whom money is no object.”
 
At this “playground of the super wealthy,” she said, “it is the norm for lavish parties and events to be held” and models were flown in “to lend a sense of glamour and exclusivity.” The models’ passports were taken when they arrived and they were forbidden from taking photos.
 
Van der Merwe spent four days at the resort in 2012, she said, and connected with people she met because of her “healthy lifestyle” and other qualities.
 
Other trips followed. On her first two, she flew economy class. Later, she was upgraded to first or business class.
 
During a trip in March 2013, she said, she told friends that her “dream car” was the Audi R8. After she returned home, she had an accident that totaled her car and cracked her cellphone screen.
 
A car dealer soon called her to pick up a new Audi R8 Spyder, which had been paid for and registered in her name. She also received two new cellphones, including one with international roaming, and a Land Rover Evoque, the NYT reported.
 
“The two vehicles were worth more than $250,000, a sum that was added to her tax bill. Her lawyers wrote in 2015 that they were gifts from the same ‘extremely well-to-do Middle Eastern gentleman’ who sent her the money,” the newspaper added.
 
When South African government investigators asked about the $15 million transfer, a bank official said that “the sender and beneficiary are boyfriend/girlfriend and are currently together in the Seychelles.”
 
Van der Merwe bought properties worth more than $10 million, including a house in Cape Town’s upscale Fresnaye neighborhood with an outdoor swimming pool and commanding ocean views. She also lent $2.7 million to a real estate company her father was involved with and made other transactions, leaving $537,000 in her account, she said.
 
“The tax authorities considered her claim that the money was a gift implausible and suspected the funds had been for her father, Gary van der Merwe, a businessman who had fought repeated court battles with the tax authorities over his own business dealings. The authorities levied income tax on the sum, froze Ms. van der Merwe’s assets and appointed a curator to oversee them until the matter was settled,” the NYT said.
 
It added: “Hariri stepped in again, sending Ms. van der Merwe an additional $1 million to help cover her legal and living expenses, according to court documents.”
 
In correspondence with the tax authorities, Van der Merwe’s lawyers acknowledged it was hard to believe that “such largess was bestowed on a young girl” by someone with whom she had “a casual relationship.” But Van der Merwe insisted the money and cars were gifts for her personal use with no conditions.
 
She reached a settlement with the tax authorities in 2016, which she appealed last year. A judge dismissed that case this month.
 
In January, she sued government officials for $65 million in damages she attributed to the tax authorities’ pursuit of her. These documents made Hariri’s role in the case public this year.
 
In the suit, she argues that she had to sell the house because the asset freeze prevented her from paying for its upkeep. She also says the court cases and related publicity had caused irreparable damage to her career and severed her link to Hariri.
 
“The plaintiff’s relationship with Mr. Hariri was terminated, which resulted in the loss of financial benefits that would have accrued to her from the relationship if it had been allowed to persist without outside interference,” the suit says.
 
 

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