Pandora Papers: Gilbert Bigio is uber rich man in poor country

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Glbert Bigio and his son, Reuven.

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Pandora Papers

Millions of leaked documents and the biggest journalism partnership in history uncover the financial secrets of world leaders as well as Miami’s rich, powerful and celebrated.

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When the Jeffrey Epstein estate needed to sell off assets to compensate victims and cover litigation costs, retired Haitian businessman Gilbert Bigio was the man with the money. He purchased the disgraced financier’s Mercedes Maybach sedan in Paris for a cool sum of about $132,000.

The sale is buried at the end of a 418-page document accounting for the estate’s finances in the third quarter of 2020. Nothing indicates how and why the man considered one of the richest if not the richest person in Haiti knew to snap up Epstein’s chariot for a bargain. (Today’s cheapest models start at $185,000.)

Bigio, 86, is a well-known power broker in Haiti’s political circles. When Haitians talk about families that run the country, the Bigios invariably come up.

A new and massive global leak of secret offshore shell company documents shows just how far-reaching his empire stretches — and how the Caribbean’s wealthy elite have for decades masked their fortunes and protected their assets through offshore shell companies that point to Swiss bank accounts.

Dubbed the Pandora Papers, the leak involves more than 11.9 million documents from 14 global offshore service providers — companies or law firms that create offshore entities, often with obscure and complex ownership structures. Collectively, the Pandora Papers show how the wealthy elite across the globe shield, even hide their fortunes.

There are legitimate reasons for seeking the anonymity a shell company provides. Secrecy can prevent a seller from jacking up the price if the buyer is a celebrity, smooth the process of a merger in the works or enable an individual to legally minimize their tax obligations. But offshore entities also can wall off revenue entirely from taxing authorities, hide stolen money and obscure illicit drug profits that can be funneled into corrupting government officials and law enforcement.

Bigio retired as CEO of the GB Group in 2018, and is frequently referred to as a billionaire, yet hails from the hemisphere’s poorest country. It’s a nation torn apart by earthquakes, corruption, gang violence and this summer’s horrifying assassination of the president.

The Pandora Papers show the Bigios, sometime Miami residents, used offshores in multiple tax havens and moved wealth to Miami and to Switzerland.

Who Are They?

Along with his 48-year-old son Reuven, Gilbert Bigio controls the GB Group he founded in 1972. The conglomerate’s reach extends to the entire Haitian economy, from providing construction supplies and fuel to offering household necessities like cooking oil and food. He has branched out as well into the Dominican side of Hispaniola.

GB Group, which boasts offices in the tony Florida city of Aventura, over the past decade constructed Haiti’s private Port Lafito container terminal and free-trade zone. Much of what is bought, sold or consumed in Haiti is likely to touch some corner of the Bigio empire.

Despite that grip on the Haitian economy, Bigio prefers to operate behind the scenes. He’s not considered allied to any politician or political party or diplomats who have worked in Haiti over the years. The family, sanctioned by the United States in the 1990s, mostly refuses interviews.

“He was not a big name when I was ambassador,” recalled Pamela White, who was U.S. envoy to Haiti from 2012 to 2015 and served in a junior role there from 1985 to 1990.

In Florida, the Bigios have lived behind protective gates in the most exclusive of zones, Indian Creek Island. They’ve enjoyed protection from local police officers who around the clock staff the entrance gate to the private island community.

Property records show their home is held in the name of two corporations: Agro Products and Services, registered in Florida, and Porpoise Investments Ltd., a shell company registered in the Isle of Man, a self-governing low-tax British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea.

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Aerial view of the Bigio property on Indian Creek Island Rd. Pedro Portal [email protected]

The Indian Creek address also appears on a company associated with Bigio’s grandson, Ignacio. The eight-bedroom, 8,881-square-foot home was built in 1996 and sold at that time for $4,550,000. It is near where Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner are reportedly building their mansion, although the power couple dubbed “Javanka” has never confirmed or denied the purchase. Crooner Julio Iglesias also owns multiple properties on the elite island.

The Bigios aren’t the only prominent Haitians found in the Pandora Papers.

There’s Rudolph Boulos, whose pharmaceutical company Pharval in 1996 was involved in a business transaction that led to the inadvertent poisoning of Haitian children with cough medicine tainted with a solvent used in antifreeze. At least 30 children died.

The contaminated ingredient came in drums from China sold by European suppliers, and a “60 Minutes” segment in 1999 spotlighted how no one was charged. On his LinkedIn page, Boulos describes himself as an adviser to Haiti’s senate. He’s actually a former senator but was removed from office because he was also a U.S. citizen.

And there’s Roger Jaar, a prominent Miami-based businessman who like Bigio and other elites grew wealthy during the era of Haiti’s dictatorships but left Haiti in the early ‘90s. Jaar, a major soft drink bottler, and his brother Raymond jointly have shell companies that go back to the late 1980s, among the oldest files in the Pandora Papers.

Neither Rudolph Boulos nor Roger Jaar returned emails requesting comment.

The vast array of Bigio family and business holdings found in the Pandora Papers — connected to numerous offshore tax havens in the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas and Panama and some connecting to Swiss bank accounts — makes the wealthy but low-key Bigio clan stand apart.

“I would argue that the structures that they’ve created, the complexity they’ve created, the choice of venues, the countries that they are moving the money through raises all kinds of red flags, and creates enormous problems for the host country, in this case Haiti,’ said Gary Kalman, U.S. director for Transparency International, an anti-corruption non-governmental organization, cautioning he didn’t know the full details of Bigio’s offshore holdings.

Bigio has not been convicted, indicted or otherwise charged with a crime.

The Miami Herald and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project tried to reach the Bigios from late August until October. They called and sent emails, faxes and letters requesting an interview or comment. There was no response.

Why it Matters

Haiti carries the ignominious title of the Western Hemisphere country with the highest levels of income inequality. It makes the Bigio family wealth, at least partly hidden behind offshore shell companies, even more notable.

Haiti’s business barons, portrayed by American diplomats in the 1990s as the Morally Repugnant Elite — MREs for short — have built their wealth by establishing and controlling monopolies on imports, and have been accused of profiting off chaos and dysfunction in Haiti while offering limited investment in social programs for the poor majority.

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Gilbert Bigio, left, Haitian billionaire, is interviewed in front of the earthquake ravaged presidential palace in Port-au-Prince Haiti.

“The result of the wealth drain from Haiti is devastating,” Kalman said.

The International Monetary Fund said as much in its April 2020 report on Haiti, its most recent. The IMF noted that from 2015 to 2020, Haiti collected tax revenue akin to 13% of the size of its overall economy, with only Panama and Venezuela collecting less. The United States by comparison averaged 24.5% as of 2019.

The inability to collect tax revenue limits what Haiti can spend on combating poverty. The IMF made a direct link between elites and income inequality.

“This is related to a concentration of resources in the hands of a small but powerful group of elites, many of whom have dominated entire sectors of the Haitian economy” since the days of dictatorship, the report said.

It was a reference to the elites who the IMF said “were granted monopoly rights in key industries and exclusive import licenses for major consumables” by dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled from 1971 to 1986.

Why offshores?

One possible explanation for the Bigio family’s use of offshores may be that the family fortune was tied up decades ago when the Treasury Department froze its assets in U.S. banks in 1991. It was a broad response to a brutal military coup that abruptly ended the first term of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Those sanctions, against more than 200 wealthy Haitians who were presumed to support the coup, were lifted by the Clinton administration in 1994.

Justice Department records on foreign lobbying show Bigio hired the law firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy and the PR firm APCO in 1992 to try to induce the Clinton administration to address issues with his U.S. visa. The document shows one of the lawyers assigned to the effort was Stuart Eizenstat, who in 1993 became the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

The real growth of Bigio family wealth appears to have come after the second ouster of the left-leaning Aristide, in 2004, after which several wealthy Haitian clans saw their fortunes spiral upward astronomically. The Bigios have since expanded into energy in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, telecommunications and more recently a private port terminal.

The Pandora Papers provide a unique prism through which to view the Bigio family’s rising wealth, whose origin according to past interviews by Gilbert and the GB Group’s website can be traced to the early 1900s, owing to a cotton gin and trading companies. In the 1970s, the family’s steel mill boosted fortunes further.

Another successful Haitian businessman, on the condition that he not be identified in order to speak freely, said Gilbert Bigio is “a shrewd businessman.”

“He takes care of his workers but will fire them at the drop of a hat too. He’s not crass, and he’s not cheap.”

The Bigios are celebrated in Jewish publications for preserving the island’s only Torah, the scroll of the Hebrew Bible. Radical Haitian websites, often rife with antisemitism, decry them as part of a light-skinned ruling class that controls the wealth of the overwhelmingly Black country.

That distinction looms large in any conversation about Haiti and its income inequality, cautioned Vicki J. Huddleston, a retired U.S. ambassador to two African nations who worked in Haiti in the ‘90s and again from 2013 to 2015.

“This tiny white or whitish minority controls the resources of the country,” she said in an August interview, before she came out of retirement for a temporary post in Africa. “They control the resources, and they’re not terribly good about putting them back into the country.”

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Members of the Bigio family, from left to right, daughter Laurence, Gilbert, Gilbert’s wife Monique and son Reuven.

The GB Group website highlights a planned $6 million land donation to build a teaching hospital, and a family charity called Fondation Monique et Gilbert Bigio Inc., created to promote community development, education and healthcare.

It is registered as a Florida corporation and does not appear in federal records as a 501c3 non-profit organization, as charities typically do. It’s unclear why the family incorporated a charity, and the question was asked in the unanswered emails.

Over the Years

The earliest Pandora documents about the Bigios show the formation in 2001 of a company called Lockver Investment Inc. in the British Virgin Islands, with services provided by the powerhouse Panamanian offshore law firm Aleman, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, or ALCOGAL.

By 2006, the documents show ALCOGAL lawyers working on Bigio’s behalf with the Miami office of Spanish institution Banco Santander. Another document from 2010 gives power of attorney to Gilbert’s wife Monique and son Reuven to open and operate a Swiss bank account with Banco Santander (Suisse).

Their daughter Laurence has worked as an executive vice president of GB Group but does not appear on the offshore companies or in the Pandora Papers.

Other documents show that Lockver appears to have been used later as a holding company through which the family at one point took a big stake in the cellphone company Digicel Haiti International.

The Bigios used multiple offshore providers over the years. A document from one of them, Overseas Management Company (OMC), reveals details about Grupo Premier Enterprises Corp., a shell company in the British Virgin Islands that was established in April 2007 as a holding company for investments in the Dominican Republic.

The company’s stated purpose, according to the document, was to manage investment revenue from a fuel business. It lists both father and son as dual nationals, with Haitian and French passports, and both are listed as politically exposed persons, or PEPs.

That’s a classification reserved for clients who are either politicians or close to them, and as such they are supposed to be subject to greater review and screening to ensure they are not holding money for others or corrupting governments.

During the time of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Reuven served as Israel’s honorary consul in Haiti, a post held previously by his father.

Gilbert has said the Bigio family traces roots back to Syrian Jews who arrived in Haiti in the late 1800s. The family has maintained close ties with Israel and provided land it owns to the Israeli government to set up hospitals and other aid in Haiti after the 2010 quake.

Expanding into oil

The Pandora Papers show that in March 2011 the Bigios registered another company in the British Virgin Islands called LRY Investments Limited. Husband, wife and son were named as directors. Another ALCOGAL document, designed to profile the family’s holdings, no longer listed them as PEPs and described the source of funds generically as “business related funds.”

Late that same year, GB Group bought out the fuel marketing and jet fuel business of Chevron in Jamaica, which operated under the Texaco name there and in the Dominican Republic and St. Maarten. At the time, the Bigios and a joint-venture partner already owned what had been the Haiti operations of Royal Dutch Shell.

The GB Group website shows that the Bigios still control energy operations in the three countries under the Texaco name.

A sworn statement from 2019 also found in the documents from Reuven Bigio discusses a company called Lafito Free Zone Holdings Ltd. The company’s purpose, said the documents, is to receive dividends, distributions, personal gifts and savings from the family’s port terminal and free zone outside Port-au-Prince.

The Bigios broke ground on the container terminal and free zone in 2012, completing work and opening in 2015. The Bigios also own Lafito Logistics Holding Ltd., which is registered in the Bahamas.

A spreadsheet from Banco Santander in the Pandora Papers describes legal actions taken in favor of Monique and Gilbert, showing that in addition to the Swiss bank accounts the couple used complicated trusts, legal documents that designate inheritance rights and obligations to protect assets.

A country with little ability to collect taxes, Haiti lacks the expertise to enforce its tax laws, much less understand the complex trusts to shield revenue used by its elites, many of whom carry passports from other Caribbean or Middle Eastern countries.

“How do you become a billionaire in Haiti?” asked Ambassador White, who occasionally hosted Haiti’s monied elite at her diplomatic residence.

One way is to get your money out of Haiti.

“Almost all of them have houses in Miami, New York, France. They travel around all the time,” she said.

Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed from Miami.

Kevin G. Hall began the Pandora Papers project as an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald and continued the work as North America editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

The Pandora Papers is a global collaboration between The Miami Herald and the nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. If you like journalism like this, please make a donation to ICIJ to support it.

This story was originally published October 4, 2021 7:30 AM.