The effect of government embezzlement goes much deeper than the total bottom line of stolen funds. Embezzlement of public funds impedes democratic norms, spreads poverty, increases bureaucratic corruption, and robs citizens of vital public services. The Russian government is under fierce scrutiny over the inflated costs of the recent 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Reports estimate the costs of the games were anywhere between US $50-51 Billion dollars – by far the most expensive Olympic Games in history. The construction of the main road leading to the mountain where the games were hosted, Krasnaya Polyana, reportedly cost three times as much as NASA spent for the “delivery and operation of a new generation of Mars rovers”. Contracts were awarded to contractors with close ties to Putin and his affiliates for seemingly excessive prices that were ultimately surpassed during the final construction. Attempts have been made to justify the sky-high costs with excuses of protection against terrorist threats but these claims have been drowned out by the accusations of corrupt and inflated construction contracts. If the corruption accusations are true, ultimately it’s the Russian people who will foot the bill for this exorbitant display of government fraud.
Statistically, the typical embezzler is a male financial senior manager, aged 36 to 45 years old who has been working with an organization for 5 to 10 years. But this profile only gives us a picture of private embezzlers; it would appear that public embezzlers are a veritable melting pot of tax-siphoning crooks. Contrary to KPMG’s analysis of the typical fraudster, public embezzlement on a national level normally occurs with men who have been in power for decades and have ruled with an iron fist.
Following his ouster, the world was awarded an inside look into Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s private compound. The sprawling private compound was a monument to the corruption that the Ukrainian citizens have fought against, and reports recovered from his home document the millions of dollars embezzled from the Ukrainian government. Despite their flare for flouting social responsibilities, Yanukovych and Putin’s corruption are mere child’s-play compared to some of history’s most unapologetically corrupt world leaders.
10. Joseph Estrada – US $78-80 Million
Former Filipino President Joseph Estrada kicks off our list with a total amount of $78-80 million stolen during his 1998 to 2001 presidency. Elected in 1998, the former movie-star-turned-politician-turned-crook only served three short years before being ousted by a popular uprising, but those years were enough to allow him to siphon of tens of millions of dollars of the people’s money. Estrada was convicted of plunder charges in a Filipino court and sentenced to life in prison.
9. Arnoldo Aleman – US $100 Million
Arnoldo Aleman served as President of Nicaragua from 1997 until 2002 when his Vice President Enrique Bolaños ran a successful Presidential campaign. During his Presidency, Aleman made off with $100 million and has been accused of multiple corruption charges. Charges were laid against him following Bolaños’ anti-corruption campaign, when the former president was tried for and found guilty of “money-laundering, fraud, embezzlement and electoral crimes”.
8. Pavlo Lazarenko – US $114-200 Million
Perhaps setting a precursor for President Yanukovych, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko embezzled $114-200 million in 1 short year – from 1996-97. In 1999 he was accused of being implicated in the attempted assassinations of high-ranking Ukrainian government officials. He fled to the United States seeking sanctuary, only to be charged and convicted for “money laundering, wire fraud, and transporting stolen goods”. Lazarenko was sentenced to 9 years in a San Francisco court in 2004.
7. Alberto Fujimori – US $600 Million
Elected to the Peruvian Presidency in 1990, former President Alberto Fujimori’s government was in power for 10 years. A pseudo-authoritarian, Fujimori’s presidency comes with mixed reviews – some praised him for saving Peru “from the twin evils of terrorism and economic collapse,” while others called him an “authoritarian strongman”. Whether you’re on the pro or con camps of Fujimori, it is hard to ignore the $600 million dollars he lifted out of the Peruvian taxpayers’ pockets. Fujimori was eventually convicted on corruption charges and is currently in a Peruvian jail. He frequently tweets from within his jail cell and has thousands of followers.
6. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier – US $300-800 Million
Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier ruled over Haiti from 1971 until his 1986 ouster, and reportedly stole $300-800 million in that time. Duvalier inherited his presidency after his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, passed away in 1971, and lost power in 1986 following a Haitian popular uprising. Duvalier’s regime was a brutal dictatorship that saw multiple crimes against humanity and attempts on Duvalier’s life. In 2011, Duvalier returned to Haiti following an exile in France, only to be put on trial for corruption charges and crimes against humanity.
5. Slobodan Milosevic – US $1 Billion
Milosevic’s 11-year reign over Yugoslavia was ripe with war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was a significant contributing factor in the breakup of Yugoslavia through widespread revolution. During his 1989-2000 Presidency, Milosevic stole $1 billion from the Yugoslav public before ultimately being captured. Milosevic’s regime has been directly linked with the genocide during the wars with Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia. Milosevic was eventually tried at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and in 2006 he was found dead in a holding cell.
4. Sani Abacha – US $2-5 Billion
In just 5 years Sani Abacha managed to embezzle $2-5 billion into his personal bank accounts. Abacha’s Nigerian regime was marked by rampant corruption and brutal violence. Operating as Nigeria’s de facto leader, Abacha ruled from 1995-1998 as head of the military and controlled the country’s government through a puppet regime. His exit from power followed a cardiac arrest at the age of 45. Much of the stolen funds have been reinvested into Nigerian coffers, but Abacha’s family is fighting the Swiss government for their right to his misappropriated money.
3. Mobutu Sese Seko – US $5 Billion
Former President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, came to power in 1965 through two consecutive coups and stayed in power until 1997 when he was driven from the country by rebel forces. Among his actions as President, Mobutu renamed the country to Zaire, ran an extremely oppressive regime riddled with corruption, consistently violated human rights, and reportedly embezzled $5 billion through Swiss bank accounts. Recently, the Swiss government has ruled that they will be releasing the stolen funds back to Mobutu’s family – a decision that has Congolese officials up in arms.
2. Ferdinand Marcos – US $5-10 Billion
The Philippines seems prone to record-shatteringly corrupt leaders, with this their second entry on the list of largest government embezzlements. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos have been accused of embezzling US $5-10 Billion dollars over the course of President Marcos’ 20-year reign. Elected to the presidency in 1965, Marcos ran an oppressive authoritarian regime where he suspended the writ of habeas corpus and instituted martial law before being ousted in 1986 during a bloodless revolution. During his reign, Marcos stole billions from the Filipino government; his wife, Imelda, famously had a shoe collection of over 3000 pairs.
1. Mohamed Suharto – US $15-35 Billion
The Indonesian dictator came to power in in 1968, following an attempted coup d’état against former Indonesian President Sukarno, and stayed in power for a mind-boggling 31 years – finally stepping down after citizens rioted against what would have been his seventh consecutive term. During his 31 year reign, Suharto has been estimated to have embezzled anywhere between US $15-35 Billion. Following his death in 2008, Suharto has left his legacy as the “most brutal and corrupt [dictatorship] of the 20th century”.
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