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Archive for Sunday, November 18, 2001

Money slips through fingers of top Tongans

November 18, 2001

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I hate to give you something else to worry about, but you need to be aware of this situation in the Kingdom of Tonga.

The Kingdom of Tonga, as you know if you just now looked it up in the encyclopedia, is a nation way out in the Pacific Ocean consisting of roughly 170 small islands (the exact number depends on the height of the waves). Tonga boasts a monarchy-style government and an ecology that features a huge fruit bat whose actual, legal bat name is the "giant flying fox." The giant flying fox has a wingspan of up to two meters, which when converted from metric to normal means this thing is basically a commuter aircraft with claws. So my advice would be, if you are ever in Tonga, do NOT allow your small children to walk around outdoors at night holding fruit. ("Hey! That thing took Timmy's apple! Also, Timmy!")

But the giant flying fox is not the issue at hand. The issue at hand is the Tongan financial scandal, which has been reported in a fascinating series of recent news stories. To summarize in a nutshell: The government of Tonga has lost $26 million. Now, that is nothing to the U.S. government, which can waste $26 million in a single day merely by launching a drive to eliminate government waste. But $26 million is a LOT of money in Tonga, where the entire annual government budget is $38 million, or, in local currency, 86 million Pa'anga (one Pa'anga equals 100 seniti).

Tonga raised the $26 million by selling Tongan citizenships to people who, for one reason or another, needed a new country. (For example, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos bought them.) The monarch of Tonga, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, did not want to keep the $26 million in Tonga because he felt and this is a direct quote from a news article by the Agence France-Presse "the government would only spend it on roads."

So the $26 million was deposited in a checking account in the Bank of America. One day it was noticed by a man named Jesse Bogdonoff, who worked for the bank and also had a company that sold magnets to cure back pain. Bogdonoff became a financial adviser for Tonga, in which capacity he persuaded the king I swear I am not making any of this up to proclaim him Tonga's official court jester. (For the record, here in the United States, we do not have an official court jester. We have Congress.)

In 1999, Bogdonoff left the Bank of America and persuaded the king to put Tonga's money into a new company in Nevada called Millennium Asset Management. What happened next will shock you, especially if you believe in the old investing maxim, "You cannot go wrong with a financial adviser who is both a court jester AND a seller of health magnets." It now appears that Millennium Asset Management no longer exists. Tonga's money is GONE.

As you can imagine, this has been BIG news in Tonga. Several government officials have resigned, including Deputy Prime Minister Tevita Tupou, who was replaced by Police Minister Clive Edwards, who, according to Agence France-Presse, "is also the kingdom's hangman." There are rumors that at least some of the missing money was lost in a dot-com company set up by the king's son, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Tupouto'a. If you have access to the Internet, you must run, not walk, to your computer right now and check out the Tonga Visitors Bureau Web site (www.vacations. tvb.gov.to). There you can see a wonderful photograph of the crown prince dressed in a uniform featuring chest medals and a hat from Big Bob's House of Comical Military Headgear. The crown prince is gazing into the distance with an expression that reflects either (a) visionary leadership, or (b) the realization that a lizard is loose in his pants.

Speaking of wildlife: Elsewhere on the Tonga Visitors Bureau Web site you can see a photograph of a giant flying fox swooping downward, its eyes presumably fixed on a piece of fruit. Or little Timmy.

But my point is this: We must help the Kingdom of Tonga, a nation that has always been a staunch ally of America, in the sense that it never declared war on us. Or, if it did, we never found out about it. So I urge you to keep your eyes peeled, and if you spot $26 million that doesn't seem to belong to anybody, pick it up, put it in a box, and send it to me. I promise to guard it as if it were my own.

Whatever you do, DON'T send the money to the Tongans. They'll just spend it on roads.




Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.

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