Gambia: Govt-hired lobbyist suffers assets freeze in US

By Sanna Camara

US federal agents have seized nearly a half-million dollars from a Washington lobbyist hired by the Barrow government during the January 2017 political crisis to represent its interests in the United States.

Joseph Szlavik.jpg

Scribe Strategies & Advisors stands accused of helping the ruling family of Gabon and other clients around the world in evading US money-laundering regulations. Joseph Szlavik, proprietor of the lobby “received millions of dollars” from Gabon, Abu Dhabi, and Switzerland, Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, relying on forfeiture documents filed by federal prosecutors last week in Washington, D.C.

According to WSJ, the forfeiture complaint sought $475,405 from accounts linked to Mr. Szlavik, owner of lobbying firm Scribe Strategies & Advisors, which has offices in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Prosecutors said the funds were the proceeds of “an unlicensed international money transmitting business.”

On January 20, 2017, the same firm had announced it has been engaged by the new Government of the Republic of The Gambia to represent its interests in the United States; something analysts raised concerns over, given the reputation of the firm in its dealings with dictators in Africa.

“Unfortunately, these are the types of mistakes that new governments can sometimes make when learning to navigate the new terrain of doing business in a complex world,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit group that did extensive work on The Gambia in the lead up to the December 2016 election.

A mistake that could have been avoided

Smith said it was due to such precise reasons why they started Vanguard Africa last year, “to help pro-reform leaders and nascent governments, like the one in Banjul, to move in the right direction and to build positive worldwide relationships.”

“Working with lobbyists and public relations firms that have a history of supporting and working with despots is a mistake that could have been avoided, and will hopefully prove to be a learning experience for President Barrow and his government, which I do believe is committed to doing well by the Gambian people,” Jeffery Smith, largely regarded as a friend of the change movement in The Gambia.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that U.S. authorities raided the Pennsylvania home of Mr. Szlavik in connection with an investigation by Department of Homeland Security agents into flows of funds from Gabon.

The four-year-old probe is part of a broader effort launched by the Obama administration in 2010 to prevent foreign leaders from parking the suspected proceeds of corruption in the U.S. financial system.

A Journal review of the program in 2014 found that the U.S. government had recovered $600 million out of the $1.2 billion pursued in 15 cases against current or former officials and businesspeople in at least 14 different countries.

Scribe was to work closely with Ambassador Faye

In a filing with the Foreign Agents Registration Act unit of the U.S. Department of Justice in early January, the lobby stated it was retained by the Government of the Republic of the Gambia for a period of twelve months to communicate with the Trump Administration about the legitimacy of the election of President Adama Barrow and to assure that the will of the Gambian people will be respected.

Under the agreement, Scribe was to work closely with Sheikh Omar Faye, the then Ambassador of the Gambia to the United States, in assessing the political situation in the Republic of The Gambia, in order to effectively promote and restore the rule of law and democratic governance in the Gambia, as well as to work diligently to solidify and expand The Gambia’s productive relationships with the government, businesses, and individuals in the United States.”

From 2010 to 2013, a Citizens Bank account set up by Mr. Szlavik received deposits of more than $7.5 million from foreign sources, most of it from Gabon, where Mr. Szlavik held the title of special adviser to Gabonese President Ali Bongo, according to the May 9 forfeiture complaint filed in a federal-district court in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Szlavik’s has also represented clients from Swaziland, Uganda, Eritrea, Cameroon and Nicaragua, among others.

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