U.S. frozen $3.5 billion asset related to foreign corruption

The United States has frozen $3.5 billion in assets linked to foreign corruption and repatriated or is repatriating over $150 million in proceeds of corruption to requesting countries, a U.S. official said.

Robert Leventhal, Deputy Director in the Office of Anti-Crime Programs in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the Department of State told African journalists on Thursday.

“And since fiscal year 2016, the State Department and our U.S. Agency for International Development have dedicated more than $115 million each year to a wide range of foreign assistance efforts to build other countries’ capacity to counter corruption,” he said, stressing that asset recovery is a complex and time-consuming process even after getting political commitments from governments.

“…This is an area that takes time but the payoffs can be supremely important.  As we said, we’ve repatriated about $150 million.  To date, we’ve got $3.5 billion in the pipeline. At the Global Forum on Asset Recovery just a couple days ago, Switzerland signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Nigeria to return $321 million in stolen assets.  So the cases can take a long time but they are having more and more success,” he said.

Briefing African journalists via teleconference on the Global Forum on Asset Recovery co-hosted by the United States and United Kingdom, he noted that  Kleptocracy “turns institutions meant to serve the people into tools for exploiting them and this can leave many feeling disempowered and convinced that the system is rigged.”

The process

“We actually have a dedicated team, a specific team tasked to the issue within the Department of Justice.  It’s called the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.  So this is the only thing they work on is cooperation with other countries internationally to try to help them to train to seize, to confiscate and to return assets.  Those prosecutors and investigators who work with them will go to a requesting country, they will meet face-to-face with the officials there.  They will assist in investigations,” he said explaining the process of asset recovering.

“One thing that we always encourage is face-to-face, what we call ‘informal cooperation’ providing information about each other’s laws and procedures, trying to do as much of the work as possible before the mutual legal assistance phase, which is a more formal phase.  And we find that’s the police-to-police contact, prosecutor-to-prosecutor contact.  Even financial-intelligence-unit-to-financial-intelligence-unit contact can be extremely helpful.  And we can provide all kinds of assistance through those informal channels.”

On the severity of Kleptocracy, or high-level corruption, he noted that it breeds instability by driving a wedge between government and the people opening doors for transnational organized crime and extremist groups to exploit this frustration for their own purposes.

Involving dozens of countries from across the world with participants engaged in different industries, the Global Forum on Asset Recovery that took place from December 40-6, 2017 focused on four countries – Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Ukraine.

Investigative journalism

“…Participation by a wide range of financial center countries and the hard preparation and diligence by the four focus countries, shows a strong will to make asset recovery work,” Robert Leventhal said.

Commenting on how the United States is supporting African countries’ fight against corruption, Mr. Leventhal said: “We recognize that if we want to support strong, democratic governance across the continent, we need to start by building confidence of citizens in their government.  Our ongoing activities are the first step to achieving this goal; promoting integrity, transparency and accountability needs to be the cornerstone of these efforts”.  

“…In East and West Africa, programs raise awareness of the role of corruption in violent extremism and support investigative journalism.  And we also work to implement reforms in line with the UN Convention Against Corruption,” he said.