A preliminary forensic audit of Lebanon’s central bank by professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal (A&M) has drawn a dismal picture of the institution under former governor Riad Salameh’s long tenure.
Since late 2019, Lebanon has been stuck in an economic crisis deemed “one of the worst in modern history” by the World Bank, but politicians have mostly failed to take measures to arrest the collapse or enact changes demanded by creditors.
An audit of the central bank has been among the top demands of creditors as Lebanon seeks bailout funds.
The financial position of the central bank (BdL) “deteriorated rapidly” between 2015 and 2020, according to a leaked copy of the preliminary report which was seen by AFP.
“However, this deterioration was not reported in BdL’s balance sheet presented in its annual financial statements, which were prepared using unconventional accounting policies,” it said.
Those policies allowed the central bank “to overstate assets, equity and profits while understating liabilities,” it added.
Former governor Salameh, who left his post at the end of last month, is widely viewed as a key culprit in the country’s dramatic economic crash.
On Thursday, Britain, Canada and the United States announced sweeping sanctions against the 73-year-old, who is also wanted in Europe for alleged financial crimes. Salameh has denied all charges against him.
In 2015, he launched so-called financial engineering measures aimed at increasing central bank reserves, in measures that some have compared to a Ponzi scheme.
The preliminary audit report said the central bank’s “accounting policy in respect of financial engineering was exceptional in the extent of personal, unscrutinized discretion given to the governor to determine accounting estimates,” it said, calling the measures “costly”.
– ‘Misconduct’ –
It recommended “immediate action” to “introduce further governance, oversight and scrutiny measures to mitigate any further risk arising from BdL’s misconduct.”
It also recommended implementing “strong internal controls across BdL’s risk taking departments.”
Salameh is the subject of judicial investigations at home and abroad into allegations including embezzlement.
In May, judicial authorities in France and Munich in Germany issued arrest warrants for Salameh over accusations including money laundering and fraud.
Lebanon does not extradite its nationals.
European investigators have been probing the central bank’s ties to Forry Associates Ltd, a British Virgin Islands-registered company that listed Salameh’s brother Raja as its beneficiary.
The U.S. Treasury said on Thursday that Forry was a “shell company” used “to divert approximately $330 million from transactions involving the BdL.”
“Salameh and Raja then moved these funds to bank accounts in their own names or the names of other shell companies,” the statement said.
A&M’s preliminary audit report said “there is evidence of the payment of illegitimate commissions during the period totalling $111 million.”
“This appears to be a continuation of the commission scheme under investigation by Lebanese and international prosecuting authorities,” the report said.
“We have identified no records to confirm that a service was actually performed to justify the commission payments,” it added.
A&M had agreed to complete its work in 12 weeks, the preliminary report said, but “the review was in fact completed 49 weeks after mobilization due to the frequent delays in receipt of data.”
It cited “many challenges in conducting the forensic audit, including that we have not been allowed access on site at BdL, nor have we been permitted to conduct interviews with BdL staff or leadership.”