June 8, 2011 -- 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.
U.S.: Gabon A Place Of 'Widespread Government Corruption'
The U.S. says there have been improvements under the new President Bongo, but according to the State Department's most recent report, Gabon is still a place of "widespread government corruption" marked by the "use of excessive force by police," where even taking picture of the Bongos' many palaces is against the law.
President Bongo refused repeated requests by ABC News for an interview to discuss allegations of corruption. One of his top aides said no reputable news agency would ask such questions, and he accused ABC News of conducting a smear campaign against the President.
In Gabon, people can go to prison for criticizing the ruling family. That's what happened to Marc Ona, a polio victim who is one of the few people in Gabon to criticize the Bongo family's continued rule publicly. He was briefly sent to prison for it by Bongo's father.
Asked if he thought by talking to ABC News he was exposing him to the possibility of fresh trouble with the government, Ona said, "Yes, but I don't care."
Ona said he had to evade secret police to meet with ABC News late at night in a hotel in the capital of Libreville, but that he wanted Americans to know that corruption and impunity are still rampant under President Bongo.
Ali Bongo With Giuliani, Chris Tucker
President Bongo has used his money to travel the world in style, and make lots of important friends. In New York last year during a United Nations meeting, he rented an entire museum to throw a party in his honor, where he was praised by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his work in protecting the African environment.
His entourage all stayed at one of New York's most expensive hotels, with such celebrities as comedian Chris Tucker dropping by to visit.
When ABC News dropped by for a visit and a few questions, the reaction was very different. "You're coming here with a biased approach," said a Bongo aide, who put his hand on an ABC News camera and ordered, "Get out of here, get out of here."
A spokesman for President Bongo insisted to ABC News that he is a reformer who is working to fight corruption in the country. The spokesman offered no explanation to ABC News, however, as to how Bongo's family has been able to amass such a great fortune.