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Tonga's 'court jester' scandal no laughing matter

King Taufa'ahau, implicated in the scandal
King Taufa'ahau, implicated in the scandal  

SUVA, Fiji (CNN) -- It's a scandal involving a Pacific island paradise, $20 million in missing funds, royalty, passports and a court jester.

And it is the talk of all of Tonga, a tiny nation 650 km (404 miles) east of Fiji.

Already the deputy prime minister and Tonga's education minister have resigned. There are calls to impeach other ministers in the scandal, which goes right up to aging King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV and his son Crown Prince Tupuoto'a.

In a tiny country where annual government spending totals about $40 million, Tongans are asking: Where is our $20 million and where is our court jester?

The court jester is U.S. businessman Jesse Bogdonoff. Bogdonoff, a member of Japan's biggest and richest lay Buddhist organization, convinced Tonga's royal family to hire him as a court jester in 1998.

The reason? Well, there is this from the one of Bogonoff's company newsletters last year:

"I thought, You know, I am born on April Fools Day. And I have never been able to capitalize on that. I ought to become the Kings jester. I am a natural-born fool," he said in the newsletter, as quoted by the Advertiser newspaper

The "natural-born fool" told King Taufaahau Tupou IV that he had made his fortune selling magnets to cure back pain. This, a unique birthday and a role in investing money seemed enough to get the gig.

But the scandal began way before then, back in the 1980s when a Hong Kong businessman, George Chen, won royal approval to sell passports and national citizenships to mainly Asian buyers.

The plan was market them to Hong Kong residents, fearful over the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Chinese rule.

Among the first buyers however were then exiled Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos, his wife Imelda and his two daughters.

Between 1983 and 1991 over 5,000 were sold raising around $30 million. The money went into the Tonga Trust Fund, an account with the San Fransisco branch of the Bank of America.

Bogonoff was working at the branch at the time, noticed the money and gained royal approval to invest the funds. He claims to have made the fund an extra $12 million.

In recent years, Bogonoff left the bank and somehow convinced the king to let him take the money with him, which then disappeared.

Now, Tonga's parliament is trying to track its lost money.

"It looks like the money has all gone, it looks like we are the laughing stock of the world again," Australia's Advertiser newspaper quoted Tongan parliamentarian Teisina Fuko.

Fuko is heading an investigation into the scandal, and has already tabled impeachment motions against Tonga's former finance minister and justice minister.

"The whole thing was illegal to start with and now we do not get the money at all and we are left with all these Chinese in Tonga who bought passports in the first place," he said in the Advertiser report.


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