The lawyers representing an Equatorial Guinea official in a forfeiture dispute are turning up the pressure against prosecutors in Washington who accuse the government minister of corruption.
The U.S. Justice Department last year filed asset forfeiture cases in Washington and in California against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, a member of the Equatorial Guinea cabinet and son of the nation's president.
The government wants to seize, among other things, a $38.5 million long-range Gulfstream jet, and a $30 million house in Malibu, Calif. Prosecutors argue those assets are the fruits of corruption—including extortion—in Equatorial Guinea.
Last night, Nguema’s attorneys at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton filed court papers denouncing DOJ’s effort to take away property that, they contend, was legitimately purchased. “This action is a waste of prosecutorial and judicial resources,” Cleary partner Juan Morillo said.
Nguema has not been investigated or charged with a crime in Equatorial Guinea or in the United States. His attorneys charge the government with crafting an aggressive, novel case that would unfairly extend forfeiture law. The defense lawyers say DOJ has never before gone after the assets of a foreign official who has not been charged with an underlying crime.
The Gulfstream jet, Morillo says, is in Equatorial Guinea—“beyond the constitutional reach of this court.” The central African nation, according to Nguema’s attorneys, will not cooperate with DOJ in the forfeiture case.
DOJ lawyers said in recent court papers that the Gulfstream jet could possibly land in a country that might be inclined to help the United States seize it. Nguema’s attorneys call the DOJ position “pure speculation and insufficient to save this misguided case.”
Morillo also says Nguema purchased the aircraft with legitimate money after the U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed the proposed sale and determined it did not violate money laundering laws. DOJ lawyers say the position of the government in 2005 should not weigh on its stance now.
In the California case, the Justice Department recently secured a little more time to convince a federal trial judge there not to completely throw out the forfeiture action.
Judge George Wu of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on April 12 gave DOJ until June 11 to file a new complaint targeting assets that include the Malibu house and Michael Jackson memorabilia. (The judge dismissed the pending complaint.)
Wu, in a ruling (PDF), said the allegations in an earlier DOJ complaint are “framed in a vague, generalized manner.”
For instance, the judge said, DOJ’s extortion allegation “is not claimed to have been perpetrated by Nguema, but is instead ascribed to the amorphously defined ‘Inner Circle’ to which he allegedly belonged.”
Morillo, pointing to Wu's ruling, says prosecutors have failed to “identify a single member of the faceless ‘Inner Circle.’” He also criticizes DOJ for not naming any purported victims of any alleged extortion attempts.