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A government official from a poor, West African country wants to move millions of dollars into the United States. Anonymously. And he needs your help. What do you do?
No, this isn't a new version of the Nigerian prince email scam. It's a hidden camera investigation by CBS's 60 Minutes and the environmental and human rights nonprofit Global Witness, which sought to expose how easy it is to launder money into the United States, with the help of lawyers of course.
If you would have told the government official, "Sure!" you wouldn't be alone. Most of the lawyers -- all from law firms in Manhattan -- were happy to help, even when it was made fairly clear that the money, several hundred million dollars, was tainted. The pretend official wanted to hide the cash in anonymously purchased luxury real estate, yachts, and private jets.
The investigation was "intentionally designed to raise red flags and to give the lawyers good reason to suspect that the minister's millions came from official corruption and they all did." Global Witness wasn't subtle, either. The cash was called gray money, black money, official graft, and straight up bribes.
Of the 16 lawyers the investigators met with, only one declined to help transfer the cash into the U.S. One of the attorneys who offered ideas on how to move the ill-gotten cash into the U.S. was James Silkenat, then-President of the ABA. Silkenat and his fellow attorney Hugh Finnegan, according to the report, "provided what former prosecutors told us was a roadmap of how to conceal the source of the funds using layers of anonymous, interconnected shell companies in multiple jurisdictions."
Another lawyer suggested that the money be "scrubbed" by transferring it through Luxembourg before bringing it to the U.S. Others preferred the Isle of Man.
Of course, none of the conduct 60 Minutes captured was technically illegal. No money changed hands and no lawyer did more than give advice. Silkenat said he offered only information that the fake official could have found through Google. He also never agreed to represent Kayser, the Global Witness investigator, and said that he would report any crimes if they were revealed. "Had the camera followed us after the meeting," he wrote later, "it would have shown us agreeing that Kayser was disreputable and that we would not deal with him again."
But to 60 Minutes, the message is clear: lawyers are playing a central role in international money laundering and very few of them have any problem with it. But even Global Witness's own legal ethicists note that the rules governing attorneys are vague in such situations -- but also maintained that the lawyers showed responded similarly to real requests, they would have violated their professional obligations.
Others questioned the ethics of secretly recording attorney-client communication, even if they client is fake.
The ABA, for its part, released a statement saying that it had never been given the opportunity to comment before the report aired. "We clearly do not condone money laundering or any other illegal activities," the ABA wrote, "and support reasonable and necessary domestic and international efforts to combat money laundering."
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