Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri reportedly gave over $16 million to a South African swimsuit model who says they were romantically involved.
The payments from Hariri to Candice van der Merwe began in 2013, when he was not in office but still leader of his Future Movement party, the New York Times reported Monday.
The report, which cited South African court documents, said the two met in the Seychelles in 2013, when Hariri was between terms as prime minister and managing the family business.
Van der Merwe was 19 years old when she was reportedly recruited in 2012 to visit a resort in the archipelago country “frequented by some of the richest private individuals in the world” and to where models were brought from overseas “to lend a sense of glamour and exclusivity.”
According to the report, van der Merwe made numerous additional trips to the Seychelles and in May 2013 received $15,299,965 from a Lebanese bank. She also received two luxury cars worth over $250,000, which her lawyer said were bought by the same “extremely well-to-do Middle Eastern gentleman” who transferred her the money.
“Love you my Saad :),” she was quoted writing in an email in which she gave Hariri her bank account information.
Candice-Jean van der Merwe pic.twitter.com/5Dzd5jwJ2p
— Ali Mourad (@alihmourad) September 30, 2019
When tax inspectors began looking into the money transfer, van der Merwe argued it was a gift and a bank official said “the sender and beneficiary are boyfriend/girlfriend and are currently together in the Seychelles.”
Authorities reportedly doubted her claim that the money was a gift and suspected it was intended for her father, a businessman who has feuded with tax inspectors, leading them to charge income tax on the transfer and freeze her accounts.
The report said Hariri then sent her another $1 million to help with her legal bills and living expenses.
Van der Merwe eventually reached a settlement with the tax authorities but in January sued for $65 million over the investigation into her finances. She asserted that the legal saga and surrounding publicity hurt her career and caused the end of her relationship with 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 lawsuit reportedly says.
Though the report noted that the money transfers did not appear to break Lebanese or South African law, its publication came after Hariri’s business and political operations have faced financial woes in recent years and as Lebanon grappled with an economic crisis.
Lebanon is facing a deep-running fiscal crisis as it staggers under one of the highest debt ratios in the world, at $86 billion or more than 150% of the country’s gross domestic product.
At a protest Sunday in downtown Beirut, many of the demonstrators blamed Lebanese political leaders for the widespread mismanagement and corruption.
Despite tens of billions of dollars spent since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon still has crumbling infrastructure including daily hourslong electricity cuts, trash piles in the streets and often sporadic, limited water supplies from the state-owned water company.
Last week, the local currency reached 1,650 Lebanese pounds to the dollar at exchange shops after it had been stable at 1,500 since 1997. Although the official price is still pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar, people find it difficult to get hard currency at this rate from local banks.
Because of the shortage in hard currency, there have been complaints by importers of fuel, medicine and wheat, that they buy the products from abroad paying in US dollars and when they sell in Lebanon they do so in the local currency.
On Monday, Lebanon’s central bank governor said the bank will secure foreign currency for some imports in a move that is expected to ease the demand for hard currency.