NCA urged to investigate Lebanese finance chief's UK property

·3 min read
Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh gestures during a press conference at the bank's headquarters in Beirut on November 11, 2019
Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh gestures during a press conference at the bank's headquarters in Beirut on November 11, 2019

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has been urged to investigate the multi-million pound UK property and assets of a Lebanese finance chief whose bank faces money laundering allegations.

A dossier by London-based lawyers has been passed to the NCA detailing assets, companies and investment vehicles in Britain worth hundreds of millions pounds which it alleges Lebanon’s central bank governor, members of his family and associates used to divert funds out of Lebanon.

The allegations are denied by Riad Salameh, governor of Lebanon’s central bank since 1993, who claims they are “ideologically and politically motivated” and says the assets come from independent wealth built up in a successful 20-year career as a Merrill Lynch banker and inherited money.

The row comes against a backdrop of political crossfire and endemic corruption in Lebanon which was symbolised by the August 14 2020 ammonium nitrate store explosion in Beirut that killed more than 190, injured 6,500 and left some 300,000 people homeless.

The dossier was handed to the NCA by Margaret Hodge, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption, who has campaigned against the use of UK-registered companies to facilitate money laundering. “It is important that these issues are assessed and if necessary investigated,” she said.

Lebanese anti-government protesters hold a mask of Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh
Lebanese anti-government protesters hold a mask of Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh

It has been compiled by a team led by Toby Cadman, head of Guernica 37 legal chambers, as part of a series of reports and investigations into alleged corruption in Lebanon on behalf of civic society groups in the country.

"Our intention is to address, investigate and expose all pillars of alleged corruption in the country," he said.

The report, seen by The Sunday Telegraph, details investment vehicles and assets including apartments - one a £3.5 million in Broadwalk Park overlooking Hyde Park - that it claims are held by Mr Salameh and/or members of his family.

It claims the assets have not been obtained through legitimate business dealings in Lebanon and urges UK law enforcement agencies to begin an investigation. The report has also been passed to Scotland Yard.

An NCA spokesman said: “We can confirm we have received the report, but we do not routinely confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”

Lebanon's financial and political elite have been under growing scrutiny for alleged mismanagement and obstructing efforts to unlock international aid, particularly since the chemical explosion at Beirut shattered the country’s already-struggling economy.

An anti-government protester stands in front of the Lebanese riot police who wear masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, during a protest against the Lebanese central bank's governor Riad Salameh and against the deepening financial crisis
An anti-government protester stands in front of the Lebanese riot police who wear masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, during a protest against the Lebanese central bank's governor Riad Salameh and against the deepening financial crisis

The Swiss attorney general’s office requested legal assistance from Lebanon earlier this year as part of an investigation into “aggravated money laundering” and possible embezzlement tied to the Lebanese central bank.

Mr Salameh has denied any wrongdoing and answered questions posed by the Lebanese prosecutor in January on behalf of the Swiss attorney general.

In a statement, Mr Salameh denied “in the strongest terms” any suggestion that his assets were from anything other than legitimate sources.

It said the analysis of his wealth was based on “wrong or unsubstantiated assumptions” and that he had presented “documentary evidence” in public and on television to demonstrate its origin.

“[Prior to 1993], he was a successful banker at Merrill Lynch with a monthly salary in the region of $165,000. His net worth was $23 million, in addition to inherited assets,” said a bank spokesman.

“There are valid reasons to believe that these recurrent attacks against Mr Salameh are politically and ideologically motivated.”

Mr Salameh has previously been hailed by the IMF for his handling of the bank and as a financial “magician” but has been mired in legal and political battles in recent years over the financial crisis plaguing Lebanon.

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