The Golden Handshake: Background Rules and the Choice of Restoring Money or Doing Justice

The anticorruption community has recently put more emphasis on freezing, seizing, and repatriating the assets of corrupt kleptocrats. But while this move is in many ways welcome, it is still the case that essentially none of the most infamous kleptocrats have ended up behind bars. Even when governments go after the illicit assets of these kleptocrats, their cronies, and other “politically exposed persons” (PEPs), the governments seeking asset recovery often find themselves put to an uncomfortable choice: either to accept the return of only a part (sometimes a small part) of the looted wealth in a settlement, or to continue to pursue their attempts, often in vain, to seize and repatriate all (or at least most) of the stolen assets.

Sophisticated PEPs know this, and usually take advantage of the slowness of the asset recovery process (as well as their ability to use their ill-gotten wealth to hire top-notch legal talent to wage a protracted legal battle), to the point where the governments are willing to allow the PEP to secure the “golden handshake” of a favorable settlement. Nothing illustrates this better than the attempts to recover the assets of former Nigerian President Sani Abache and of former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi. Abache’s family’s lawyers stiff resistance to asset recovery efforts eventually led to a settlement whereby the Abache family returned $1 billion–but got to keep $300 million. In the latter case, the Kenyan authorities insisted on recovering the full amount–and have ended up with nothing. The Kenyan experience has served as a cautionary tale, inducing for example many of the Arab Spring countries to accept settlements they would have never accepted two years ago. This result frustrates the foundational principle of penology that a criminal who gets caught should end up worse off than he would have been if he did not commit the crime. A corrupt official who knows that the worst that can happen is that he might have to give back half or two-thirds of the money he stole is unlikely to be deterred.

At the moment, it does not seem realistic to expect more severe criminal punishment for many kleptocrats, so reliance on settlement will continue for a while. Accordingly it is important to figure out how to use settlements to guarantee the maximum restoration of assets. The two most important factors that shape the content of a settlement are national and foreign justice. Consider each in turn. Continue reading

Egyptian Courts Should Permit Money Laundering Convictions without Conviction on the Predicate Offence

Prosecuting money laundering and corruption are inextricably interwoven. Corrupt officials, like other sophisticated criminals, frequently resort to various forms of money laundering to conceal their ill-gotten funds. That is why the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) adopted a specific article addressing money laundering. One of the legal challenges in prosecuting money laundering, however, is proving that the property involved is the proceeds of a crime. And one of the ongoing legal controversies on this point concerns whether proving that element of the money laundering offense requires, as a prerequisite, a prior or simultaneous criminal conviction for the predicate offense. Different legal systems have taken different positions on this question, which is perhaps unsurprising. More striking is the fact that, within Egypt right now, this question has divided the circuits of the Court of Cassation (the highest Egyptian criminal court), with no immediate resolution in sight.

One circuit has adopted a “restrictive approach” that requires a prior or simultaneous conviction of the predicate offense as a precondition for a money laundering conviction.  Although a majority of lower courts apply this restrictive approach, another circuit has held—in the case against former President Mubarak’s Minister of interior—that although the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the illicit origin of the money to secure a money laundering conviction, the prosecution can establish this fact in other ways; a prior conviction for the underlying offense is not necessary. This division of opinion has persisted despite the fact that there is a provision calling for the Court of Cassation’s General Assembly to vote on controversial matters. Unfortunately, the Court does not apply this provision rigorously.

Although both positions have some merit, the Court of Cassation’s General Assembly–or, if it fails to act, the Egyptian legislature–should reject the restrictive approach and allow the prosecution to prove the elements of money laundering, even in the absence of a conviction for the predicate offense. The purported disadvantages of that approach are greatly exaggerated, and it would enhance the Egyptian government’s capacity to combat high-level official corruption, as well as other serious offenses. Continue reading

Removing Barriers to Private Actions Against Corruption by Liberalizing Standing Doctrine

Although most countries have traditionally relied on public bodies to enforce anticorruption laws, frustration with the ineffectiveness of public enforcement has led a growing number of activists and scholars to champion private lawsuits as an additional tool in the anticorruption arsenal (see, for example, here and here). Not only can private enforcement supplement government enforcement, but (as I have discussed previously) private enforcement can push public enforcers to do their job more scrupulously. However, in many jurisdictions private actions to enforce anticorruption laws face a daunting obstacle: the doctrine of standing (known in some jurisdictions by its Latin name, locus standi). The difficulty is that most corruption cases do not have an identifiable victim, or an aggrieved person in its traditional sense. For this reason, in many jurisdictions, those parties (often civil society NGOs) attempting to bring private suits against corrupt actors may be deemed not to have the requisite standing.

The question, then, is whether it is possible and desirable to adopt a broader conception of standing, one that would entitle citizens or NGOs to initiate actions against corrupt actors, even if the complainants cannot establish that they were personally and directly injured by the alleged corrupt conduct. Proponents of a restrictive interpretation of standing doctrine tend to argue that a more expansive notion of standing could inundate the courts with weak cases, including cases brought by vexatious litigants without a genuine interest in the underlying allegations. But these concerns are exaggerated. It is quite possible, as several jurisdictions have already demonstrated, to liberalize standing doctrine to empower private anticorruption plaintiffs without opening the floodgates of meritless litigation. Moreover, the legitimate concerns about abuse of the judicial process can be addressed in other ways. Continue reading

Who Guards the Guardians in the Anticorruption Battle? Compelling Prosecutors to Take Action

Article 30(3) of UNCAC calls upon state parties to ensure that any legal discretion pertinent to the prosecution of corruption is exercised to to maximize the effectiveness of law enforcement.” Yet there is evidence that prosecutors do not always exercise their discretion in anticorruption cases in a manner that conforms to this principle. Prosecutorial decisions to shelve or terminate a case might instead be influenced by economic considerations — as when a large financial institution is involved, or when prosecution risks losing a valuable foreign investor — and by political considerations — as when the case may influence foreign diplomatic relations or when the case involves senior officials or other parties close to the governing regime.

There is no shortage of such troubling cases in both developed and developing countries. One of the best-known is the BAE Systems/Al-Yamamah case, which involved credible allegations that the British multinational had paid substantial bribes to senior Saudi Arabian officials in connection to a major arms deal. The UK investigation into the bribery allegations was brought to an end on grounds of public interest. The British government, and some of its defenders, emphasized the need to combat terrorism through maintaining relationship with Saudi Arabia with all underlying intelligence cooperation. Nevertheless, cases of this kind impair progress against entrenched corruption. Even if such cases are relatively infrequent, their existence risks depriving both the UNCAC treaty and domestic anticorruption laws of their deterrent effect.

If public prosecutors sometimes fail in their responsibility as anticorruption “guardians” by shelving or dropping investigations, what can be done? Long term solutions might require broader systemic reform, but there are some actions that could be taken, under the rubric of the UNCAC, to pressure or compel prosecutors to fulfill their responsibilities: Continue reading