Homeless couple who shared windfall with friends on trial for money laundering

By Daniel Boffey

A homeless couple who found €300,000 (£264,000) in an old Singer sewing machine while squatting in an abandoned building are on trial for money laundering after giving away some of the windfall to people who had helped them in the past.

The prosecution has accepted the couple, named only as Joey D, 32, and Kimberley A, 33, who are also facing charges of drugs possession, distributed the cash out of generosity.

However, the court in Ghent has heard from the prosecutor’s office that the money found in the house in the Flemish town of Assenede was not the couple’s to give away. The nine friends who received money are also being prosecuted.

The public prosecutor told the court: “They shared the money as well-wishers. But of course you cannot hand out money that is not yours. And the people who took the money should have known that Joey and Kimberley could not have come by such sums of money in a normal way.”

A lawyer for Kimberley, Sofie Vermeir, told the court her client had hoped the money would change the course of her life. She said: “They wanted to buy a house, because they know all too well that such shelter is the start of a normal life.”

The owner of the abandoned building is said to want the cash returned.

Jesse van den Broeck, acting for Joey, said his client was an “honest finder” and should be allowed to keep the cash.

“In the first hour procedural errors have already been made, so the investigation is void,” he said. “I ask that Joey get his money back and not be punished.”

The couple’s windfall was only discovered after the property of a friend with whom they were staying was searched during a drugs raid.

Officers found 1.5kg of speed (amphetamine) and more than 1,000 pills in the house, while Joey was found to have €50,000 in cash on him.

The prosecutor’s office is seeking 18-month suspended prison sentences and fines of €6,000 each for the couple. The judge is expected to give his decision in two weeks.

Iran’s top leader opposes joining anti-money-laundering body

Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publically opposed joining a global anti-money laundering convention.

Referring to recent debates in country’s parliament on joining the Financial Action Task Force, Khamenei told lawmakers Wednesday: “It is not necessary to join conventions whose depths we are unaware of.”

Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, said the parliament should instead prepare its own bills against money laundering and terrorism, accusing the convention of merely “securing the interests” of big powers.

Earlier last week the parliament suspended debate on joining FATF for two months out of fear that membership could thwart helping Iran’s allies abroad, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both are considered terrorist organizations by the United States.

FATF was established by a G-7 Summit in Paris in 1989.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Major Crypto Exchanges Face Action Over Money-Laundering Fears

By Wolfie Zhao

Japan’s financial watchdog is reportedly planning to force improvements at a number of licensed cryptocurrency exchanges over perceived issues with internal systems, including anti-money laundering (AML) measures.

According to a report from Nikkei on Tuesday, the country’s Financial Service Agency (FSA) intends to ensure full compliance with current AML rules at larger exchanges as their holdings of customer funds rapidly increases. The report suggests at least five exchanges, including bitFlyer, Quoine, and Bitbank, are on the FSA’s list to receive “business improvement orders” this week.

The report said that, based on its recent inspections, the FSA found that some licensed exchanges still do not have sufficient measures in place for spotting suspicious transactions. Further, the agency is also concerned that the firms have not recruited enough staff to cope with the growing volume of transactions on their platforms.

Back in April, the FSA was already raising questions over what it considered a loosely enforced ID-verification process at bitFlyer, after which the firm pledged it would strengthen its procedures.

The agency also issued business improvement orders in March to a number of registered but lesser known cryptocurrency exchanges – including GMO Coin and Tech Bureau – as part of its review of crypto trading platforms following the $530 million Coincheck hack in January.

And, earlier this month, the FSA gave its first-ever license rejection to cryptocurrency exchange FSHO after having issued two suspension orders to the firm over its alleged failure to properly implement security and AML improvements.

The latest move by the FSA comes just days after a Japanese self-regulatory group of cryptocurrency exchanges proposed to strengthen their AML measures by prohibiting member platforms from listing anonymous cryptocurrencies such as monero and dash.

Formed in the aftermath of the Coincheck hack, the Japanese Virtual Currency Exchange Association consists of major exchanges such as bitFlyer, Bitbank and Quoine.


Judge rebukes Manafort, sends him behind bars

WASHINGTON — A federal judge revoked Paul Manafort’s bail and sent him to jail Friday to await trial, citing new charges that Manafort had tried to influence the testimony of two of the government’s witnesses after he had been granted bail.

“You have abused the trust placed in you six months ago,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson told Manafort. “The government motion will be granted and the defendant will be detained.”

Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, had posted a $10 million bond and was under house arrest while awaiting his September trial on a host of charges, including money laundering and false statements.

But Jackson said Manafort could not remain free, even under stricter conditions, in the face of new felony charges that he had engaged in witness tampering while out on bail. “This is not middle school. I can’t take away his cellphone,” she said during the 90-minute court hearing.

“This hearing is not about politics. It is not about the conduct of the office of special counsel. It is about the defendant’s conduct,” Jackson said. “I’m concerned you seem to treat these proceedings as another marketing exercise.”

Manafort, dressed in a blue suit and red tie, was led out of the courtroom by security officers. He turned and gave a last look and wave to his wife, seated in the well of the court. She nodded back to him.

His lawyer Richard Westerling had urged the judge not to send him to jail, saying that it was not required by law, and doing so “will create more challenges for the defense, which already faces trial in two courts.”

Trump, in a tweet Friday, defended Manafort and criticized Jackson’s action against him, though he seemed to misunderstand what the judge had done.

“Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns,” Trump wrote. “Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob. What about Comey and Crooked Hillary and all of the others? Very unfair!”

Trump also defended Manafort in remarks to reporters outside the White House.

Manafort “has nothing to do with our campaign, but I tell you I feel a little badly about it,” Trump said. “They went back 12 years to get things that he did 12 years ago.”

Trump added that Manafort “worked for me for a very short period of time.”

Asked if he might consider pardoning former aides and advisers, Trump answered: “I don’t want to talk about that.”

In a superseding indictment filed last week, the prosecutors working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, claimed that Manafort and a close associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, had contacted two witnesses earlier this year, hoping to persuade them to testify that Manafort had never lobbied in the United States for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russia president of Ukraine.

The government alleges that Manafort violated the law by failing to report those lobbying efforts to the Justice Department and by lying to federal authorities about his activities.

The day after he was indicted in February in connection with those offenses, prosecutors claim, Manafort began trying to influence the accounts of two members of a public relations team who had worked with him, reaching out to them by phone, through encrypted messages and through Kilimnik. According to prosecutors, he tried to hide the communications by using a technique called “foldering” in which multiple people have access to the same email account and communicate by saving messages in a drafts folder rather than sending them.

Manafort’s attorneys have denied the tampering allegations and accused prosecutors of conjuring charges to pressure him to flip his plea and turn against Trump and his associates.

Manafort had been confined to his home on electronic monitoring and other restrictions since he was first indicted Oct. 27 during Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Most of the criminal counts relate to activity that preceded Manafort’s time as Trump’s campaign manager, from March to August of 2016, when he resigned amid news reports that he had received secret cash payments for his Ukraine consulting.

Prosecutors had previously complained to the judge about Manafort’s behavior as he awaited trial. In December, they accused him of violating a court’s gag order by helping ghostwrite an op-ed piece defending his work in Ukraine for an English-language newspaper in Kiev.

Jackson, the judge, declined to punish Manafort then but warned she would likely consider similar actions in the future as a violation.

In asking for Manafort to be jailed, prosecutor Greg Andres said in court that there was a danger Manafort would continue to commit crimes.

“There is nothing on the record of this court that assures that Mr. Manafort will abide by conditions” of pretrial release short of jail, Andres said.

Andres said Manafort’s efforts were “not random outreaches,” but part of “a sustained campaign over a five-week period” aimed at getting the witnesses to back up a false story that he had lobbied only in Europe.

The distinction matters because unregistered foreign lobbying in the U.S. is a crime, while lobbying solely in Europe would be outside the special counsel’s jurisdiction.

Jackson said she was particularly disturbed that some of the contacts occurred after Manafort had been specifically ordered by another federal judge to avoid all contacts with witnesses involved in Mueller’s investigation or prosecution of him. That judge is overseeing a separate case in Northern Virginia, where Manafort faces additional charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and failure to report foreign bank accounts.

“I have no appetite for this,” Jackson told Manafort shortly before he was led out of the courtroom to be transported to jail. “I have struggled with this decision.”

But she said that even if she explicitly ordered Manafort never to contact any of the government’s 56 witnesses, she could not be certain he would comply. “Will he call the 57th?” she asked. She also implied that she was running out of patience with Manafort’s explanations of his behavior, saying the case “continues to be to this minute extraordinary.”

Manafort’s lawyers suggested that he had reached out innocently to his former colleagues, not knowing whether they had been contacted by Mueller’s team. But Andres said Manafort was simply deceiving the court, just as he had deceived law enforcement agencies and tax authorities over the years. “It’s inconceivable that he did not know they were potential witnesses,” he said.

Besides violating laws on disclosure of lobbying on behalf of foreign interests, the government has accused Manafort of laundering more than $30 million in income he received over a nine-year period for lobbying for Yanukovych and his political allies.

As evidence that Manafort lobbied in the United States, prosecutors submitted a four-page memo that Manafort wrote to Yanukovych detailing his campaign to convince members of Congress, the State Department and the Western news media that Yanukovych was a champion of democratic reforms. Yanukovych, who was elected president in 2010, fled to Russia in 2014.

The government alleges that the offenses are part of a complex financial conspiracy led by Manafort and aided by Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, and Manafort’s right-hand man, Kilimnik, who has been linked to Russian intelligence.

Information for this article was contributed by Sharon LaFraniere of The New York Times; by Spencer S. Hsu, Ellen Nakashima and Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post; and by Chad Day and Ken Thomas of The Associated Press.


Marijuana Banking Measure Rejected By Congressional Committee

By Tom Angell

A powerful congressional committee voted on Wednesday to reject a measure to protect banks that open accounts for marijuana businesses from being punished by federal financial regulators. Supporters then scrambled to craft a more limited measure focused on medical cannabis businesses, but it was ultimately withdrawn before a vote could take place.

The broader measure would have prevented the U.S. Department of Treasury from taking any action to “penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana or marijuana products” in accordance with state or local law.

After a lengthy and impassioned debate during which at least 19 lawmakers spoke, it was defeated on a voice vote by the House Appropriations Committee.

Despite the fact that a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use, many financial institutions have remained reluctant to work with cannabis businesses for fear of running afoul of money laundering laws under ongoing federal prohibition.

As a result, many marijuana growers, processors and retailers operate on a cash-only basis, which can make them targets for robberies.

The issue is “not whether or not one approves of marijuana,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), the chief sponsor of both banking amendments, before the vote. “This is about public safety and financial transparency.”

Either rider, if it were successfully attached to legislation to fund the Treasury Department for Fiscal Year 2019, would have provided added assurance to banks that federal officials won’t close them down for working with the cannabis industry.

A similar measure was approved by the full House of Representatives in 2014 by a margin of 231 to 192, but was not included in final spending legislation that year, and congressional Republicans have since blocked floor votes on most cannabis measures.

In the lead up to the Wednesday banking vote, several advocates and Capitol Hill staffers expressed confidence in interviews that the measure would pass. But a number of likely Republican supporters were absent during the debate, and others who are sympathetic to marijuana law reform expressed varying concerns about the specific proposal. As a result, supporters did not force a roll call tally following the defeat on a voice voice.

Joyce then went back to the drawing board and crafted the narrower medical-focused amendment, which he hoped would find enough support to pass. But after a brief debate on the second proposal, Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked Joyce three times to withdraw the amendment instead of forcing a vote. The Ohio congressman twice pressed ahead and said he wanted the committee to weigh in on the measure, only to give in at the last moment and pull the measure.

By seeking to adopt the language in the appropriations panel, before the overall spending bill heads to the Rules Committee, which is where marijuana amendments have gone to die for the past several years, advocates were attempting to circumvent an effective blockade that has prevented progress on cannabis reform in the House.

In a similar move last month, the Appropriations Committee approved a measure to protect state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference following several instances of that measure being blocked by the Rules Committee.

In a separate sign of the mainstreaming of marijuana politics on the other side of the Capitol, on Wednesday the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies included that far-reaching medical marijuana language in the initial version of the Justice Department funding bill as introduced by Republican leaders, meaning that no vote or amendment will even be necessary to advance the provision in that chamber this year.

The Senate panel is scheduled to take up its version of the Treasury Department funding bill, which is called the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, next week.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes legalization, sent a letter this week urging House lawmakers to reject the cannabis banking move.


DOJ Charges Russian, Syrian Nationals With Money Laundering

Eight Russian and Syrian nationals were charged Tuesday with laundering millions of U.S. dollars for a Russian company that shipped jet fuel to Syria in violation of U.S. sanctions, according to the Department of Justice. The charges accuse the eight men of conspiring to “cause banks in the United States to provide financial services to Syria and to a Syrian SDN without having first obtained the required license,” among a series of other violations that allegedly occurred between October 2011 and October 2017. If convicted, the men will be required to forfeit almost $3 million, and two petroleum tankers.

Report describes Dubai real estate as money-laundering haven

By Jon Gambrell

War profiteers, terror financiers and drug traffickers sanctioned by the U.S. in recent years have used Dubai’s real-estate market as a haven for their assets, a new report released Tuesday alleges.

The report by the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, relying on leaked property data from the city-state, offers evidence to support the long-whispered rumors about Dubai’s real-estate boom. It identifies some $100 million in suspicious purchases of apartments and villas across the city of skyscrapers in the United Arab Emirates, where foreign ownership fuels construction that now outpaces local demand.

The government-run Dubai Media Office said it could not comment on the report.

For its part, the center known by the acronym C4ADS said Dubai has a “high-end luxury real estate market and lax regulatory environment prizing secrecy and anonymity above all else.” That comes as the U.S. already warns that Dubai’s economic free zones and trade in gold and diamonds poses a risk.

“The permissive nature of this environment has global security implications far beyond the sands of the UAE,” the center said in its report. “In an interconnected global economy with low barriers impeding the movement of funds, a single point of weakness in the regulatory system can empower and enable a range of global illicit actors.”

The properties in question include million-dollar villas on the fronds of the man-made Palm Jumeirah archipelago to an apartment in the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Others appear to be one-bedroom apartments in more-affordable neighborhoods in Dubai, the UAE’s biggest city.

Among the highest-profile individuals named in the report is Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and one of that country’s wealthiest businessmen. The U.S. has sanctioned Makhlouf, who owns the largest mobile phone carrier Syriatel, for using “intimidation and his close ties to the Assad regime to obtain improper financial advantages at the expense of ordinary Syrians.”

Makhlouf and his brother, also sanctioned by the U.S., own real estate on the Palm Jumeirah, according to the report. They also have ties to two UAE-based free-zone companies. The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms led from oil-rich Abu Dhabi, has opposed Assad in his country’s yearslong war.

The UAE also opposes Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia group backed by Iran. However, C4ADS’ report identified at least one property directly linked to Lebanese businessmen Kamel and Issam Amhaz, who the U.S. sanctioned in 2014 for helping Hezbollah “covertly purchase sophisticated electronics” for military drones. The report identified another nearly $70 million in Dubai properties owned by two other shareholders in Amhaz’s sanctioned firms.

Separately, the report identified some $21 million in real estate still held by individuals associated with the Altaf Khanani money laundering organization, a Pakistani ring that aided drug traffickers and Islamic extremists like al-Qaida through its currency exchange houses.

The report identified Dubai properties owned by Hassein Eduardo Figueroa Gomez, a Mexican national indicted in the U.S. for importing mass quantities of chemicals needed to make methamphetamine. It also identified properties owned by two Iranians previously sanctioned for their work on Iran’s missile program.

Dubai, an Arabian Peninsula entrepot, long has been a favorite port of call for those skirting the law. Gold smuggling into India served as one of the emirate’s most lucrative trades for the decades after the pearling industry collapsed. Guns, drugs and other illicit cargo also moved through the city-state.

Over time, however, Dubai itself became a haven. The emirate’s decision in 2002 to allow foreign ownership of so-called “freehold” properties drew a rapid construction boom that attracted developers from across the world, including President Donald Trump, whose name is on two golf course projects and villas.

Dubai’s easily flipped luxury properties offered an opportunity for those wanting to park money they otherwise couldn’t spend. The Federation of American Scientists warned based on news reports in 2002 that “money-laundering activity in the UAE may total $1 billion annually.”

Money quickly flowed in from all corners, especially those now involved in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, likely topping that.

From Kabul, the Afghan capital, over $190 million in physical cash left for Dubai in three months in 2009 on commercial flights, according to an October 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. In 2008, some $600 million, as well as 100 million euros and 80 million British pounds, made the trip, according to the cable.

A banking scandal in Afghanistan in 2010 saw regulators demand that a banker turn over 18 Palm Jumeirah villas and two business properties. The brother of former Afghan President Hamad Karzai also profited from the sale of a Palm Jumeirah villa at the time.

In Pakistan, authorities believe citizens invested $8 billion in Dubai’s property market over four years, possibly to evade taxes, officials said in 2017. Alleged Australian drug kingpins arrested in Dubai last year also owned real estate in the city, while the governments of Nigeria and South Africa also have launched investigations into alleged money laundering involving Dubai.

Unlike in the U.S., where property records are public, Dubai does not offer an accessible database of all its transactions, instead requiring specific details only individual buyers and sellers would have. C4ADS said it relied in part on “private UAE data compiled by real estate and property professionals” offered by a confidential source for its reporting.

The U.S. State Department as recently as this year issued a warning about money laundering in the UAE in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, noting the country’s money-exchange shops can allow for “bulk cash smuggling.” The UAE’s economic free zones, real estate sector and its trade in gold and diamonds also pose risks.

“The UAE has demonstrated both a willingness and capability to take action against illicit financial actors if those actors pose a direct national security threat or present a reputational risk to the UAE’s role as the leading regional financial hub,” the State Department said. “However, the UAE needs to continue increasing the resources devoted to investigating, prosecuting and disrupting money laundering.”

Crypto a threat to central bank driven monetary policy says IMF

By Kieran Smith

Decades before Bitcoin, the arrival of the internet prompted speculation that the relentless march of information technology would eventually put central banks in the same category as typewriters and cassettes—obsolete inventions that people once thought would last forever. The rise of cryptocurrency has rekindled this debate, and it is now being explored by one of the most powerful forces of the world economy—the International Monetary Fund.

In a blog post titled “Monetary Policy in the Digital Age”, fund director Dong He asserts that cryptocurrency has the potential to topple the monopoly of central banks, and that to stay relevant, banks must adapt to the demands of an evolving economy.

Toppling the monopoly

In a world of decentralised currency, the role of a centralised monetary policy is uncertain, and the blog suggests that in order to compete, banks must “strive to make fiat currencies better and more stable units of account”, noting that “effective monetary policy”, with an openness to fresh ideas, offers the best route towards economic stability.

This alone, however, will not be enough to guard against the dangers presented by cryptocurrency, and the post proposes rigorous regulation to prevent any “unfair competitive advantage” that might be offered by crypto-assets, along with reducing the possibility of them being used for “money laundering and the financing of terrorism.”

Finally, to adapt to the new era of digital finance, central banks should consider issuing tokens of their own—Central Bank Digital Currencies—which could also be exchanged peer-to-peer.

The post also explores what could happen if banks fail to adapt to widespread adoption of cryptocurrency. In this case, another potential scenario is put forward—one in which the demand for cryptocurrency over bank-issued currency undermines the authority of central banks’ monetary policies: “Central banks typically conduct monetary policy by setting short-term interest rates in the interbank market for reserves (or clearing balances they keep with the central bank). According to King (1999), ceasing to be the monopoly supplier of such reserves would indeed deprive central banks of their ability to carry out monetary policy.”

Aside from ideas of decentralisation, the post suggests that the cryptocurrency movement might in fact represent a deeper historical pattern in the evolution of finance—the decline of credit money, in favour of commodity money.

As he writes, “monetary systems seem to have alternated between commodity and credit money throughout history”, and crypto assets could be the impetus for another historic reversal.

 A new SEC advisor

While pragmatic, the IMF report is unflinching in its call for regulation to address the risk and volatility that cryptos pose, suggesting that with better issuance rules— even “smart rules” based on artificial intelligence, their valuation could become more stable. Timely then, that a new advisor for digital asset regulation has recently been appointed by the SEC. Valerie Szczepanik is filling an entirely new position that will oversee the application of US securities law to cryptocurrencies and digital assets.

This appointment may be a sign that financial regulators are beginning to warm to cryptocurrency. Ms. Szczepanik, who moved from the Division of Enforcement’s Cyber Unit, has previously indicated a balanced approach to regulation. At a conference on Financial Fraud earlier this year, she spoke of the need for the SEC to strike a balance between protecting investors and facilitating the emerging technology, stating “We do not want to chill the markets…the promise of blockchain technology is not one that we want to ignore.”

Her efforts, like the recent fake ICO scam website “Howeycoins,” are likely to be focused on protecting investors without smothering innovation. Some commentators, however, are suggesting otherwise. Certain figures in the crypto community have taken a more adversarial position on recent events, and powerful influencer John McAfee has issued a declaration of currency independence, warning of an impending currency war against the “powerful forces trying to derail the progress of the cryptocurrency revolution.”

Guatemala’s efforts to fight corruption are under attack

GUATEMALA CITY — Recent headlines about the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a key institution leading the fight against corruption in this country, seem taken straight out of a Cold War playbook: They accuse Russia of subverting the commission in order to further the Kremlin’s interests.

In reality, the U.N.-sponsored anti-corruption body, set up in 2006 to investigate high-level corruption, has been maliciously attacked by groups seeking to degrade its mission. They have used false claims regarding the Bitkovs, a Russian family convicted of identity fraud, to undermine support in Guatemala and in the U.S. Congress for the CICIG.

Some media coverage has reflected a lack of knowledge of the Guatemalan justice system and has echoed a brazen misinformation campaign, driven by a well-financed lobbyist.

Three Russian nationals — Igor Bitkov; his wife, Irina, and their daughter Anastasia — were convicted as part of an investigation by the public prosecutor’s office that targeted a criminal network inside the national immigration agency and other entities that provided fake passports and documents to foreigners and locals. The risks that these types of networks present for regional security (including to the United States) are clear.

The court established that the Bitkovs entered the country legally in 2009 and purchased fake identities that they used to settle in Guatemala, set up companies and obtain travel documents. Igor Bitkov obtained two different identities. The Bitkovs did not request refugee status upon entering the country and, despite later allegations, it seems they never presented any evidence of political persecution by Russia.

The court sentenced the Bitkov family to the maximum sentence according to the Guatemalan penal code for the crimes committed.

The fraud case began in 2010 and convicted dozens of people, including government officials and human traffickers. Nonetheless, some media accounts in the United States and also in Guatemala have reduced the complex case to a single claim: The Bitkovs are victims of the CICIG, which, influenced by Vladimir Putin, manipulated the proceedings and is thus responsible for their conviction. This is a completely baseless accusation.

These accounts attribute powers to the CICIG that are outside its mandate. The commission is an international body born of an agreement between the government of Guatemala and the United Nations to support Guatemalan law enforcement to investigate and dismantle criminal structures that have held state institutions captive for generations, ensuring impunity for a whole range of serious crimes. Two separate Guatemalan government administrations worked with the U.N. to develop the mandate and three subsequent administrations signed mandate extensions so that the CICIG could continue its efforts. The commission has received funds and other support from at least a dozen countries, including strong support from the United States.

The CICIG has been accused by the media and others of being influenced by the state-owned Russian bank VTB, which was the largest creditor of the Bitkovs’ firm, to manipulate the proceedings and even affect the decision over the guardianship of Vladimir Bitkov, the Bitkovs’ young son, or over the conditions of the family’s detention. The CICIG has no authority in these areas, and no evidence has been presented to substantiate these claims.

The Bitkovs have been treated fairly. They were represented by lawyers of their choice and have had access to available procedural and appeal remedies. In April, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that a criminal court will rehear their case.

Since its establishment, the CICIG has decisively contributed to the strengthening of Guatemala’s institutions. Under the leadership of its current commissioner, Iván Velásquez, the CICIG has supported the public prosecutor’s office in identifying and dismantling networks of corruption. So far, two presidents, several ministers, members of Guatemala’s Congress, judges and influential members of the private sector have been prosecuted. As a result of a joint investigation by the public prosecutor’s office and the CICIG, the current president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, is accused of illicit campaign financing. He ordered the commissioner expelled last year.

These sectors see the Bitkov case as a Trojan horse to undermine the fight against corruption and organized crime in Guatemala. They have found support in billionaire Bill Browder, who, convinced that the Bitkovs have been victims of Russian persecution and determined to secure their release, sees the CICIG as a means of exerting direct pressure among members of the U.S. Congress. Browder should seek to support the Bitkovs without destabilizing Guatemala.

The backing of the United States in our struggle to strengthen the rule of law and democracy is fundamental. As is the preservation of the CICIG.

How corruption in the South Carolina Statehouse is impacting the race for governor

By Tim Smith

COLUMBIA – State Sen. John Courson pleaded guilty to misconduct in office charges this week as a Statehouse corruption probe now in its fifth year remains ongoing.

Republican challengers to Gov. Henry McMaster reminded voters Tuesday evening in the GOP’s final debate before next week’s primary that a central character in the probe, Richard Quinn, is a political consultant who until this year also worked for the governor’s campaigns.

Catherine Templeton, who said she was fired from her job at the State Ports Authority after raising concerns over a marketing contract with Quinn, said she has concerns the investigation will ensnare McMaster.

“My concern is whether our current governor is a target of that investigation or will be a target of that investigation,” she said. “If we hire him on June 12 (with election in the primary) and then he gets indicted, we’re handing our state over to the liberals.”

John Warren of Greenville, a Marine veteran, said the Statehouse needs more Marine values.

“It’s never going to happen if we have a governor who employs the biggest criminal in our state for the past 30 years,” he said. “We’ve got to have an outsider, a conservative, someone who is going to fight for the taxpayer for a change to go to Columbia and fight this corruption, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant said he had written an anti-racketeering bill and that it was an “insult to the taxpayers of the state” when Quinn’s son was sentenced to only a $1,000 fine for selling his vote.

“Richard Quinn has been called the Godfather,” Bryant said. “And as Ms. Templeton said, Gov. McMaster is one of his oldest clients. And the first order of business in the governor’s mansion was to have the Godfather come visit for a family meeting.”

McMaster, the state’s former attorney general and a former U.S. attorney, attempted to deflect his rivals’ accusations and insinuations as politics.

“I think we have to stick to the truth,” McMaster said. “The only investigations I have been involved in are the ones I was working myself, first as U.S. attorney.”

McMaster added that he was the only one on the stage at the University of South Carolina’s Drayton Hall who has been involved with law and order.

Then he turned on Templeton.

“This idea that there is corruption is true,” he said. “I’ll give you an example of it. Mr. Warren mentioned these no-bid contracts. Ms. Templeton had three.”

Templeton was director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and signed a no-bid contract as a consultant when she left in 2015. She also worked as a consultant for the state Department of Revenue.

Templeton responded by saying the contracts were disclosed because they were public record, and she said previous DHEC directors also have received consulting contracts when they left.

“Every dollar I have ever made from the state of South Carolina or otherwise has been a public record and always has been,” she said.

Later, McMaster said that Templeton had asked him to be his running mate, a request he said he declined.

“I said I couldn’t do that,” McMaster said. “As you know, I’ve selected Pamela Evette. So then we tried to get her something in the White House, something in the administration somewhere, and that didn’t work out, so here we are today.”

Templeton did not directly answer that assertion at the debate, saying only that McMaster’s timeline was “way off” because he hadn’t appointed his running mate until “way after” she visited McMaster. Evette was picked by McMaster in November 2017.

R.J. May, Templeton’s campaign manager, said after the debate that Templeton did not ask McMaster to be his running mate.

In response to the issue, McMaster’s campaign spokeswoman released texts between the governor and Templeton which appeared to show Templeton asking the governor in November 2016 if he had time so they “could talk quietly.”

The texts also show Templeton texting on Dec. 1 thanking McMaster for seeing her and then asking if he would support her being the U.S. secretary of labor, saying President Donald Trump’s transition team had contacted her.

McMaster’s campaign later released past comments from leaders, including former Gov. Nikki Haley, praising McMaster’s integrity and ethics.

Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor, said he thinks it is the right political strategy for Templeton and Warren to throw stones at McMaster as a representative of the Statehouse culture they are challenging.

“It’s a matter of what are the degrees of separation,” he said, referring to the distance between McMaster and the Richard Quinn firm at the heart of the Statehouse corruption investigation.

Ransom said it seems like some Republican candidates are taking more advantage of the situation in challenging incumbents over ethics than Democrats are.

“It seems to me if you are a weak minority party you would make more hay out of this than has been made thus far,” he said. “It seems like the hay that is being thrown down is coming from within the Republican party.”

Warren and Templeton also scrapped on stage, after Warren said he was being attacked by ads because he was rising in the polls.

“Their support is crumbling like our roads and bridges,” he said of his attackers.

Warren accused Templeton of flip-flopping on being pro-life. Templeton accused Warren of changing his position on what is called personhood, the proposal to grant rights to the unborn at conception, which would outlaw abortion, and of not supporting a measure concerning noise suppressors for guns.

Warren then accused Templeton of being a “triple threat to conservatives,” saying she had voted for “pro-choice, pro-abortion” Sen. Vincent Sheheen, failed to vote in the GOP presidential primary in 2012 and gave money to pro-abortion Democrats.

Warren also jabbed at McMaster over roads Tuesday.  When the governor talked about repairs to Charleston’s Wando River bridge recently being completed ahead of schedule, Warren shot back, “Fixing one bridge, that’s what you brag about?”

Warren said he wants bring accountability to the state Department of Transportation by abolishing its board because “it serves no purpose,” and he said he wants to roll the State Infrastructure Bank into the DOT.

Heading into Tuesday’s debate, a Target Insyght poll released over the weekend had McMaster in the lead with 37 percent, followed by Templeton at 25 percent and Warren at 20 percent. Bryant had 5 percent in the poll and McGill about 1 percent.

Warren released a poll Tuesday morning that placed him in second place. The poll showed McMaster with 33 percent, Warren with 19 percent and Templeton with 17 percent.


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