World Bank Monitoring of Repatriated Assets Should Be Part of Major Settlements

The issue of repatriating the proceeds of corruption to the countries from which they were stolen has attracted substantial commentary, including in multiple posts on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here). Much of the discussion focuses on whether and how to return funds to countries that still suffer from systemic corruption or outright kleptocracy. In these cases, the risk that the assets, if simply returned, will be stolen again is, in the view of some critics, unacceptably high. In some cases, despite these risks, the government that seized the assets nevertheless repatriates the seized funds directly to the government from which they were originally stolen; the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has done this in several cases, including asset returns to Peru, Italy, and Nicaragua. In other cases, by contrast, the seized funds have been funneled to a local NGO rather than to the government. This was done in the agreement among the United States, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan regarding the transfer of corruption proceeds to Kazakhstan (an agreement which created a new NGO called the BOTA Foundation). This mechanism was also included in the DOJ’s settlement with Equatorial Guinea over the disposition of assets stolen by the President’s son, Teodorin Obiang. Another approach, which we saw in this past February’s trilateral agreement among the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria regarding the return of $308 million in assets stolen by former Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha (which I discussed at greater length in a previous post), entails the earmarking of the repatriated funds for specific infrastructure projects, coupled with oversight by a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor and yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organizations (CSOs), with both the auditor and the CSOs selected by Nigeria, but subject to a veto by the United States and Jersey.

The inclusion of these various conditions is understandable. Notwithstanding the sovereignty-based objections advanced by the so-called “victim countries”—which often assert that they have an absolute right to the unconditional return of assets stolen from their national treasuries—returning huge sums to corrupt or weak governments without any safeguards would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, there are many pitfalls involved with leaving oversight largely to the victim country government and local CSOs, and the ability of countries like the United States to monitor compliance with the terms of repatriation agreements in foreign countries is limited. The best way to address these concerns is to involve an international institution—such as the World Bank, or possibly one of the regional multilateral development banks—in monitoring the terms of repatriation agreements.

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Financial Asset Recovery Conditions: The IMF’s New Anticorruption Playbook

Since the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, the IMF has provided substantial macroeconomic stabilization assistance to Ukraine, but has conditioned disbursements on, among other things, significant anticorruption reforms—an approach that has been hotly debated, including on GAB (see here, here, here, and here). The most recent financial assistance agreement also targets corruption, but in a more indirect fashion. Last December, the IMF and Ukraine provisionally agreed to a $5 billion financial assistance program. It soon became clear, though, that the launch of the new program hinged on the Ukrainian parliament successfully passing legislation on land and banking reform. Ukraine complied, and the new agreement is likely to be signed in the coming weeks.

The banking bill, which provides a more general bank resolution framework, is clearly designed to address outstanding issues for the country’s largest commercial bank, PrivatBank, which was nationalized in December 2016. The PrivatBank case is particularly complicated due to the historically close relationship between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the bank’s former owner, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. (Prior to winning Ukraine’s presidential election in April 2018, Zelensky—a former TV comedian—had no political experience, and his only political connection appeared to be his friendship with Kolomoisky, who owned the television network that broadcast the TV program that catapulted Zelensky’s political career.) Many commentators speculated that the IMF had been delaying a bailout for Ukraine due to concerns that Zelensky’s administration would not aggressively pursue efforts to recoup money stolen from PrivatBank. By successfully leveraging and re-purposing past conditionalities, the IMF has driven a wedge between the Zelensky and Kolomoisky, forcing the new President to abandon his toxic personal relationship with this oligarch in order to unlock international financial assistance. While Ukraine is an interesting case study in its own right, the IMF should make more frequent use of financial asset recovery conditions in other countries. Not only can such conditions support a country’s fiscal sustainability framework, but they may be especially helpful if and when well-intentioned political leaders struggle to break ties with corrupt allies. Continue reading

The Trilateral Nigeria-US-Jersey Agreement to Return Nigerian Dictator Abacha’s Assets: A Preliminary Assessment

This past February, the United States signed a trilateral agreement with Nigeria and the British dependency of Jersey to repatriate to Nigeria $308 million in funds that the late General Sani Abacha had stolen from the Nigerian government during his time as Head of State from 1993-1998. This enormous sum was a mere fraction of the estimated $2-5 billion that Abacha had laundered through the global banking system. Back in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil forfeiture complaint against more than $625 million that could be traced as proceeds from Abacha’s corruption. Shortly afterwards, in 2014, a U.S. federal court entered a forfeiture judgment against over $500 million of these assets, including the $308 million held in Jersey bank accounts. Appeals of the forfeiture judgment in the United States were finally exhausted in 2018, at which point the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria entered into negotiations to repatriate the recovered assets. The February 2020 trilateral agreement represents the culmination of those negotiations.

Back in 2014, when DOJ first froze Abacha’s assets, Raj Banerjee asked on this blog an important question, one that has come up in several other asset recovery cases too: Who will get Abacha’s assets? Would the United States simply give the money back to the Nigerian government? Or would the United States, out of concerns that the repatriated assets would be stolen again, insist on attaching conditions to the returned funds, or even create or empower a non-governmental nonprofit entity to allocate the funds (as the United States has done in some other cases)? Now, six years later, we finally have an answer. Under the terms of the trilateral agreement, the repatriated funds will be used to help finance three infrastructure projects that had already been approved by the Nigerian legislature and President Muhammadu Buhari: the construction of the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, and the Abuja-Kano road. These projects aim to better connect people and supply chains in Nigeria’s impoverished Eastern and Northern regions to the developed Western region. Additionally, the agreement declares that the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) will oversee the funds, that a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor will conduct a financial review, and that a yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organization with expertise in engineering, among other areas, will have a monitoring role.

There is much to admire about the agreement. Using these assets to fund critical infrastructure projects that Nigeria’s legislative and executive branches had already approved demonstrates a respect for Nigerian sovereignty and democratic institutions, while at the same time directing the money to projects that would tangibly benefit the Nigerian people, particularly in some of the country’s poorest areas—the people who were most victimized by Abacha’s looting of the national treasury. Yet while the governments of the United States, Nigeria, and Jersey all heralded the trilateral agreement has a landmark, some voices, particularly in the United States, have expressed skepticism. Most notably, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to DOJ questioning whether the returned funds will truly be protected from misuse. Senator Grassley suggested that senior officials in the Buhari Administration, including the Attorney General, could not be trusted to ensure that the Nigerian government would face consequences if it misappropriated the returned funds, and he questioned why DOJ would return the money without “proper safeguards” to prevent misuse a second time. Unsurprisingly, Nigeria took issue with Grassley’s accusations. But his concerns have some merit.

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The Continuing Controversy Over the Destination of the Petrobras Penalties: The Coronavirus Crisis Has Ended One Debate, But May Start Another

As most readers of this blog are likely aware, the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras has been at the center of a massive bribery scandal in Brazil, and the main focus of Brazil’s so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) Operation. That Operation uncovered evidence that between 2006 and 2014, corporations paid kickbacks to senior Petrobras officials for inflated contracts, and the Petrobras officials funneled a substantial portion of those illicit proceeds to the political parties in the government’s coalition. These revelations lead to legal actions not only in Brazil, but also in the United States. Because Petrobras issued securities in the U.S., and because U.S. law imposes criminal liability on a corporation for the conduct of the corporation’s employees, Petrobras was potentially liable under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), because Petrobras officers had facilitated corruption abroad (that is, in Brazil). In September 2018,Petrobras signed a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) with the United States Department of Justice, according to which the company would pay over US$850 million in penalties. But, crucially, only 20% of that penalty would be paid to the United States; the remaining 80%, according to the terms of the NPA, was to be paid by Petrobras “to Brazil.”

This provision sparked great controversy and debate in Brazil over the destination of that money—a debate that seems to have been ended (for now) by the coronavirus crisis. The root of the problem is that under Brazilian law, Petrobras (the corporate entity) was considered victim of the bribery scheme, not a perpetrator. So, from a Brazilian perspective, it was hard to comprehend why the company should be obligated to pay for crimes that harmed it. Indeed, in many of the Car Wash cases resolved in Brazil, penalties recovered from other entities (such as the firms that paid kickbacks) were transferred to Petrobras. But under the NPA with U.S. authorities, Petrobras was required to pay over US$650 million to Brazil. What Brazilian entity or entities should get that money? And who should decide on the allocation?

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The Swiss U-Turn on Asset Return Explained

Historically, a Swiss bank has been the bank of choice for corrupt leaders wanting to hide money. The reality is quite different today.  Just ask Tunisia’s ousted strong man Ben Ali, deposed Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich, or the relatives of deceased former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, or of Hosni Mubarak, the recently passed Egyptian president.  All believed money stolen from their nations’ citizens was safe in a Swiss bank.

At the time, they were not wrong. Dating back to when its secrecy rules protected the wealth of France’s Catholic kings from the prying eyes of nosey Protestant journalists, Swiss law permitted banks to take money with few questions asked and sanctioned those disclosing information about an account or its holder. Strict bank secrecy laws gave the Swiss financial industry an enormous advantage over other financial centers; it’s one reason why today financial services plays an outsized role in the Swiss economy — accounting for 10 percent of the GDP, twice the average of other OECD nations.

As the Duvaliers, Abachas, and Murabanks of the world learned to their chagrin  however, over the past decade Swiss policy has made a sharp U-turn.  Despite the weight of history and tradition, and the economic interest of so many Swiss citizens, current Swiss policy not only no longer condones the deposit of stolen assets in its banks, it now demands that banks and others in the financial services industry come to the aid of governments searching for money stolen by former rulers and cronies.  No other nation today goes to such lengths to help countries recover stolen assets.

Swiss lawyers François Membrez and Matthieu Hösli document this extraordinary change in Swiss policy in How To Return Stolen Assets: The Swiss policy pathway. Just published by the Geneva Centre for Civil and Political Rights, the two explain how Swiss  asset recovery law has turned Switzerland from the destination of choice for stolen funds into the least hospitable jurisdiction in the world.  The paper is an essential guide to Swiss law on asset recovery and provides a blueprint for other nations wanting nothing to do with stolen assets.

 

Asset Recovery: Report from Angola

Angola appears at last to have turned the corner in the fight against corruption.  The long-awaited trial of two “big fish,” the son of the former president and a former central bank governor, for looting the sovereign wealth fund began December 9.  While the international media have focused on what the trial means for the government’s fight against corruption  (Reuters story here, Bloomberg here, and BBC here), a less heralded equally significant development is quietly unfolding in Eduarda Rodrigues’ office. Deputy prosecutor general and since January head of the newly created asset recovery agency (Serviço Nacional vai Recuperar Activos), Rodrigues has begun slowly clawing back assets corrupt Angolan officials have stolen over the years. 

Below is an account the results to date taken from a November presentation to the Norwegian Corruption Hunters Network.

AssetQuantityAmount Kz
Properties2519,438, 912, 257
Vehicles2110,000,000
Cash Kwanza33,879,229
Cash Dollars322,832
  19,482,791,487
approx $40 million

As the table shows, Rodrigues’ agency has recovered assets worth more than 19 billion Angolan Kwanza or some $40 million along with more than $300,000 in U.S. currency. 

Rodrigues’ efforts began with the expiration of the Law of Repatriation of Financial Resources.   Passed June 26, 2018, it gave those holding stolen assets 180 days to voluntary return them without sanction.  Few took the government up on its offer (here), apparently believing the law was meant simply to show the international community the government was doing something to fight corruption. 

As Rodrigues and her growing team of experts expand their work, an ever larger number of corrupt official will regret passing on amnesty.   Law enforcement authorities in jurisdictions where Angolan stolen assets may be stashed now have a trustworthy partner to work with to see that monies stolen from the Angolan people are returned.

 

Will the Swiss Condone Torture in the Rush to Return Assets to Uzbekistan?

Allegations of torture have dogged the planned return of stolen assets from Switzerland to Uzbekistan for years (here). In a recent interview, a cellmate of one of the alleged torture victims has given the claims new life.  And should give Swiss citizens and their government pause before proceeding with any return.

The assets to be returned are the several hundred million dollars in bribes paid to Gulnara Karimova for the grant of mobile phone licenses in Uzbekistan, something within her power as daughter of the country’s then president.  She stashed most of the money in Switzerland, and when the scheme was exposed, Swiss prosecutors promptly opened a money laundering case against Gulnara and her accomplices. From the outset, the Swiss government made it clear that, if and when defendants were found guilty, the laundered funds would be returned to Uzbekistan.

A breakthrough came in 2018 when Gayane Avakyan, one of Gulnara’s accomplices, signed a Swiss Summary Penalty Order confessing to her role in the money laundering scheme and giving up any claim to the laundered funds.  The order was signed while she was serving time in an Uzbekistan prison, and because of multiple, credible reports that torture is commonly practiced in Uzbek prisons, questions were immediately raised about whether torture or the threat of torture was used to get Avakyan to sign.  A prison cellmate now says she was in fact subjected to a particularly harsh form of torture while incarcerated. Continue reading

Guest Post: Toward a Meaningful “Common African Position on Asset Recovery”

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mat Tromme, Director of the Sustainable Development & Rule of Law Programme at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, who contributes the following guest post:

It’s no secret that kleptocratic rulers in Africa have robbed their countries of substantial assets that could have  otherwise been used to promote development and social welfare. Indeed, the amounts are often staggering: $16 billion reportedly stolen by former Libyan President Gaddafi; $1 billion by Gambia’s ex-President Jammeh; billions by former Congolese President Kabila; and the list goes on. Recently, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crime Commission suggested that up to $50 billion has been looted from Africa, and whether or not particular estimate is accurate, there’s little doubt the problem is serious. More troubling is the fact that only a small proportion of these stolen assets have been recovered and repatriated to the country of origin.

As part of the effort to address the challenges of asset recovery—and to give African states more clout in negotiating the terms and conditions of asset return with the states that initially seize the stolen loot—African countries are currently undertaking an effort to develop a “Common African Position on Asset Recovery” (CAPAR). Incidentally, a common african position was the chosen theme of this year’s African Union Anti-corruption day. At this early stage, it seems likely that this effort will result only in a political proclamation (perhaps within the framework of this month’s UN General Assembly), one that will re-emphasize the importance of the speedy and unconditional return of assets, and call for better collaboration across countries. That’s a good start, but not enough! Developing a pan-African position on asset recovery—perhaps similar to the multilateral framework adopted by the Mercosur countries and by the EU—is a worthwhile endeavor, one that will likely produce tangible benefits only if it goes beyond mere statements of intent or general principles, and lays out some concrete steps to translate the vision into reality.

Ideally, CAPAR should seek to streamline policies and resources devoted to recovering assets and developing better investigative and prosecutorial capacity across African states, for example by implementing cross-border investigations and fostering collaboration, experience and information-sharing between countries. There are various ways to achieve this broad objective: Continue reading

Guest Post: It’s Time for Plan B on Disbursing the Obiang Settlement Money to the People of Equatorial Guinea

Today’s guest post is from the civil society group EG Justice, a civil society organization that promotes the rule of law, transparency, and the protection of human rights in Equatorial Guinea. (For a longer discussion of the issues raised in this blog post, please visit the EG Justice website: www.egjustice.org.)

Last month, Professor Stephenson asked: “Whatever Happened with that Charity the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?”  Not coincidentally, thousands of people in Equatorial Guinea have been asking themselves that same question for the last five years, and they have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. We are not entirely surprised by the impasse. When one drives into a cul-de-sac, with clear road signs warning ahead of time that there is no exit, one should only expect to return to the entry point. Likewise, when negotiating with authoritarian kleptocrats who consider themselves above the law and who are accustomed to acting with absolute impunity, it would be naïve to expect them to negotiate fairly.

The settlement between Equatorial Guinea and the U.S. appears to anticipate this impasse, laying out several options. The settlement first lays out what we might call “Plan A”:  Within 180 days, the U.S. authorities and the defendant (Teodorin Nguema Obiang) are to jointly select a charity to receive the funds realized from the sale of Nguema’s seized assets, with that charity to use the funds for the benefit of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. But in apparent anticipation of the difficulties in reaching such an agreement, the settlement goes on to lay out a “Plan B,” according to which, if the U.S. and Nguema can’t mutually agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, a three-member panel is to be convened to receive and disburse the funds—with one member of the panel chosen by the U.S., one by Nguema, and one, the Chair, by mutual agreement. Again anticipating the possibility that the parties will be unable to agree, the settlement has a “Plan C” (or a “Plan B-2”): If the parties can’t agree on a panel Chair, within 220 days after the sale of the property, the court retains the discretion to order the parties to participate in mediation, or the court may simply select a panel Chair directly. Continue reading

A Plan To Share FCPA Penalties with Brazil has Been Thwarted… by Brazil: The Supreme Court’s Invalidation of the Lava Jato Foundation

A frequent criticism of how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is that the fines recovered typically go to the US Treasury, rather than being used to make reparations for the damages caused by corruption in the countries where the bribery took place. Those who hold that view were likely encouraged by the non-prosecution agreement (NPA) that the DOJ concluded with Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, in September 2018. The US enforcement action against Petrobras is a development of the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, in which firms paid off some Petrobras’ senior employees to benefit them in the contracts they had with the oil company. Such senior employees also shared a portion of the briber of politicians and political parties. In Brazil, Petrobras (and its shareholders, including the Brazilian federal government) are considered the victims of this scheme, but the US DOJ considered Petrobras a perpetrator (as well as a victim), because Petrobras officials had facilitated the bribe payments, in violation of the FCPA. Thus, the DOJ brought an enforcement action against Petrobras, and the parties settled via an NPA that required Petrobras to pay over US$852 million in penalties for FCPA violations. But—and here is the interesting part—the NPA also stated that the US government would credit against this judgment 80% of the total (over US$682 million) that Petrobras would pay to Brazilian authorities pursuant to an agreement to be negotiated subsequently between Petrobras and the Brazilian authorities.

This unusual agreement was the result of unusually close cooperation between U.S. and Brazilian authorities, especially the Lava Jato Task Force (group of federal prosecutors handling a series of Petrobras-related cases). After the conclusion of the NPA between the DOJ and Petrobras, the Task Force then entered into negotiations with Petrobras and reached an agreement under which Petrobras would use US$682 million that it would otherwise owe to the US government to create a private charity, known unofficially as the Lava Jato Foundation, with the Foundation using half of the money to sponsor public interest initiatives, and the other half to compensate minority shareholders in Petrobras. According to the agreement, the Foundation would be governed by a committee of five unpaid members from civil society organizations, to be appointed by the Task Force upon judicial confirmation. Once created, the Task Forcewould have the prerogative to have one of its members sitting at the Foundation’s board.

This resolution of the Petrobras case seemed to be a win-win resolution and a promising precedent for future cases: The US imposed a hefty sanction for violation of US law, but most of the money would be used to help the Brazilian people, who are arguably the ones most harmed by Petrobras’s unlawful conduct. Yet this arrangement has proven extremely controversial in Brazil, both politically and legally. Indeed, the issue has divided the country’s own federal prosecutors: The Prosecutor General (the head of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, from which the Lava Jato Task Force enjoys a broad independence) challenged the creation of the Foundation as unconstitutional. She prevailed on that challenge in Brazil’s Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federalor STF), which suspended the operation of the Foundation.

What, exactly, was the legal argument against the creation of the Lava Jato Foundation, and what are the implications of the STF’s ruling for this approach to remediating the impacts of foreign bribery going forward?

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