In my last couple of posts, I’ve returned to a theme I’ve written about before: My skepticism about claims that the U.S. government either should (as a matter of policy) or must (under UNCAC or other legal obligations) share settlement proceeds in FCPA cases with the governments of the countries where the bribery took place. I’m also skeptical that there’s any obligation on the part of U.S. or other supply-side enforcers to use any of this settlement money to fund NGO-sponsored projects in (or for the benefit of) those countries.
Asset recovery, however, is different. When the U.S. (or some other country) identifies – at its own initiative or pursuant to the request of another government – assets held in the U.S. that have been stolen from a foreign government, my reading of the law (both conventional domestic legal principles and Chapter V of UNCAC) is that the U.S. has an unconditional legal obligation to return those assets to their rightful owner. At times, the U.S. has indicated that, although it has a general policy of returning stolen assets to the governments from which they were stolen, it does not view this as a legal obligation. Rather, the U.S. seems to want to leave open the option, in some cases, of attaching conditions to the return of the assets, or funneling them through NGOs or other bodies, rather than simply turning them over to the claimant government. I understand why the U.S. has taken this position: Returning assets stolen assets to a claimant government with a reputation for pervasive corruption—where it seems highly likely much of the money will be stolen again—seems awfully unappealing, and doubly so in those cases where the government officials who stole the money in the first place, or their family members and cronies, retain their power and influence in the claimant country. Hence the instinct to attach conditions to the return of the assets, or to use the money to fund NGOs rather than simply turn it over to the claimant government. The problem, though, is that I’m hard-pressed to come up with a legal basis (notwithstanding some valiant attempts) for doing anything other than handing over the money.
So, the situation as it stands looks something like this (and I acknowledge simplifying quite a bit to make things a tad neater than they actually are): On the one hand, many developing countries want wealthy countries like the U.S. to share foreign bribery settlement proceeds with the countries where the bribery took place, but for the most part the wealthy countries do not want to do this, and assert—correctly—that they are under no obligation to do this under UNCAC or any other legal instrument. On the other hand, many wealthy countries would like to retain the flexibility to attach conditions to asset return (or to use seized assets to fund NGO programs rather than turning the money over to the governments), but the claimant countries in the developing world assert—correctly—that there is a legal obligation (enshrined in UNCAC) to return stolen assets, without strings attached.
Framing the issue this way suggests a possible compromise. (In the interests of disclosure, I should say that this is not my original idea: It came up in a conversation I had recently with an analyst at an anticorruption NGO, but since I haven’t had the chance to clear it with him, I won’t name the person or organization here.) The trade would go like this: Continue reading