Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring protests and corollary demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan, regional president Masud Barzani promised to crack down on corruption. "I am determined to combat corruption and introduce reforms. Together, let us make this the year of preserving our unity, fighting corruption, and finalizing the integration of the KRG security institutions," he said. Masrour Barzani, his eldest son and heir apparent, has also promised accountability for the corrupt. "If someone inside the KDP is accused of corruption, he should face the court, like any ordinary person. The KDP is against corruption and is putting all its efforts into reforms and eradicating corruption," he declared in a magazine interview last month.There is growing evidence, however, that in order to be seen as champions against corruption, the Barzanis may have to clean up their own house by creating transparency with regard to the family's dealings.
In October 2010, the local press in the Washington, DC, area was abuzz with news about the sale of one of the region's choicest mansions. Topping the list in McLean, Virginia, at a price tag of just over $10 million, was this mansion, less than five kilometers from the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters. According to this real estate listing, the mansion not only has four floors, but a five-car garage. Other descriptions boast six bedrooms and eight bathrooms.
The house was sold, according to a Washington society magazine (see pages 90-91), by an Iranian American developer and aspiring singer. While the house is a residence, the purchaser is listed on public records as Apeks, a limited liability company (LLC).
Apeks, LLC, itself is a bit mysterious. There are firms named Apeks in a number of countries—Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the United States. One American firm with that name was founded by an Ohio resident as a pretty standard consulting operation, but has since been sold after which the name apparently lapsed.
Less than three weeks before the purchase of the mega-mansion, however, the name Apeks, LLC, was again registered, this time with the Commonwealth of Virginia's State Corporation Commission. At the time of the registration, the address matched that of Zell Law, a boutique law firm which has since folded into a larger firm and now resides at a different address from that of Apeks' registration.
On August 24, 2011, I sent an email to the lawyer who headed the now-closed firm, inquiring about Apeks, LLC. He responded that he would not be able to share information regarding Apeks, LLC. According to his work profile, his expertise includes estate and business planning, and the preservation of wealth. In other words, his specialty includes shielding his clients' wealth against those who might take too close an interest in it, such as governments who tax it.
If Apeks, LLC, has a relationship with the Barzani family, the electronically-accessible public records do not directly show it. Under Virginia law, Apeks, LLC, does not yet need to report its activities or disclose its officers online.
There is ample evidence, however, to suggest that Masrour Barzani may be the new owner of the mansion. The previous owner and developer of the mansion was an aspiring Iranian American singer. After Los Angeles, the Washington, DC, area is a center of the Iranian Diaspora in the United States, and so sustains Persian language book stores and newspapers. In an interview with a local Persian language newspaper, the previous owner ignored Apeks, LLC, and bragged that the "house…had been sold to the son of a powerful foreign politician."
In addition, area residents and Kurds living in the area say Masrour Barzani has repeatedly stayed in the mansion during his frequent trips to Washington. The residence is close to the Tysons Corner Mall, home to many swank shops, where Masud Barzani's sons shop and dine during trips to Washington. An express mail envelope sent to Masrour Barzani at the mansion was accepted by the occupant. A representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, when contacted by email regarding the property, declined comment.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, it has always been troubling that the ruling families appear to conflate personal, party and government property. If, for example, Masud Barzani retires after his second term, it is unclear whether he would forfeit the Sar-e Rash resort he calls home to his successor; other retired officials have not evacuated the homes they acquired. Nor have many of the political leaders and the family dynasties they spawned ever explained to the public how they acquired such vast wealth when, just a couple decades ago, they were penniless. Having a shell corporation own the swank property would also make sense, given the possibility that Masrour Barzani could be sued by victims who allege mistreatment by the intelligence and security services which he heads and who believe him to be complicit in their mistreatment.
Transparency matters. Regardless of the mansion's ownership, if President Barzani is sincere about combating corruption, he should require that every official serving in his government detail their property holdings and business interests, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, but also abroad, and demand any officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government also reveal properties owned or held by other individuals or corporations in which they reside. This will combat conflicts of interest. Certainly, if President Barzani is sincere, he should not wish a discrepancy to develop between the promises he makes to the Kurdish public and the actions of his family.
Leadership emerges from the top, and so it might behoove President Barzani to set an example by making his family Kurdistan's most transparent. After all, while President Barzani considers himself a great populist and nationalist leader, ordinary Kurds may find troubling luxuries family members acquire, not only in Kurdistan but also apparently overseas. Such mansions, after all, are more reminiscent of those collected by the Saddam, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qadhafi clans; they should not be acquired by persons whose government salaries would be too minimal to allow them to afford. Perhaps the president's office should be grand because his office represents Kurdistan. However, insatiable appetites for luxury are not the image which the Barzani's should be projecting to the people of Kurdistan, nor do such palaces bring the Kurds respect as a developing democracy among governments and officials abroad.