A Haitian senator bought a $3.4 million villa in Quebec. Critics accuse him of money laundering

 

July 11, 2021

 


A mansion outside Montreal, in Laval, was purchased in 2020 by the wife of Rony Celestin, a senator in Haiti who said he gave her the money. NASUNA STUART-ULIN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

 

By Dan Bilefsky and Catherine Porter | The New York Times

 

MONTREAL – He is one of the few lawmakers left in Haiti, a close ally of the assassinated president who has kept his seat while the country’s democratic institutions have been whittled away.

As one of only 10 remaining members in all of Haiti’s parliament, Rony Célestin, a swaggering figure who styles himself as a self-made multimillionaire, belongs to a tiny circle of leaders with the legal authority to steer the nation out of crisis now that the president is dead.

But to many Haitians, Célestin is also a symbol of one of their biggest grievances: a ruling class that enriches itself while so many go hungry.

In recent months, as the country erupted in protest over abuse of power by the political elite, Célestin has been parrying accusations of corruption from Haitian activists over his purchase of a mansion 3,000 kilometres away in Laval, Que.

The sprawling $3.4 million villa (all figures U.S.), with its sweeping driveway, home cinema, wine cellar and swimming pool overlooking a lake, was among the most expensive homes ever sold in one of Quebec’s most affluent neighbourhoods, and the purchase set off a corruption investigation into Célestin by officials in Haiti.

The villa has become emblematic of the chasm between the gilded lifestyles of Haiti’s elite and the majority of the population, who on average earn less than $2.41 a day. Célestin’s ownership has incited outrage over capital flight — legal and illicit — that drains money from Haiti and weakens the country’s institutions.

Célestin vehemently denies any wrongdoing, describing himself as a savvy entrepreneur whose success and donations to the election campaign of the assassinated president, Jovenel Moïse, have afforded him a variety of privileges, including the ability to pay for the villa and get his wife a job at the Haitian consulate in Montreal.

“I have enough influence, if I wanted to make her an ambassador, that would happen,” he told the New York Times.

But the Times found little or no indication in Haiti of the thriving businesses that Célestin cites as the source of his great wealth. Some appear to operate on a much smaller scale than he claimed, if at all, in some cases.

His lawyer declined to provide details about his businesses with the anti-corruption inquiry in Haiti underway. Anger over the mansion became so pitched that some members of Montreal’s Haitian community hid in the bushes around the home in the suburb of Laval, and sneaked onto the grounds, hoping to confront Célestin and his family.

“Haiti is a poor country where people are dying of hunger, and here you have rich people trying to take their money out of the country and buying mansions in cash,” said Frantz André, a leading Haitian human rights advocate in Montreal who has led protests outside the Haitian consulate in recent months.

Because Haiti, a country of 11 million people, has so few functioning institutions, Célestin could help play a pivotal role in the nation’s future. Only 10 senators out of 30 remain in parliament, and Célestin is one. The terms of the other 20 expired, and new elections were never called. The lower house of parliament is entirely vacant, and the head of the nation’s highest court died of COVID-19 in June.

That leaves senators like Célestin among the few remaining elected officials in Haiti, with a powerful say in determining how the country should be led after the brazen assassination of Moïse on Wednesday.

But critics call the Senate dysfunctional. And as the country has spiralled into turmoil in recent months, members of the political elite have prospered abroad in places like the Dominican Republic, the United States and Canada, investing their money — and in some cases laundering it, authorities say — through real estate.

Despite billions of dollars in reconstruction aid after a devastating earthquake in 2010, the country has not rebuilt, and many contend it is worse off. Armed gangs control many areas, poverty and hunger are rising, and officials like Célestin have been accused of enriching themselves while failing to provide the country with even the most basic services. Transparency International, the anti-corruption monitor, ranked Haiti 170th out of 180 countries for perceived levels of corruption in 2020 — tied with North Korea.

In a rare interview in late March, Célestin, 46, said he amassed his wealth in farming, importing and other legitimate businesses that earned him millions of dollars a month. He gave his wife, Marie Louisa Célestin, the money to buy the mansion in late 2020, he said, so that she and their children could enjoy the “social advantages” of living in Canada.

But the traces of Célestin’s business empire on the ground in Haiti differed greatly from the image he painted.

He said he owned a giant henhouse in the Haitian city of Léogâne with 800,000 hens valued at about $60 million but did not provide any supporting documentation. A reporter hired by the Times who visited the city could not find such a vast henhouse or anyone who had heard of it. Patrice Dumont, a senator from Léogâne, told the Times that Célestin’s project had been planned but never begun.

Célestin said he also had a radio station called Model FM, which he started in a rural region but which grew to the point that he installed it in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The station does have a small, discreet office in the suburb of Petionville, with no signs. On the two occasions when the Times visited, the office was closed, or a single person was there who could provide no information about the station — not even an advertising rate sheet.

Célestin said he also owned a gas company called PetroGaz-Haiti, but by his own description, it appeared to violate legal prohibitions against profiting from state funds. While politicians are permitted to own businesses, the constitution forbids them from having contracts with the state, which Célestin said he had had for four years through the company.

With outrage brewing, the Haitian government’s Anti-Corruption Unit launched an investigation into the purchase of the Célestin home in Canada in February. The RCMP said it could not disclose whether it was also investigating the transaction. But under Canadian regulations, the purchase should have raised a red flag, said Garry Clement, the former head of an RCMP unit that investigates money laundering.

As a senator, Célestin is considered a “politically exposed person” under Canadian money laundering regulations, which means financial institutions are required to perform due diligence to determine the source of any transferred funds greater than $100,000. These rules would also apply to Marie Louisa Célestin as the wife of a “PEP,” Clement explained.

Rony Célestin said everything about the purchase was above board. “If I wasn’t clean, I would have had a lot of trouble with the banks in Miami,” he added, saying that he routinely transferred between $20 million and $30 million to Turkey to buy iron for what he described as one of his import businesses. “I would be scared if my money wasn’t clean.”

But Célestin and his lawyer in Montreal, Alexandre Bergevin, declined to answer follow-up questions or provide the names of his import company or his farm. His wife, a counsellor at the Haitian consulate in Montreal since 2019, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I am no longer at this level, the one where my wife or I am looking for work to live,” Célestin said, emphasizing his wealth by adding that his chef in Haiti earned $4,000 a month.

Despite the investigation into Célestin in Haiti, many activists there and in Canada were skeptical that it was being conducted in earnest. One said he had asked about the case just last week and was told by officials that they were not following through.

A 2020 report by the State Department on human rights in Haiti said that despite many reports of government corruption, wrongdoers operate with impunity. The country’s Senate has never prosecuted a high-level official accused of corruption as required by the constitution, the report said.

Over the years, Célestin has faced multiple accusations of fraud and corruption, both in his election campaigns and in his role as a public servant.

In 2010, when he was elected to parliament’s lower chamber, the elections were marred by allegations of corruption and fraud. Seven years later, when he won a Senate seat, his opponent said the vote had been rigged.

In 2016, Célestin was living in a mansion when it was seized by the police during a drug trafficking investigation. Célestin denied the house had links to a drug dealer and said the accusations had been concocted by political enemies.

Senior Canadian officials said Canada had been strengthening legislation to combat money laundering and adding resources to fight it. A 2019 report by the State Department designated Canada a “major money laundering country,” citing weak law enforcement and gaps in its laws, putting it on a list of countries that included Afghanistan, China and Colombia.

Money laundering experts said too few banks, notaries and real estate agents were reporting suspicious activities in Canada and that money laundering cases seldom resulted in convictions.

“People think Canada is the Boy Scout of countries, but when it comes to real estate, that is not always the case,” said Andy Yan, an adjunct professor of urban planning at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Haiti’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked Célestin’s wife to make herself available for questioning by the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit, said the consul general in Montreal, Fritz Dorvilier. But Haitian activists say they have little faith in the inquiry.

Pierre Espérance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, has called for Célestin to reveal records documenting his assets and expenses, such as custom slips from his imports of merchandise and his tax returns.

“He must pay a lot of taxes to the state if he is earning millions of dollars a month,” Espérance said from his office in Port-au-Prince. “He must show us the proof.”

André, the Montreal-based Haitian human rights advocate, posted photographs of the home’s lavish interior on his Facebook page, urging fellow Haitians to pay the family a visit. “If you are of Haitian origin, this is your home too,” he wrote.

“I suggest you ask for the lake view,” he wrote. “Have a good stay.”

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