The family that has ruled the African nation of Gabon for decades has been accused of taking bribes, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars, and presiding over a system rife with corruption, but that hasn't stopped President Obama from inviting President Ali Bongo of Gabon to the White House Thursday.
White House press secretary Jay Carney conceded to ABC News Wednesday that President Bongo has a "less than sterling" record, but said that it was "very important" for President Obama to grant Bongo the coveted Oval Office meeting anyway.
"First of all, the president of Gabon is making reform efforts, which we support," said Carney. "Secondly ... Gabon has been an important partner in some of the issues that are very important to American national security."
Jack Blum, a United Nations consultant and expert on offshore banking, said that the invitation sends a disturbing message. Blum estimates that in years past the Bongo family and its cronies have "siphon[ed] off 25 percent of the gross domestic product of the country. And it's made them incredibly rich."
"There's absolutely no shame," said Blum. "I would say that the people who are running the country are guilty of grand theft nation."
The Bongo family, as detailed in an ABC News investigation airing on "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" tonight, has ruled the oil-rich but underdeveloped nation since 1967. After the death of his father Omar Bongo two years ago today, Ali Bongo was himself elected president, and now presides over not only Gabon, but a family empire, allegedly the product of corruption, estimated by U.S. investigators to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Omar Bongo and now his son Ali Bongo have for more than 40 years run a regime in Gabon which diverts their country's wealth for their family's personal use," Sen. Carl Levin, D.-Michigan, told ABC News. Sen. Levin said that a 2010 Congressional report on foreign corruption from an investigative committee that he chairs "shows how the Bongos misused U.S. financial institutions to carry out suspicious transactions involving millions of dollars."
The Bongos have literally dozens of luxury homes worth millions of dollars everywhere from Beverly Hills, where they own three homes, to the French Riviera. After a criminal complaint filed by a human rights group, authorities in France found that the family had more than 30 luxury properties in that nation alone, including a $120 million, 14-bedroom townhouse in Paris that Ali Bongo bought just last year.
During a 2006 shopping spree in Malibu captured by VH-1, Ali Bongo's then-wife Inge turned up her nose at a $25 million mansion. "I need something really big, really, really, really big," she said. "I would think for that amount of money, I would expect a bit more grandeur."
"I've tried to downsize, but it's just not in my character," concluded Inge.
The Bongos' lifestyle is a stark contrast to how most people live in Gabon, a French-speaking West African country the size of Colorado that is home to 1.5 million people. Oil revenues make Gabon one of Africa's most prosperous countries, but it is also a place where some families are still forced to pick through garbage to eat. One third of the population lives on $2 per day.