The business of tracking despot assets

Tracking stocks in newspaper.

Steve Chiotakis: Tonight, President Obama will address the nation on the U.S. actions in Libya. A multi-lateral force continues the air assault there to enforce a no-fly zone. But there's another kind of assault -- a small army of accountants -- tracking Muammar Gaddafi's foreign assets.

From London, here's Marketplace's Stephen Beard.


Stephen Beard: Here is an asset-tracker at work.

John Christensen: Um, I've got it somewhere here. Ah yes, there we are. This is what you call an organogram.

John Christensen is a forensic accountant. Displayed on his computer screen are the results of his asset-tracking: an organogram.

Christensen: An organogram is basically like a family tree which shows how the different divisions of a company are structured.

This took several years to complete. It shows how a Russian politician siphoned money from an oil company and then disguised its source by passing it through dozens of tax havens, a process called "laddering."

Christensen: First step on the ladder might well be somewhere like Cyprus where you have a high degree of secrecy and low degree of regulation. Each step of the ladder takes you closer toward your final destination.

Like London. Once here, the laundered cash can be safely invested in stocks, bonds or real estate. But tracking the cash through the tax havens, through a dizzying number of anonymous trusts, can take decades.

William Brittain Catlin: Just this month, Swiss banks froze accounts linked to Baby Doc who fled Haiti 25 years ago. It takes a long, long time.

William Brittain Catlin of financial investigators James Mintz. He says asset-tracking is so tricky because despots and oligarchs can afford the finest financial engineers to hide their money.

Brittain Catlin: There are lawyers, advisers, trustees, fiduciary agents, corporate structurers, tax experts.

Beard: And a lot of them here in London?

Brittain Catlin: London is probably the center of excellence for structuring money.

In other words: money-laundering. John Christensen despairs of the Brits ever putting a stop to this flourishing industry.

Christensen: We love the money. The money comes in by the billions. And we tend to ignore its source.

The U.K. says it has frozen all Gaddafi's British assets, reportedly worth a $1 billion. But, says asset-tracker Christensen, that's surely just the tip of an iceberg of undiscovered loot.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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