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Martin Kenney: Kleptocracy stinks. The DOJ fights back ‘with impact’

It is repellent to read how a tiny African country like Equatorial Guinea has been systematically plundered. For the culprit to be a member of the ruling family only adds weight to the wrong.

Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of the country's president, spent $300 million on Ferraris, a Gulfstream jet, a California mansion and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” jacket, the New York Times said.

The buying spree is all the more remarkable given Teddy Obiang's official salary of $100,000 a year as a government minister.

But according to the Times, Obiang's $30 million Malibu estate is now on the market, as are his luxury cars, and six life-size Jackson statues. Proceeds from these sales are earmarked for the citizens of Equatorial Guinea, who prosecutors claim are victims of Obiang’s “relentless embezzlement and extortion.”

What's clear from this story is that the U.S. Justice Department's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative is now paying dividends. Any government initiative to undermine embezzlement, corruption, and bribery deserves credit.

It is imperative that developed nations help the people of smaller jurisdictions obtain justice against kleptocrats. In the grand scheme, $300 million may be insignificant to the United States government. But to Equatorial Guinea, it's a significant loss.

It is this impact factor that's compelling. If a millionaire loses his wallet containing $1,000, it is annoying; if a state pensioner loses $30, that could be the difference between eating or not eating that week.

This topic of "impact" is developing rapidly in the UK justice system too. No longer is all crime measured against a sliding scale of value. There's now recognition that a comparatively small loss to one individual can be catastrophic to another. It is important that the impact of the crime be taken into consideration. The degree of impact should influence decisions about when law enforcement should investigate a crime and what sentence judges should impose on convicted criminals.

The World Bank's Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative has said $20 billion to $40 billion is lost by developing countries annually. The World Bank and United Nations anti-money laundering project asserts that only $5 billion is ever recovered, with the majority of assets disappearing without a trace. These are significant losses by anybody’s standards. But to developing nations?

The New York Times reported that the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative team is facing some daunting tasks, with $1.5 billion of assets currently restrained and pending confiscation. I can attest that investigating money laundering on this scale, with adversaries who are well-financed and clever, is no easy task. But when a nation such as Equatorial Guinea is severely impacted, we cannot fail them simply because the job has fallen into the too-hard-to-do tray.

I congratulate the DOJ's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative team on their efforts and wish them every success in the future.


Martin Kenney, pictured above, is Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co., Solicitors, a specialist investigative and asset recovery practice focused on multi-jurisdictional fraud and grand corruption cases |@MKSolicitors.

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