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The Money Is All Gone in Tonga, And the Jester’s Role Was No Joke


Once upon a time…

The Kingdom of Tonga has admitted to losing millions of dollars that it made selling passports to Asians after an American whom the king appointed as his “court jester” invested the money in a mysterious company that later disappeared.

Two cabinet ministers have been forced to quit over the scandal as the deputy prime minister conceded that $26 million, held by the Tonga Trust Fund in a Bank of America account, had been lost.

The money was taken out of the bank in June 1999 and put into Millennium Asset Management in Nevada.

At the time, it said, a Bank of America employee, Jesse Bogdonoff, became the Trust Funds advising officer, just after King Taufaahau Tupou IV issued a royal decree declaring him the court jester.

The fund owed its origins to the late 1980’s when a Hong Kong businessman, George Chen, won royal approval to sell Tongan citizenship and special passports mainly to Asians, with a particular eye on Hong Kong Chinese who were worried about its handover to China.

Mr. Chen put the money into a checking account at the Bank of America after the king refused to keep it in Tonga, saying the government would only spend it on roads.

At the time, Mr. Bogdonoff was working at the bank, and by his own account in a company newsletter, “he stumbled onto millions of dollars inexplicably invested in a checking account.” He persuaded the king to allow him to invest the money.

Millennium was established on March 25, 1999, and the fund was moved into it on June 21. The government statement concluded, though, that Millennium no longer exists and that the $26 million dollars, plus an additional $11 million estimated to be accrued interest, was gone.

Life is stranger than fiction!

* PS 122: “The Jester of Tonga”

Tonga, officially the Kingdom of Tonga (Tongan: Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga), is a sovereign state and an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, comprising 176 islands scattered over 700,000 square kilometers (270,000 sq mi) of ocean in the South Pacific. Fifty-two of the islands are inhabited.

The Kingdom stretches over a distance of about 800 kilometers (500 mi) in a north-south line located at about a third of the distance from New Zealand to Hawaii.

Tonga also became known as the Friendly Islands because of the friendly reception accorded to Captain James Cook on his first visit there in 1773. He happened to arrive at the time of the ʻinasi festival, the yearly donation of the first fruits to the Tuʻi Tonga, the islands’ paramount chief, and received an invitation to the festivities. According to the writer William Mariner, in reality the chiefs had wanted to kill Cook during the gathering, but could not agree on a plan.

Tonga is also the only island nation in the region to have avoided formal colonization.
In 2010, Tonga took a decisive step towards becoming a fully functioning constitutional monarchy after legislative reforms paved the way for its first ever fully representative elections which resulted in the election of Noble Sialeʻataongo Tuʻivakanō as its first democratically elected Prime Minister.


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