No Safe Haven for Corruption: Asset Recovery in Action

5 minutes read time
A member of the U.S. Delegation sits in a meeting room during the Global Forum on Asset Recovery.
A member of the U.S. Delegation sits in a meeting room during the Global Forum on Asset Recovery.

No Safe Haven for Corruption: Asset Recovery in Action

If you ever want to feel inspired about what the United States is doing to combat kleptocracy – and have a couple hours to kill – ask one of the lawyers from the Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative about their cases. Depending on the case, you’ll hear stories about Federal Bureau of Investigation agents fishing financial documents out of a pond, last minute trips around the world to meet with witnesses, and countless court battles with multiple parties and jurisdictions.

I like these conversations largely because I’m a nerd and think they are a fascinating look into the complex world of international asset recovery. I also like them because they are a great reminder of all the really important things the United States is doing – often with little fanfare - to go after corrupt actors and their ill-gotten gains.

As much fun as one of these conversations is, picture a hundred of them, over three days with over 250 investigators and prosecutors responsible for asset recovery from 26 jurisdictions from around the world. That is what just took place this week at the first Global Forum on Asset Recovery, co-hosted by the United States and United Kingdom here in Washington, D.C. This forum convened asset recovery practitioners from around the world to sit down and discuss ongoing asset recovery cases in four focus countries where stronger international cooperation would have a significant impact: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, and Tunisia. Through these meetings, investigators and prosecutors were able to talk about the status of actual cases and address challenges that are impeding moving forward with the recovery of public assets stolen from these four countries. This is all with the ultimate goal of returning more money back to the victims of this corruption. The forum also signaled a continued commitment to anticorruption from this Administration, including during opening remarks from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Fighting corruption is critical to protecting American national security and helping our businesses compete on a level playing field overseas.

A promotional logo for the Global Forum for Asset Recovery.

Asset recovery is critical to global anticorruption efforts. In the international context, asset recovery involves tracing and confiscating any money or property derived from acts of corruption by public officials (e.g. embezzlement, bribery, fraud, etc.) that are stashed abroad. Depriving corrupt actors of these ill-gotten gains and returning them to their prior legitimate owner – often the citizens of a country who were victims of the corruption in the first place – helps support sustainable development, economic growth, and restore confidence in governance. It is a simple concept that involves highly technical and complex legal issues. 

My team – the Anticorruption Team in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs – was in charge of organizing the Global Forum on Asset Recovery for the United States. We’ve been planning this event for over a year, working with the focus countries to prepare cases, coordinating with their foreign and domestic counterparts – including those at U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Homeland Security – and building domestic capacity to recover stolen assets. The whole process was, and will continue to be, an important part of our team’s larger strategy to prevent and combat corruption internationally. 

The conclusion of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery marks the end of a very busy couple of months for our team, and U.S. anticorruption efforts writ large. In September, I attended the final meeting of the G-20 Anticorruption Working Group under the German presidency; a presidency that saw the adoption of new high-level principles on integrity in customs, corporate liability, preventing corruption in the public sector, and combating the role corruption plays in wildlife trafficking. 

State Department Officer Kellen McClure speaks at a session of the UNCAC Conference of States Parties. (State Department photo)

Six weeks later, I joined the U.S. delegation to the 7th Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption. In addition to attending side events and meeting with government and civil society counterparts, our interagency delegation participated in negotiations of more than 10 resolutions on a variety of important anticorruption topics. This included a resolution sponsored by the United States on promoting better technical assistance to prevent and combat corruption. Our resolution, which was ultimately co-sponsored by 37 countries, seeks to, among other things, increase the effectiveness of anticorruption assistance provided by donors like the United States and reaffirms the important role of non-government stakeholders like civil society and the private sector. Having worked for a number of civil society organizations before joining the State Department, I am particularly proud of this aspect of the U.S. resolution.

On December 9, we’ll celebrate International Anti-Corruption Day. I always think it’s fitting that this comes in December, at the end of the year. It allows us to reflect on the successes we’ve had over the past year, as well as the challenges that remain. We’ve had some big wins: the Department of Justice prosecuting the biggest Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case in history, citizens continuing to stand up against corrupt officials, and the successful conclusion of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done – which is why our team is already working with international partners to chart out our next steps in the fight against corruption. 

About the Author: Kellen McClure serves as a Program Officer on the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement’s Anti-Corruption Team.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.