Lebanonâ€™s Prime Minister Gave $16 Million to South African Model
BEIRUT, Lebanon â€” The prime minister of Lebanon gave more than $16 million to a South African bikini model who said they had a romantic relationship after they met at a luxury resort in the Seychelles, according to South African court documents obtained by The New York Times.
The prime minister, Saad Hariri, was not in office when he sent the money starting in 2013, and the transfer does not appear to have violated any Lebanese or South African laws.
But the revelation in a South African court case this year of the extravagant gifts to a younger model comes during a difficult period for Mr. Hariri, the top Sunni Muslim politician in Lebanon and an American ally.
His business and political empires have fallen on hard times, depriving many employees of their pay. His familyâ€™s construction conglomerate, Saudi Oger, ceased operations in 2017, and his media outlets have struggled to pay salaries.
A looming financial crisis in Lebanon has set off antigovernment protests. This month, Mr. Hariri said the Lebanese government would declare an â€œeconomic state of emergencyâ€ and push through austerity measures.
Mr. Hariri did not respond to questions sent to his media team about his relationship with the model, Candice van der Merwe, or any gifts to her.
The gifts have no clear tie to Lebanonâ€™s current economic woes and Mr. Hariri, a married father of three, was sufficiently wealthy to have made the payments himself. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth in 2013 at $1.9 billion, thanks largely to business interests he inherited after his father, Rafik Hariri, who also served as prime minister, was assassinated in Beirut in 2005.
Since then, the younger Hariri has remained one of Lebanonâ€™s best known political figures. He makes frequent state visits to Paris, Washington and Riyadh and favors pro-Western policies, but heads a power-sharing government that includes Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party backed by Iran.
His bank transfers to Ms. van der Merwe were made between his two terms as prime minister, but while he was the head of his political party, the Future Movement. He was 43 at the time of the first transfer, in 2013. He was then running family businesses in construction and other domains and living in France and Saudi Arabia.
Ms. van der Merwe was 20 years old. She had appeared in energy drink promotions and swimwear calendars, but her reported annual income had never exceeded $5,400.
In a promotional interview in a skimpy bikini conducted in conjunction with the publication of a swimsuit calendar in 2011, she said her interests included listening to Jack Johnson and Celine Dion, riding Jet Skis and flying helicopters with her father.
Then in May 2013, her assets suddenly soared, thanks to a transfer of $15,299,965 from a Lebanese bank.
â€œLady luck, it would seem, suddenly smiled on the applicant,â€ a South African judge wrote in 2015.
The transfer would likely have remained secret had the large sum not raised suspicions among the South African financial and tax authorities, who investigated and deemed it taxable income.
Ms. van der Merwe insisted the money was a gift, and not taxable according to South African law. In subsequent court cases, she argued the money had been given to her without conditions and identified her benefactor as Mr. Hariri.
â€œLove you my Saad :),â€ Ms. van der Merwe wrote in an email to Mr. Hariri in which she provided her bank account details so he could transfer the money, telling him it was so she could buy property.
The money landed in her account shortly afterward.
The New York Times was unable to reach Ms. van der Merwe, but two of her previous lawyers, her current lawyer, and her father, who has represented her in tax court, declined to comment and to make her available for an interview.
In an affidavit cited in the court documents, Ms. van der Merwe said she had been recruited at age 19 to travel to an exclusive resort in the Seychelles Islands called The Plantation Club that was â€œfrequented by some of the richest private individuals in the world,â€ including billionaires â€œfor whom money is no object.â€
At this â€œplayground of the super wealthy,â€ she said, â€œit is the norm for lavish parties and events to be heldâ€ and models were flown in â€œto lend a sense of glamour and exclusivity.â€ The modelsâ€™ passports were taken when they arrived and they were forbidden from taking photos.
Ms. van der Merwe spent four days at the resort in 2012, she said, and connected with people she met because of her â€œhealthy lifestyleâ€ and other qualities.
â€œI have also been told that I have a very engaging personality,â€ she said.
Other trips followed. On her first two, she flew economy class. Later, she was upgraded to first or business class.
During a trip in March 2013, she said, she told friends that her â€œdream carâ€ was the Audi R8. After she returned home, she had an accident that totaled her car and cracked her cellphone screen.
A car dealer soon called her to pick up a new Audi R8 Spyder, which had been paid for and registered in her name. She also received two new cellphones, including one with international roaming, and a Land Rover Evoque.
The two vehicles were worth more than $250,000, a sum that was added to her tax bill. Her lawyers wrote in 2015 that they were gifts from the same â€œextremely well-to-do Middle Eastern gentlemanâ€ who sent her the money.
When government investigators asked about the $15 million transfer, a bank official said that â€œthe sender and beneficiary are boyfriend/girlfriend and are currently together in the Seychelles.â€
Ms. van der Merwe bought properties worth more than $10 million, including a house in Cape Townâ€™s upscale Fresnaye neighborhood with an outdoor swimming pool and commanding ocean views. She also lent $2.7 million to a real estate company her father was involved with and made other transactions, leaving $537,000 in her account, she said.
The tax authorities considered her claim that the money was a gift implausible and suspected the funds had been for her father, Gary van der Merwe, a businessman who had fought repeated court battles with the tax authorities over his own business dealings. The authorities levied income tax on the sum, froze Ms. van der Merweâ€™s assets and appointed a curator to oversee them until the matter was settled.
So Mr. Hariri stepped in again, sending Ms. van der Merwe an additional $1 million to help cover her legal and living expenses, according to court documents.
In correspondence with the tax authorities, Ms. van der Merweâ€™s lawyers acknowledged it was hard to believe that â€œsuch largess was bestowed on a young girlâ€ by someone with whom she had â€œa casual relationship.â€ But Ms. van der Merwe insisted the money and cars were gifts for her personal use with no conditions.
She reached a settlement with the tax authorities in 2016, which she appealed last year. A judge dismissed that case this month.
In January, she sued government officials for $65 million in damages she attributed to the tax authoritiesâ€™ pursuit of her. These documents made Mr. Haririâ€™s role in the case public this year.
In the suit, she argues that she had to sell the house because the asset freeze prevented her from paying for its upkeep. She also says the court cases and related publicity had caused irreparable damage to her career and severed her link to Mr. Hariri.
â€œThe plaintiffâ€™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,â€ the suit says.
Britney Spears Shares ‘Like a Virgin’ Dance With Madonna at Her Wedding
Spears is seen getting close to Madonna for some “Like a Virgin” fun in a new video from her wedding reception. Madonna, with special guest singer Britney Spears, performs during her Sticky and Sweet Tour at Dodger Stadium on November 6, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Kevin Winter/GI The footage from Britney Spears and Sam…
Spears is seen getting close to Madonna for some “Like a Virgin” fun in a new video from her wedding reception. Madonna, with special guest singer Britney Spears, performs during her Sticky and Sweet Tour at Dodger Stadium on November 6, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Kevin Winter/GI The footage from Britney Spears and Sam Asghari’s wedding keeps coming. In a new clip shared on social media on Saturday (June 11), Spears gave fans one more glimpse at what it was like to celebrate with her famous friends, courtesy of another clip featuring Madonna. Spears is seen smooching and dancing with her husband, showing off her wedding gown and getting close to Madonna for a little “Like a Virgin” fun in a series of wedding reception videos posted this weekend. Explore See latest videos, charts and news See latest videos, charts and news Spears and Asghari tied the knot on Thursday (June 9), eight months after they announced their engagement. The pair met in 2016 on the set of the singer’s “Slumber Party” video. “LIVING IS GIVING … pssss don’t worry I had my first diamond thong underneath my jacket … hope I didn’t offend anyone,” the pop star captioned the latest post from her wedding celebration, where at some point in the night she’d also recreated her legendary kiss with Madonna from the 2003 MTV VMAs. In another cute video that had already circulated after the nuptials, Spears, Madonna, Paris Hilton, Selena Gomez, Drew Barrymore and Donatella Versace were seen singing along to another Madonna’s classic, “Vogue.” Check out the “Like a Virgin” moment, which happens about 23 seconds into the clip below. Get weekly rundowns straight to your inbox Subscribe
Military abortion options expected to be debated in annual defense bill process
The nationwide debate over abortion will be a key point of contention in the upcoming defense authorization bill process later this month, with a key Democratic lawmaker saying the issue needs to be part of the military readiness discussion.“If readiness is impacted by the fact that women are going to have to travel thousands of…
The nationwide debate over abortion will be a key point of contention in the upcoming defense authorization bill process later this month, with a key Democratic lawmaker saying the issue needs to be part of the military readiness discussion.“If readiness is impacted by the fact that women are going to have to travel thousands of miles when they are in need of an abortion service, then we need to look at that,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, said this week.Committee staff said no specific language regarding military abortion services or access was included in the personnel section of the measure approved on Wednesday. Instead, the language focuses on things like the annual military pay raise and family support provisions.But committee members will be able to offer a wide range of amendments on the issue as part of the full committee mark up on June 22.RELATEDSpeier would not specify what proposals she or her colleagues will offer on the issue, but said that servicemembers should not be treated like “second-class citizens” when it comes to access to health care services.“We need to clarify for service members who are raped, subjected to incest or have situations in which their life is at risk: Where can they actually get an abortion?” she said.Last week, Speier and 81 other Democratic House members unveiled legislation that would allow military medical treatment facilities to provide abortion services to members of the military. Under current law, those procedures are banned except in cases of rape, incest and critical medical need.But supporters say they believe a change is needed in the wake of reports that the Supreme Court later this summer could overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion across America.RELATEDAt least 26 states — including locations like Texas, with major military bases — have indicated they will outlaw the procedure within days of such a Supreme Court decision. Speier and other democratic lawmakers have said that would leave military members assigned to those locations without medical options if they find themselves in need of an abortion.Separately, numerous lawmakers have asked for defense officials to clarify rules regarding leave time and travel assistance if female troops seek an abortion across state lines. Army officials have said they are looking into the issue.Past committee debates over the availability of abortion services at overseas military bases have provided some contentious moments in the annual defense bill work, with conservative lawmakers firmly against any loosening of the current rules.Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Mo Donegal wins pulling away, leads 1-2 finish for Pletcher at Belmont Stakes
NEW YORK: Triple Crown veteran Todd Pletcher had simple advice Saturday for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. before the Belmont Stakes. “Be patient,” Pletcher said. “I think you have the best last quarter of any horse in the race.” Sometimes, less is Mo. Mo Donegal pulled away down the home stretch and held off filly Nest…
NEW YORK: Triple Crown veteran Todd Pletcher had simple advice Saturday for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. before the Belmont Stakes. “Be patient,” Pletcher said. “I think you have the best last quarter of any horse in the race.” Sometimes, less is Mo. Mo Donegal pulled away down the home stretch and held off filly Nest to win the Belmont Stakes, giving Pletcher a 1-2 finish and his sixth Triple Crown victory, including four at this track on the outskirts of New York City. “To be honest with you, we were a little confident going into the race today,” Donegal Racing CEO and co-owner Jerry Crawford said. “When he turned for home, I was like, forget about it. I know Todd thought he could get a strong last quarter mile, and he surely did.” Rich Strike, a stunning Kentucky Derby winner at 80-to-1 odds, was sixth. Mo Donegal rounded the 1 1/2-mile distance in 2 minutes, 28.28 seconds, three lengths ahead of Nest — ridden by Ortiz’s brother, Jose. Pletcher, who lives on Long Island, adds another Belmont title following wins with Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malice in 2013 and Tapwrit in 2017. Mo Donegal beat an eight-horse field without a clear favorite. We the People, a monster in the mud, opened at 2 to 1 amid a rainy forecast but reached 7 to 2 by race time as showers held off. Mo Donegal entered the gate the betting favorite at 5 to 2. We the People led for much of the race, but Mo Donegal and Ortiz took charge coming out of the final turn. The 3-year-old colt paid $7.20, $3.80 and $3. Nest — who nearly became Pletcher’s second filly to win Belmont after Rags to Riches — paid $5.30 and $4.10. Skippylongstocking was third and returned $5.60 to show. We the People finished fourth. Rich Striker owner Rick Dawson and trainer Eric Reed held the Kentucky Derby winner out of the Preakness with an eye on Belmont, the first healthy horse to skip Pimlico after winning the Triple Crown’s first even since 1985. Reed said the team encouraged jockey Sonny Leon to try pushing Rich Strike from the outside, but the horse kept trying to get back inside — where he made a late charge past 19 horse to win at Churchill Downs. Rich Strike spent much of the race in last place and couldn’t recover. “I think we just made a tactical error,” Reed said. Just like Rich Strike, Mo Donegal was at the back of the pack at the Derby, but the colt didn’t have enough kick at Churchill Downs. He found it Saturday, winning the 154th running of the $1.5 million race. Mo Donegal made a winner out of co-owner Mike Repole, a local entrepreneur known around the track as “Mike from Queens.” Repole also co-owns Nest. “This is New York’s biggest race and to win it here, with my family and friends and 70 people here, this will be a big winner’s circle,” he said. It’s the fourth straight year the Triple Crown contests were won by three different horses, a first for the sport since 1926-29. The race marked a return to form for Belmont itself after the 2020 Stakes were closed to the public due to the pandemic and the 2021 event was limited to 11,238 spectators by virus restrictions. Capacity was capped again, this time at 50,000, because of congestion concerns stemming from the newly built arena next door for the NHL’s New York Islanders. Still, fans crammed into cars on the Long Island Rail Road and breathed life into the 117-year-old track with floral headwear, pastel suits and the unmistakable musk of booze and cigars. The reported attendance of 46,103 fell far short of the grounds record 120,139 set in 2004. Not much of a surprise, given the shaky weather forecast and the lack of a Triple Crown contender. The field was sparse, too. No horse ran all three Triple Crown legs this year, heightening concern that three races in five weeks may be too tight a schedule to keep the horses healthy. Preakness winner Early Voting was sidelined, likely to prepare for the $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 27. Epicenter, the runner-up at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, also skipped. In the $500,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies, Matareya romped to a 6 1/4-length victory. Favorite Echo Zulu scratched at the post on the advice of the track veterinarian. Trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Flavien Prat, Matareya ($2.60) ran the mile in 1:35.77, winning for the fifth time in eight career starts. Heavily favored Flightline got off a step slow, overcame an early traffic issue and cruised to a six-length victory in the $1 million Hill ‘N’ Dale Metropolitan Mile. The victory kept the 4-year-old Tapit colt undefeated in four career starts. This was the first one he did not win by double-digit lengths. Flightline ($2.90) was also ridden by Prat and trained by John Sadler.