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What Happens When Foreign Assets Are Seized In The U.S.

  • Richard Solash

U.S. assets worth $1.5 billion held by late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi were returned to the country as humanitarian aid.

U.S. assets worth $1.5 billion held by late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi were returned to the country as humanitarian aid.

WASHINGTON -- Russian businessman Denis Katsyv is in for a fight. That is, if he intends to convince a U.S. judge why his $23 million in fancy Manhattan real estate should not be seized.

A complaint filed last week by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan alleges that Katsyv's Cyprus-based real estate company and its U.S. subsidiaries purchased luxury apartments and commercial space using dirty money -- part of the proceeds of a massive fraud scheme against the Russian state uncovered by the deceased lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Katsyv and his lawyers may try to refute the money trail laid out by U.S. prosecutors or claim he was an "innocent owner" of the properties. Should the judge be convinced, no seizure would occur.

Lawyers not involved in the case told RFE/RL that they didn't expect Katsyv to achieve such a favorable outcome. But what will happen to the assets if they are seized by Uncle Sam?

Charles Intriago, president of the Miami-based Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists and a former U.S. federal prosecutor, says that Washington would have four options: keep the property; sell it to the highest bidder and use the money for its own purposes; keep some of the money and return some to the country of origin; or return all of the proceeds from the sale to that country.

READ MORE: U.S. Assets Seizure May Lead To Expanded Magnitsky Blacklist

Intriago says that politics are almost always considered when making such a decision. In touching on the Sergei Magnitsky saga, a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, he says this case is no different.

"In this type of case, because of the geopolitical considerations, the Justice Department undoubtedly would contact the State Department and say: 'You guys have a dog in this fight? Do you have any suggestions as to what we should do with the proceeds of this?'" Intriago says. "And they may say, "Yeah, Putin's been a nice guy lately, give it to him,' or 'Hell, no! Take it,' or 'Why don't we split it?'"

In some instances it's clear where seized money should go. In September 2011, the UN told the United States to proceed with releasing $1.5 billion of assets that had been stashed in the country by former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. The money was to be sent to the country's recently recognized Transitional National Council for humanitarian aid.

In other cases of restitution, things can get complicated in a hurry. That's because corrupt money trails usually have plenty of detours -- in the form of complex ownership structures and tangled transactions histories. When large sums are involved, then multiple parties, armed with teams of lawyers, can also try to stake their claim.

A May 2013 article in "The Economist" highlighted the case of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, noting, "Legal action over the $200 million that the UN estimates Lazarenko pinched from Ukraine in the 1990s still rumbles on, with a dozen parties chasing assets in Eastern Europe, America, and Antigua."

Lawyer Martha Boersch successfully prosecuted Lazarenko in the United States on charges of money laundering and wire fraud in 2006. Recalling the case, Boersch says she had felt that the money stolen from Ukraine should go back to the Ukrainian people. But that, she says, opens up another challenge.

"The problem is, who are those people?" Boersch says. "And how do you accomplish that when, arguably, the government of the country is just as corrupt as the people that you're prosecuting?"

The same question applies in a current case involving the seizure of a 36-story New York building whose owners are associated with the Iranian government, a clear violation of U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran.

The fate of the proceeds remains unclear, although the United States has the option of using the money from the assets to compensate victims of "Iranian-sponsored terrorism."

Asset recovery also requires cooperation between the countries involved. If assets are indeed seized in the Katsyv case, Russia might not even want them. Doing so would be an apparent admission that the fraud scheme revealed by Magnitsky is true -- a step that Russia might pay not to take.