The Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Initiative is kicking off 2015 strong.  On January 13, 2015, the DOJ filed a civil complaint seeking the forfeiture of nine properties in New Orleans, worth close to $1.53 million.  The property was allegedly purchased with corrupt proceeds, traced to $2 million in bribes paid to a former Honduran official.

From 2010 to 2014, Dr. Mario Roberto Zelaya Rojas (“Zelaya”) served as the Executive Director of the Honduran Institute of Social Security (HISS), a Honduran agency similar to the U.S. Social Security Administration.  HISS provides the people of Honduras with social security services, including workers’ compensation, retirement, maternity, and death benefits.

According to the DOJ complaint, Zelaya solicited and received about $2.08 million in personal commissions from Compania de Servicios Multiples, D. de R. L. (“COSEM”), a company that was contracted by HISS to perform digitizing services for records along with other services.  The DOJ alleges that these payments were bribes in exchange for Zelaya helping to expedite payments owed to COSEM that HISS had suspended or delayed on a $19 million contract.  Many of the bribes were funneled through an affiliate company of COSEM, to conceal the illicit nature of the payments.  Zelaya, with assistance from his brother Carlos, laundered money and moved it into the United States.  The brothers then used companies in which Carlos Zelaya had a nominal interest to purchase New Orleans properties with the ill-gotten gains.  Certain purchase agreements for the properties initially listed Zelaya as buyer, but were later amended to list the seemingly sham companies as buyers to conceal the bribery scheme.  In September 2014, Zelaya was indicted in Honduras for bribery and money laundering.

“[I]nstead of building a social safety net for his country’s citizens, he allegedly used his position of public trust to steal public money for himself,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in a press release.

As we’ve discussed on this blog before, the DOJ’s Kleptocracy Initiative uses money laundering and other financial crime statutes to punish bribe takers, unlike most anti-corruption initiatives and legal tools that target bribe payers.  Last year, DOJ’s initiative made some bold strides, and it appears that we will continue to see much more action in 2015.

As Caldwell put it: “Criminals should make no mistake: the United States is not a safe haven for the proceeds of your crimes. If you hide or invest your stolen money here, we will use all the legal tools we have to find it and seize it.”