Guest Post: France’s New Asset Recovery Bill Is an Important Step Toward Achieving Victim Compensation

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:

Where asset recovery is concerned, France is probably best known for the conviction of Teodorin Obiang—the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and son of the President—for money laundering (the first time that a French court has convicted a serving senior official of a foreign government), which resulted in the court ordering the forfeiture of some of Obiang’s assets, worth around USD 150 million. The decision is still under appeal, and the next hearing is scheduled for December 2019. But even if the conviction and associated forfeiture order are upheld, under existing French law those assets will go to the French state. (It is unclear whether other plaintiffs who can also establish a valid claim on the assets could also benefit from them in any way.) The forfeited funds will not go to the true victims of Obiang’s corruption—the people of Equatorial Guinea.

There are obviously a number of moral and practical questions coming out of this, not least the fact that the French state keeps the looted assets, as French courts remarked. Some countries and commentators argue that in cases of grand corruption like this, the forfeited assets should go back to the country from which the funds were stolen. But in the Obiang case, it would seem nonsensical to suggest that the forfeited assets be transferred to the government of Equatorial Guinea, as that would be tantamount to returning those assets to the Obiang family itself. The challenge, which many have struggled with, is how to return assets to a country in a way that benefits the victim populations when the country’s government is controlled by a kleptocratic political elite and where there is no rule of law. Related to this, it also raises questions about who ought to be considered the victim (the state, or the population?), and, if the latter, how to go about making appropriate compensation.

Earlier this month, the French Senate agreed on a new asset forfeiture bill that would address this problem by amending existing law so that when a French court orders the forfeiture of the illicit assets of a foreign public official or other politically exposed person (PEP), those assets, rather than being forfeited to the State, would instead go into a special fund that seeks to improve living standards of victim populations, improve the rule of law, and fight against corruption in the country where the offenses took place. (The state would, however, be able to retain a portion of the assets, up to a specified limit, to cover the costs of bringing the case in the first place.) Under the proposed bill, assets would be forfeited to the French state only in those cases where it is “absolutely impossible” to return the assets to the victim populations. The bill also calls for greater “transparency, accountability, efficiency, solidarity, and integrity” in the asset return process, principles that civil society had actively pushed for.

Of course, a great many details would still need to be worked out as the bill makes its way through the lower house of the French parliament (the Assemblée Nationale), especially as it’s not altogether straightforward to figure out how best to ensure that the seized funds will benefit the victim populations. The discussions at the Committee level in the Senate evince a preference for channeling forfeited funds through Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) on a case by case basis. But many of the practicalities still need attention, and French legislators have instructed the Conseil d’Etat (a body that provides legal advice to the government and doubles as a supreme court for administrative matters) to advise on the practical implementation of orders to return assets to victim populations. (When the Conseil d’Etat does so, this will itself be an important decision, one that the anticorruption should pay close attention to.)

And there are some other difficulties too, which Senators and their officials have openly acknowledged. As it currently stands, the French Criminal Procedure Code says that the return of assets requires the agreement of the requesting state (which, as discussed above, may not happen where a country is very corrupt), and so the Code will likely need amendments.Moreover, the offenses that would trigger asset forfeitures under the proposed bill are limited to concealment and laundering the proceeds of all crimes, though the Committee report also recognizes there may be difficulties with including any crime within the scope of offenses that can lead to forfeiture. Finally, though the bill focuses on assets seized from PEPs, that term is not actually fully defined in French law.

Despite these concerns, the bill is a significant step in the right direction, and a good illustration of how civil society organizations can inform and influence the asset return process (Transparency International France played a key role in encouraging the Senate to table the Bill, and CSOs and governments are also coming together to address the difficult questions that cases like these raise with respect to victim compensation.) Indeed, civil society involvement will be crucial to ensuring that the law is adopted by the Assemblée Nationale and implemented in a transparent way.

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

Whatever Happened with that Charity That the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?

When a country seizes assets that a foreign public official stole from his or her own government, the usual next step is to return those assets to the foreign government from which they were stolen–in much the same way that if I were to steal a computer belonging to Harvard University, and the police caught me and recovered the computer, they should give it back to Harvard (assuming it wasn’t needed as evidence in my trial). But of course in the context of countries beset by systemic corruption–or outright kleptocracies–things are not so simple. Returning the money that the corrupt foreign official stole from the national treasury back to that national treasury may be tantamount to giving the money back to the person who stole it in the first place. So what to do?

One possibility, increasingly popular in some quarters, is to use the money to fund charitable activities in the country where the public funds were stolen, on the logic that doing so does return the money to the “victim country,” but does not return it to that country’s government (which is most certainly not a “victim,” whatever its formal legal claim on the assets in question). This mechanism was employed in the 2014 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s (extremely corrupt and dictatorial) President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. According to the settlement agreement, the proceeds from the sale of the illicit assets the US had seized would go to a charity that would use the funds to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea. The charity was to be jointly selected by the US and Obiang, or, if they could not agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, the proceeds would be controlled and disbursed by a three-person panel, rather than an existing charity. That panel would consist of one member selected by the US government, one member selected by the government of Equatorial Guinea, and a chair jointly selected by the US and Obiang. As a backstop, the settlement stated that if, 220 days after the sale of the assets, the US and Obiang could not agree on a chair, the court that approved the settlement could force the parties to enter mediation or simply appoint a panel chair itself.

My post today is not a commentary on this arrangement, but a question about it: What ever ended up happening with this? I spent a fair amount of time searching online, and I couldn’t find any information about whether a charity had been selected, or whether a panel was formed, and if so how it was formed and who was/is on it. I also can’t find any information about how the charity or panel disbursed the money from the proceeds of the sale of Obiang’s assets. It’s been over five years since the settlement, so I assume whatever was going to happen has happened already. But strangely, though there are lots of references in various recent publications and articles to the provision of the 2014 settlement that calls for the money to be used for charitable purposes in Equatorial Guinea rather than returned to the government, I can’t find any sources that discuss what actually ended up happening. This is not a trivial question, since several people (including on this blog) expressed skepticism that it was possible for a model like this to work in a country like Equatorial Guinea, where there isn’t much/any space for a genuinely independent civil society to operate.

I’m sure there’s a simple answer to my factual question, and I’m probably just not looking in the right place. So I’m hoping someone out there in reader-land can help me. What ended up happening to the proceeds recovered from the sale of Obiang’s assets? Did the parties agree on a charity? If so, which one, and what did it do with the money? Or was the three-person panel formed to handle the money? If so, how was it formed, who was on it, and what did it do with the money? Anyone have any idea?

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

How We Did It: the U.S. Congress’ Exposure of the Grand Scale of Global Corruption

 Over the past two decades the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has laid bare how Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang, and a gaggle of friends and relatives of the leaders of Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria, Angola, Saudi Arabia, and other countries conspired with large, prestigious banks to hide the enormous sums they stole from their nation’s citizens.  Financial Exposure, the new book by subcommittee investigator and later staff director Elise Bean, recounts how Democrats and Republicans united not only to document egregious cases of grand corruption but to enact legislation making banks’ complicity in future cases a crime.

Americans depressed by the rancorous polarization now gripping Congress will find her book a welcome reminder that Democrats and Republicans can work together to advance the public interest.  Scandals involving money laundering by banks in other nations, most recently Denmark’s Danske Bank and Latvian bank ABLV, should prompt non-Americans to send their parliamentarians a copy of Ms Bean’s book.  Below Ms. Bean offers a few morsels from the book to whet readers’ appetites.    

There isn’t room here to recount all the subcommittee’s anti-corruption investigations, but a few examples will illustrate what they showed and what results they produced.

Citibank Private Bank.  Corruption was the subject of a key investigation by the subcommittee in 1999, which was led by then subcommittee chair Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Rumors were flying then that the United States had become the preferred banker for corrupt foreign officials around the world. Working with Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan (my boss), the subcommittee elected to zero in on so-called “private banks,” banking units that opened accounts only for wealthy individuals with at least $1 million in deposits.

The inquiry ended up detailing four accountholders at Citibank Private Bank: Raul Salinas, brother to the then president of Mexico; Omar Bongo, then president of Gabon; Asif Ali Zardari, then known for his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan; and the sons of Sani Abacha, recently deceased president of Nigeria.  Senate hearings exposed how Citibank had not only accepted tens of millions of suspect dollars from the accountholders, but also created offshore shell companies to hide their identities, helped them secretly move millions of dollars around the globe, and continued servicing them even after learning of corruption allegations. Continue reading

Adjusting Corruption Perception Index Scores for National Wealth

My post two weeks ago discussed Transparency International’s newly-released 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), focusing in particular on an old hobby-horse of mine: the hazards of trying to draw substantive conclusions from year-to-year changes in any individual country’s CPI score. Today I want to continue to discuss the 2017 CPI, with attention to a different issue: the relationship between a country’s wealth and its CPI score. It’s no secret that these variables are highly correlated. Indeed, per capita GDP remains the single strongest predictor of a country’s perceived corruption level, leading some critics to suggest that the CPI doesn’t really measure perceived corruption so much as it measures wealth—penalizing poor countries by portraying them as more corrupt, when in fact their corruption may be due more to their poverty than to deficiencies in their cultures, policies, and institutions.

This criticism isn’t entirely fair. Per capita income is a strong predictor of CPI scores, but they’re far from perfectly correlated. Furthermore, even if it’s true that worse (perceived) corruption is in large measure a product of worse economic conditions, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the CPI as such, any more than a measure of infant mortality is flawed because it is highly correlated with per capita income. (And of course because corruption may worsen economic outcomes, the correlation between wealth and CPI scores may be a partial reflection of corruption’s impact, though I doubt there are many who think that this relationship is so strong that the causal arrow runs predominantly from corruption to national wealth rather than from national wealth to perceived corruption.)

Yet the critics do have a point: When we look at the CPI results table, we see a lot of very rich countries clustered at the top, and a lot of very poor countries clustered at the bottom. That’s fine for some purposes, but we might also be interested in seeing which countries have notably higher or lower levels of perceived corruption than we would expect, given their per capita incomes. As a crude first cut at looking into this, I merged the 2017 CPI data table with data from the World Bank on 2016 purchasing-power-adjusted per capita GDP. After dropping the countries that appeared in one dataset but not the other, I had a 167 countries. I then ran a simple regression using CPI as the outcome variable and the natural log of per capita GDP as the sole explanatory variable. (I used the natural log partly to reduce the influence of extreme income outliers, and partly on the logic that the impact of GDP on perceived corruption likely declines at very high levels of income. But I admit it’s something of an arbitrary choice and I encourage others who are interested to play around with the data using alternative functional forms and specifications.)

This single variable, ln per capita GDP, explained about half of the total variance in the data (for stats nerds, the R2 value was about 0.51), meaning that while ln per capita GDP is a very powerful explanatory variable, there’s a lot of variation in the CPI that it doesn’t explain. The more interesting question, to my mind, concerns the countries that notably outperform or underperform the CPI score that one would predict given national wealth. To look into this, I simply ranked the 167 countries in my data by the size of the residuals from the simple regression described above. Here are some of the things that I found: Continue reading

French Court Convicts Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang for Laundering Grand Corruption Proceeds

GAB is pleased to publish this account and analysis by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative of the decision in the criminal trial for money laundering of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang. Their earlier posts on the trial are here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here.

court roomIn the first ever peacetime conviction of a high-ranking, incumbent office holder by the court of another state, a Paris criminal court has convicted Equatorial Guinean First Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue of laundering monies from corruption in Equatorial Guinea in France.  The historic decision, announced by the 32nd Chamber of the Tribunal Correctionnel de Paris on Friday, October 27, was tempered by the reality the court faced in finding a senior official of another country guilty of violating French law.  While it unconditionally awarded Transparency International – France, which as a “civil party” helped investigate the case, €10,000 in moral and €41,081 in material damages, and ordered seizure of much of the €150 million in assets Teodorin holds in France, it suspended (sursis) the three- year prison sentence and €30 million fine it imposed on Teodorin so long as the VP stays out of trouble for five years.   It also stayed the part of the asset seizure order confiscating the obscenely extravagant 101-room property on Avenue Foch Teodorin owns pending the outcome of proceedings before the International Court of Justice where, as explained in a previous post, the EG government is claiming the assets belong to it rather than to Teodorin.

The President of the Tribunal, Mrs Benedicte de Perthuis, detailed the reasoning supporting the ruling in a 45 minute oral explanation accompanying the judgement.  She explained that the three judge court rejected all Teodorin’s procedural and substantive defenses, including a claim asserting Teodorin’s immunity from criminal prosecution on the basis of his position as  First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea.  She noted on the latter that his nomination as First Vice-President had conveniently occurred after his indictment by the French Courts, and the Tribunal ruled that his new functions could not be equated to those of a Head of State or Minister of Foreign Affairs (officials who, under ICJ precedent, would indeed enjoy immunity from this kind of a prosecution).

The verdict sends a clear message that grand corruption and the related offense of money laundering are no longer risk-free enterprises in France.  Continue reading