The Money’s Gotta Be Someplace (with Debra LaPrevotte)
The real-world impact of global kleptocracy, which the United States continues to enable.
Lost in the week’s flurry of Elon jet-related news was the death of the cutely-named ENABLERS Act in the U.S. Senate. In one of his last Congressional acts before riding off into the sunset of well-heeled retirement, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, struck the proposed legislation from the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Establishing New Authorities for Businesses Laundering and Enabling Risks to Security Act seeks to “expand the definition of a financial institution for purposes of reporting suspicious transactions, anti-money laundering programs, and other related measures” to include investment advisers, art and antiquities dealers, attorneys and law firms, trusts, CPAs, accounting firms, PR outfits, and third-party payment processors. In practice, this means that all of those folks would have to be fully aware of the identity of the beneficial owners of the foreign money sloshing into the United States. You’re not going to believe this, but the ENABLERS Act is opposed by investment advisers, art and antiquities dealers, attorneys and law firms, trusts, CPAs, accounting firms, PR outfits, and third-party payment processors—as well as every wealthy, corrupt foreign national from Chișinău to Medellín.
Vast amounts of wealth flow into the U.S. from overseas. A lot of that wealth is legit. But a lot of it is not. Kleptocracy is a scourge on developing countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and Africa. Money that belongs to the people of those countries is flat-out looted—secreted out, laundered, and stashed at banks in parasitic countries that look the other way at financial crime.
“If you’re looking at corruption, and you’re like, ‘Who’s looting the most,’ I can tell you when I left the FBI in 2015, I had at least ten cases on my desk where countries were missing well over a billion dollars,” says Debra LaPrevotte, the retired FBI agent who spent 20 years working kleptocracy cases, the co-host and subject of a new podcast called A Nation for Thieves, and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “So, right now, I think Lebanon’s missing eleven billion dollars, Moldova’s missing between ten and twenty billion dollars, Malaysia lost five billion in the 1MDB case. A billion dollars left Moldova in three days, in one case. I mean, I could just keep—billions, ten to twenty billion has left South Sudan in the last decade. So, they’re just astronomical amounts of money. And in every case, the civilian population is who suffers.”
People in those countries starve, endure power blackouts, are denied access to quality healthcare, are governed by corrupt legal systems, exist in squalor, all so some greedy, sociopathic jerk can live like a king—and sprinkle some of that ill-gotten gain to fancy real estate agents in London, art dealers in Paris, and [checks notes] lawyers in Delaware.
For two decades at the FBI, and at her current position at The Sentry, LaPrevotte’s job is to track down and recover the stolen loot. “What’s the victim country? Okay, Ukraine, tell me how much money left and how did it leave? Was it embezzlement? Was it procurement fraud? Was it syphoning off the state coffers? Was it bribery? Kickbacks? Extortion? How did the money leave your country? Where do you think it went? And then, if there’s other pots of money that have already been located, and maybe frozen, we just can’t forfeit them. I have to trace the money we know exists back directly to criminal conduct.”
The most brazen thief in recent memory was Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow puppet who served as president of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014, when he fled to Russia after the Euromaidan protests. (Yanukovych’s political adviser, of course, was Paul Manafort; Ukraine was the testing ground for techniques he would later use in running the presidential campaign of Donald John Trump). Yanukovych’s personal estate, the Mezhyhirya Residence, is cartoonishly opulent—the sort of decadent residence a third grader would dream up. LaPrevotte was there after Yanukovych fled, looking for clues, leading a team of divers who were pulling documents out of a lake.
“Yanukovych was Putin’s man,” LaPrevotte tells me. “Right? And so, under Yanukovych, over 40 billion dollars left the country. I literally consider it the financial rape of a country, because what it did is, it weakened their military. I mean, they had no bullets! Honestly, I walked in, I go, ‘Hi, I’m Debbie LaPrevotte, I’m with the FBI,’ and they’re like, ‘Could you come back? We’re being invaded.’ And I’m like, ‘We’re here to help.’ And literally, they had no bullets in their guns. So it opened the door—because Putin knew they had no money, no military, nothing had been invested, they had no bullets. And so he just stomped right in, and he stole Crimea.”
Despite LaPrevotte’s efforts, most of the money stolen from Ukraine remains out in the ether. One way the West can help the war effort in Kyiv, she says, is by finding and seizing the balance.
“The Russian oligarch’s yachts that they’re seizing? I think that’s a great thing to do, but it’s really hard to take an asset from one person and say, ‘You know, I don’t like you, we’re going to take your asset, we’re going to give it to somebody else.’ I said, if you want to help Ukraine, let’s, globally, go after some of that 45 billion that left under Yanukovych and Poroshenko—and if we find it, we can give it back. If you look at the state-owned companies in Crimea, the oil company, the oil rig, the gas company, that was stolen by Russia when they took Crimea—any money they’ve generated is the interstate transportation of stolen property, because they stole those companies. So, can we find that money? Can we give it back to Ukraine?” She concludes: “President Zelenskyy’s going to need billions of dollars to rebuild his country. The money’s gotta be someplace.”
And the United States isn’t helping as much as it could. By spiking the ENABLERS Act, Pat Toomey and his Senate colleagues have made it harder to track down the stolen loot.
For 20 years, Debra LaPrevotte worked for the FBI, specializing in international kleptocracy investigations. After retiring from the Bureau, she took a job with The Sentry, the organization funded by George Clooney, where she continues her work investigating kleptocratic crimes, particularly in Africa. She is the co-host and subject of a new podcast, “A Nation for Thieves,” put out by Lion’s Gate. She talks to Greg Olear about her FBI experiences, which countries are the most corrupt, how real estate and art are used to launder money, the problem with Delaware, and the time she seized a Maybach only to find it was out of gas. Plus: a Twitter anthem.
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Photo credit: Josephine Dorado. Mezhyhirya (Ukraine's ousted President Yanukovych's former house).