TOO BIG TO SEE
“The rich were just the tracer dye in the water, the clearest evidence of cultural drift.”1
When Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue was growing up in the small central African country of Equatorial Guinea, he appeared to have it all. He was born with power: since the late 1970s, his father had run the country as a despot overseeing a murderous regime buoyed and financed by unending flows of crude oil. As a result, Teodorin enjoyed flaunting his wealth however he could. He had diamond-studded Rolexes and hilltop megamansions. He owned fleets of high-end cars—Lamborghinis, Maseratis, you name it—which he steered around the nation’s capital, Malabo, attracting the interest of struggling street peddlers, impoverished shop owners, and the emaciated schoolchildren who populated the streets. He had women on his arm, from places as far away as Spain, Brazil, France, or even the United States. He poured money into private jets and bespoke suits and parties that would last for days on end, and told confidants about plans to build 200-foot yachts fitted with shark tanks. He even dreamed of one day creating an international entertainment empire, setting himself up as the Jay-Z of Africa. Frankly, he had more wealth than he knew what to do with—less a big fish in a small pond and more a giant whale in an impossibly small puddle.
But there was, behind it all, an insecurity impossible for Teodorin to escape: A trembling lack of self-worth, which everyone around him could pick up on. A feeling that he could never quite measure up, either to his father or to the billionaires he met with, traveled with, or consorted with. Much of that insecurity came from the fact that Teodorin’s father, now the longest-serving dictator in the world, never thought much of his son. Ignoring him, talking down to him, the dictator treated his son as he did many of his other underlings: dismissively, as nothing more than an imbecile, with as little talent as he had acumen. While his father tortured political opponents and jailed journalists, eliminating opposition and laying the groundwork for his heir apparent, Teodorin lacked the discipline and focus of a leader-in-training. He was always more interested in playing with his luxury cars, or indulging in yet another weeklong drug binge with his friends and hangers-on, than in perfecting the skill set required to oversee a modern dictatorship. When his father tried to teach him the details of foreign policy, or how to manage the country’s economics, Teodorin would try to pay attention, but, still groggy from the night or week or month before, he couldn’t get it to stick. Constantly hungover or strung out, he showed little promise, and constantly left his father embarrassed and angered at his son’s incompetence. “Teodorin is so stupid, so self-indulgent, so selfish that discretion is the last thing that he has,” said one investigator who has followed Teodorin’s exploits over the last two decades. “I think Teodorin”—a man now pushing into his fifties—“reached his potential maturity when he was about ten.”2
That rampant insecurity also had to do with the reality that so much of Teodorin’s wealth, which may now stretch into the billions, was so obviously, so transparently, ill-gotten. That it was so clearly tied to his father’s bloody, savage rule, which allowed only his family and a handful of others in their small, nub-shaped country to profit. That it came about only because his father controlled the levers of power in Equatorial Guinea, a country whose state-run media referred to the dictator as a “god,” a man “in permanent contact with the Almighty.”3 Despite being the country with the highest per capita GDP on the continent, Teodorin’s Equatorial Guinea now has one of the lowest life expectancies (58 years) and highest infant mortality rates (6 deaths per 100 live births) in the world.
The money in Teodorin’s pockets wasn’t illegal, per se; given the nature of his father’s dictatorship, everything he and his family did was technically legal according to Equatoguinean law. But this money was illegitimate: pilfered from his country’s treasury, stolen from the people it should have served most, available only because he was the son of a dictator. And everyone—both domestically and internationally—knew it. No matter how much money Teodorin threw around, no matter how much he was worth, his money would always be tainted.
Which points directly to the final reason for Teodorin’s insecurity. With his dark skin and charcoal eyes, Teodorin, born in 1968, came of age when the only members of the billionaire class were Europeans or North Americans—when wealth was, in essence, white. Sure, there were members of the monied class who were non-white. But they tended to be either fellow tyrants, like Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion), or neighboring megalomaniacs, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko (worth upward of $5 billion, and whose name translates to “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”).4
There was one figure, though, who by the mid-1980s proved that the world of stratospheric wealth wasn’t reserved only for the lily-white: Michael Jackson. The pop singer may have been American, but he—his reach and his status, his music and his model—was global. He was an icon in corners of the world that Americans had never heard of. That was especially true for the rising postcolonial nouveau riche generation emerging in sub–Saharan Africa. “From an early age, Teodorin wanted to give this air of being cool, being a big star,” Tutu Alicante, an Equatoguinean activist who’s arguably done more than anyone to highlight Teodorin’s crimes, told me. “And Michael Jackson was a global sensation for young kids in Africa to see—to see this Black kid become so successful.”5
Which is why, when Jackson died in the summer of 2009, Teodorin spied an opportunity. He came up with an idea that would help with multiple aims simultaneously: how to transform his suspect money into perfectly clean, perfectly legitimate assets; how to honor the man who showed that being Black and wealthy was perfectly acceptable; how to take a significant step toward becoming the celebrity mogul he’d long dreamed of being; and how to try to convince his father that, actually, he knew what he was doing with his money, and that he could be trusted whenever the time came for transition in Equatorial Guinea. It may not have been a wise plan—it’s unclear exactly why Teodorin thought his father would look at Michael Jackson memorabilia as a sign of his son’s abilities—but it was his plan, and he was determined to succeed.
At the time, Teodorin already had a massive Southern California mansion, a private jet and fleets of million-dollar automobiles, and many of the other trappings that came with modern celebrity. Now he would take the next step: he would become the world’s largest collector of Michael Jackson memorabilia. And in doing so, he would help convert some of his family’s dirty lucre into legitimate assets, and take another step toward transforming himself from African despot to international celebrity—and prove to his father that he possessed some of the acumen that everyone else assumed he lacked. He would look to the country that had already welcomed some of his dirty millions with open arms, with little to no scrutiny. A country that had perfected the biggest system of transforming dirty, suspect money into perfectly legitimate finances and assets, obscuring its illicit origins in the process. A country that was so good at it, in fact, that Teodorin was far from alone—many other wealthy and corrupt individuals had been cashing in for decades.
He turned to the United States of America.
* * *
AROUND THE SAME time, in June 2010, a whiskered, fleshy-faced 23-year-old named Chaim Schochet touched down a world away, in Cleveland, Ohio. As Schochet walked past the baggage claim and through the airport’s sliding doors, the summer sky yawned over him. A low breeze off Lake Erie curdled around the city, cutting a bit of the humidity already forming. He hopped in a waiting car, closed the door, and began his ride downtown.
At first blush, there was no real reason for Schochet to be traveling to a place like Cleveland. He had no real connections to the city, or to the Midwest, that anyone knew about. He lived in Miami, where he’d graduated from the Rabbinical College of America with a degree in Judaic Studies. But there he was, nonetheless, arriving in Cleveland—on an investment trip, he claimed, funded by his parents’ money. According to those familiar with his operations, he had one aim: to become the biggest real estate holder Cleveland had seen since the days of the great American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.
At the time, the real estate market in Cleveland—considered a “second-tier” market, behind the metropoles of New York or San Francisco or Dallas—was reeling. The 2008 financial crash had wiped out investment interest in the city. Already declining by the turn of the century, Cleveland saw any potential for a turnaround obliterated by the Great Recession. “During those years, you could shoot a cannon off at 5:00 p.m. in downtown Cleveland and not hit anybody,” one local real estate agent said of the city’s decline.6 Which is why city officials and real estate brokers lit up when they heard that the kid from Miami was coming to town.
Schochet’s excitement was palpable. He spun stories of falling in love with the city’s architecture, with the “historic nature of the buildings.” Cleveland, he claimed, would be the perfect place to put his parents’ money to work, and to build a real estate empire of his own. He could be the savior the city needed. And unsuspecting locals lapped it up; he was the “most important guy you’ve never heard of,” as the Cleveland Plain Dealer described him.7
Schochet’s first stop was 925 Euclid Avenue, the address of Cleveland’s famed Huntington Building. Constructed during the Coolidge administration, it was once the nation’s second-largest office tower, with the largest banking room America had ever seen. Its pediments featured murals by American painter Jules Guérin, capturing the spirit of the age. The building stood, in many ways, as a reminder of Cleveland’s zenith—and as a monument of unfulfilled promise.8
By 2010, the building was beaten down, with crumbled cornices, chipped corners, and old cabinets that were impossible to open. Nesting house sparrows found refuge inside, cohabitating in spaces abandoned by former tenants. The entire construct, just like downtown Cleveland, looked to most people like a cavernous husk of its former self. But not to Schochet.
When he first arrived out front, he took in the building’s mountainous scope. There was nothing like it in the Midwest, at least outside Chicago: a 1.3-million-square-foot colossus, a time capsule of what Cleveland once represented, and what those in the city hoped to recapture.
Inside, Schochet shuffled along the white-marble floor, running his hands across the ribbed columns. He looked up at the century-old skylight. One of the locals accompanying him asked if he wanted to explore any of the other floors. This was basic due diligence, to make sure Schochet knew all that the building could be, and what work would be required to rejuvenate it. Schochet scratched his ink-black beard, and shook his head. He’d seen all he needed to see. This building, this heirloom of Cleveland’s boom-time past, would do just fine. He would buy it, but he did have a separate question: Instead of going through a lender, could he pay cash?9
In most cases, commercial real estate purchases go through a rigorous vetting process, with financing structures that involve corporate mortgages and third parties. But Schochet said he wanted the building as soon as possible, and said he wouldn’t need any other parties involved for the purchase.
Well, that would be just fine, one of the local representatives said, shaking Schochet’s hand.
To be fair to all the parties involved, there was no legal compunction for either the realtors or local officials to say otherwise. (Who wants to deal with all of that extra paperwork when third parties are involved, anyway?) Nor was this move a surprise to anyone who knew Schochet. This was his preferred tactic: cutting out the financing middleman, streamlining the purchase, paying out of pocket. According to those who worked closely with Schochet, he’d done this before, all across the city, all across the Midwest writ large, in places like Cleveland and small towns in Ohio and Kentucky and Illinois. He’d show up, walk around the lobby or the front lawn, look around for a few minutes, and then pledge to pay millions of dollars. Easy, efficient, done.
He was good for his money, too; none of his previous multimillion-dollar checks had bounced. Besides, Schochet was charming and persuasive. He pledged that these purchases were just the first step toward a revitalization that would transform Cleveland once more into a global hub, a glorious return for a much-admired piece of America’s Rust Belt. “His fondness for this city is really apparent,” one local developer named Deb Janik claimed.10 And those on the receiving end hardly wanted to ask too many questions about Schochet’s money or why he didn’t appear to know (or care) much about the details of his new purchases. It’s not as if Cleveland had many other suitors, anyway. “It’s really a coup for the city to have someone like [him] investing,” another developer swooned.11
But if they’d looked beyond Schochet’s checkbook, they would have uncovered two things. First, as later court records and investigations showed, Schochet’s claims of being smitten with the city appeared to be a complete falsehood—a story he spun to punt any questions into his financing. In speaking with those familiar with his operations, little evidence suggests that Schochet cared about Cleveland at all. Second, and perhaps more important, his sellers would have been surprised to learn that this was no rich kid playing and investing with his parents’ money. In reality, his finances were linked directly to a post-Soviet oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky, who posed as a Ukrainian steel and banking magnate—and who at the time was allegedly helping to run one of the largest Ponzi schemes the world had ever seen, conning depositors who used his Ukrainian bank. Kolomoisky was hardly a well-known name in the U.S. Yet this Ukrainian businessman was not only the secret money behind Schochet’s network—he was also a key oligarch rising in power and wealth alike, threatening Ukraine’s democratic trajectory while allegedly pilfering billions of dollars from unsuspecting Ukrainians along the way.
On paper, Kolomoisky appeared as the head of Ukraine’s largest private bank, dubbed PrivatBank. But as Ukrainian and American investigators would later discover, Kolomoisky and his partner, Gennadiy Bogolyubov, had transformed PrivatBank into their own private piggy bank. Cowing and threatening employees at the bank into doing their bidding, Kolomoisky and his partner allegedly swindled over $5 billion from unsuspecting depositors, disguising their thievery as loans and investments.12
However, Kolomoisky couldn’t simply keep the looted money in bank accounts, which could be seized by authorities. He needed to hide it so effectively that no investigators, tax authorities, or international monitors would come after it. So, like Teodorin, he turned to the United States—where, as Kolomoisky knew, there was no finer place to hide and transform pilfered loot.
While he was rarely directly involved in the U.S. operations, Kolomoisky had a network—fronted by Schochet and his team in Miami—that was more than happy, according to American authorities, to help the oligarch launder billions. With the young American as his loyal foot soldier, connected to the oligarch via a family network we’ll detail in chapter 4, Kolomoisky viewed the U.S. the same way Teodorin did: as a jurisdiction wide open for as much dirty money as he could provide. “As far as I could tell … it was dirty money all the way,” one American involved in Schochet and Kolomoisky’s network told me. “And it was all a washing machine scheme. They were all cleaning money.”13 And Cleveland provided the perfect opening. Schochet could claim the money was for revitalization, which would persuade his unsuspecting local interlocutors. But the entire operation, as American officials later alleged, was a farce.14 Long and detailed investigations would later show that this was simply the tip of the iceberg. Using Delaware companies and Ohio steel mills, using investments in Texas and Kentucky and Illinois, and using a series of skyscrapers and office buildings in Cleveland, Kolomoisky could take full advantage of America’s money laundering services—all to help clean the proceeds of his massive Ukrainian Ponzi scheme.
But that wasn’t all. It would take years, as the following chapters will reveal, for us to learn that this Ukrainian oligarch, who had become the kingpin of Cleveland, had also become the embodiment of something else entirely. For it wasn’t just American money laundering that Kolomoisky was interested in. Rather, he was also interested in learning how to use all these American networks, all these American operations, for his own ends. How to exploit America’s transformation into a massive dirty money haven in order to bend U.S. foreign policy to his own will. How to manipulate the most corrupt American administration in generations into doing his own bidding. And how to use American kleptocracy to threaten the future of both the U.S. and Ukraine in the process.
* * *
THESE TWO STORIES—OF Teodorin as despot-cum-dilettante pouring his ill-gotten money into American assets, and of Kolomoisky using a network of Americans to park his money across the U.S. in places he never thought anyone would look—act as a pair of case studies for the larger story of what this book is really about: how America became the largest provider of money laundering and financial secrecy services in the world, and who took advantage, and what it means for the rest of us.
For years, the U.S. has largely turned a blind eye to the billions of dollars—and potentially more—in dirty and suspect money flooding into the country every year, stolen from national treasuries or made via bribes or smuggling or trafficking of humans and drugs alike. Much of this money has, for the better part of the last few decades, come to the U.S. in order to be washed clean, to be transformed into legitimate assets, and to obscure any links to its previous criminal owners. All of which can be done in the U.S. perfectly legally.
But in order to actually discern how America’s transformation took place—and how Teodorin and Kolomoisky and all the other crooks and criminals detailed in this book took full advantage of America’s implosion—it’s worth defining a range of terms at the outset.
The first is the classic of the financial secrecy lexicon: “offshore.” For many, the notion of a jurisdiction being “offshore” conjures up all kinds of images: swaying palm trees, white-sand beaches, maybe a bit of Don Ho playing in the background. For the most part, these offshore havens of our imagination are small and secluded, dotting places like the South Pacific or the Caribbean.
In a way, that imagined offshore isn’t far from the truth. Nevis and the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans, Mauritius and the Seychelles: these island chains and their sand-splattered neighbors have all built their own miniature offshore empires. They’ve all capitalized on the trillions of dollars in illicit capital sloshing around from tax evaders and drug cartels, wildlife poachers and human-trafficking networks, corrupt officials and crooked regimes around the world. They’ve all gotten their pieces of the dirty money pie. And they all exist, quite literally, offshore.
But that definition of “offshore” has been a misnomer since the late twentieth century. It fails to account for a turning point toward the end of the Cold War, during a transition that just so happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. All of a sudden, the postcommunist states opened to the West—and the communist apparatchiks were replaced by rapacious oligarchs, all of whom watched their net worth explode, mirroring the elite wealth gathering in other postcolonial regions. And it didn’t take long for officials and industrial leaders in the U.S. to suddenly realize how they could profit from that transition. The marriage of American private property rights and American financial secrecy provisions presented an advantage that the tropical, sand-strewn islands couldn’t compete with. “It is not Panama or the British Virgin Islands or Switzerland that is now the best place in the world to [launder] assets,” one Swiss lawyer enmeshed in the offshore world recently said. “It is the United States.”15
Those offshore havens still exist, but because of the U.S., whatever rhetorical lines that once existed between “offshore” and “onshore” have been effectively obliterated. Put another way: the world of the “offshore” has, in a very real sense, been brought back onshore. And with the U.S. at the middle, that “offshore-onshore” world has, over the past few decades, acted as a giant magnet for the kinds of dirty, illicit, and off-the-books money stolen from people and countries around the world, made via criminal regimes and criminal networks and criminal predations.
The amount of money involved in this process has been staggering. To take just one data point, the pro-transparency organization Global Financial Integrity tabulated that developing countries had lost some $16.3 trillion in unrecorded capital flight since 198016—slightly larger than the entire GDP of modern China, making the “offshore-onshore” world something of a superpower in its own right.17 (Compare that to the $135 billion—entire magnitudes smaller—in annual global foreign aid, and you can see why these aid programs don’t seem to make much of a dent.18) Part of that capital flight is a significant chunk of the tens of trillions of dollars of private financial wealth located in global financial secrecy havens.19 According to the best estimates, nearly 10 percent of all global wealth now exists in offshore havens abroad.20 And much of it is now hidden in the U.S.—sucked into an “offshore-onshore” world that is, in many ways, simply too big to see.
If this is all a surprise to you, you’re not alone: the U.S.’s position as the world’s leading “offshore-onshore” center hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves (and is one of the main reasons this book exists). It is often obscured by convoluted schemes that don’t translate well into mainstream media coverage or by jargon and technical terms meant to confuse outsiders. However, as the following chapters will reveal, it’s a role and a reality that’s been decades in the making.
The second term to define up front is “dirty money,” which, for the purposes of this book, we can lump together with similar phrases like “illegitimate assets” or “ill-gotten gains.” “Dirty money” remains a slippery topic to define. But it is, at its core, money gained via illicit or immoral means. It’s not necessarily illegal; Teodorin procured millions (and potentially more) via perfectly legal means in Equatorial Guinea. But as we’ll see in the first chapter, all of his wealth can and should be considered “dirty”—due purely to his proximity to his father’s dictatorship, which is brutal by any definition. The same can be said for Kolomoisky; as we’ll see in the third section of this book, all of his looted wealth was allegedly swiped via a Ponzi scheme of historic proportions. For the purposes of this book, “dirty money” is shorthand for any wealth gained by underhanded means. All wealth attached to dictatorial regimes, as well as their families and inside circles, should be considered “dirty.” So, too, should the wealth gathered by oligarchs acting as robber barons, and also the proceeds of trafficking or poaching or illicit drug dealing. To swipe a phrase, you know “dirty money” when you see it. If it smells dirty, if it looks dirty, then it’s dirty and illegitimate and ill-gotten.
But it doesn’t always stay that way. Indeed, there’s a kind of built-in inertia: money emerges dirty and inevitably heads straight to the cleaners. It needs to get washed clean. It needs to become legitimate. Which leads us to the third term worth defining: “money laundering.” The term is somewhat self-explanatory. It is, at its simplest, a process of transformation: “dirty” money goes in, and legitimate money and assets come out. The transformation provides two benefits: legitimate money can go much further (actually, it can go anywhere), and investigators and journalists like myself are usually unable to trace the source, even after a diligent hunt for the moment it went from bad to good. In effect, you get new, sparkling, legitimate money or assets, while simultaneously snuffing out any evidence your money was ever tainted.
There are a thousand different ways to launder money, often involving cash businesses or purchases, as shows like Ozark (which involves a casino) and Breaking Bad (which involves a car wash) have illustrated. While plenty of these money laundering mechanisms will be detailed throughout this book, the key ingredients are usually all the same (though you’ll be surprised to know that your favorite shows depict operations that pale in size to the real thing).
Once “dirty money” is cleaned, it can be used for a wide range of activities. These can be as simple as enjoying the assets purchased—the mansions, the cars, the yachts—while turning the oligarch or despot into a self-styled celebrity. The money can also go toward setting up a nest egg for loved ones and future generations that investigators and authorities can’t touch. With money comes protection, which is why it also goes into funding lobbyists and legislators who will prevent reforms or unsavory investigations. Likewise, with money comes status, which is why it also shows up as donations to Western universities and Western think tanks who will whitewash the reputations of the regimes and oligarchs in question—effectively using the laundered money to then launder reputations. It can, as we’ll see in the book’s final section, even go to funding lawyers and bagmen to whisper in an American president’s ear about how to upend U.S. foreign policy—with none of us any the wiser.
Those terms—“offshore,” “dirty money,” “money laundering”—bring us to our fourth, and perhaps most misunderstood, term: “kleptocracy.” It has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past few years, thanks in no small part to the rise of Donald Trump and the kinds of practices and proclivities he perfected, which will be explored in the fourth section of this book. Emerging first in the early nineteenth century—and initially used to describe Spanish organized crime—kleptocracy means, quite literally, “rule of thieves,” describing a regime dedicated entirely to predation and pillaging of the population. During Trump’s presidency, it was fashionable to refer to his administration as a “kleptocracy.” A quick scan through some headlines of the Trump era highlights that fusion: “How Donald Trump’s Kleptocracy Is Undermining American Democracy”21 (Vox); “No to the Trump Kleptocracy”22 (Washington Post); “Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America”23 (The Atlantic). All of these articles highlighted the Trump administration’s range of unprecedented crimes, historic corruption, and penchant for authoritarian methods. But all of them misunderstand what kleptocracy truly is. Modern kleptocracy isn’t something that can be attributed to one man, or one administration, or even one regime. It’s not something that can be created or crafted by an illiberal strongman or a blood-spattered dictator.
Rather, it’s a system, involving multiple parties, across multiple jurisdictions. It begins with individuals building empires of illicit and ill-gotten wealth abroad, and ends with those who—often in the U.S.—welcome the dirty money with open arms, laundering the loot through perfectly legal tools like anonymous shell companies or sprawling real estate holdings or unregulated hedge funds. (Or Michael Jackson memorabilia.) “Kleptocracy is inherently multi-jurisdictional,” journalist Oliver Bullough once wrote. “To hide stolen loot, kleptocrats must move it across borders, and obscure it behind corporate structures that make it look legitimate.”24 And in the U.S., industries have sprung up to make sure that those trillions of dollars tied directly to noxious regimes or their oligarchic minions or the criminal networks tracing the globe can quickly become—poof!—clean, legitimate, and available. In so doing, they have helped the U.S. become the greatest kleptocratic haven in the world, and the biggest money laundromat known to man.
And it’s not just that all this staggering wealth can be masked using America’s offshore-onshore services. Kleptocracy isn’t simply the act of cleaning money. It also includes exploiting those funds to boost the reach and the reputations of regimes, oligarchs, crooks, and criminals of all stripes, ad infinitum. Massive, sprawling networks now exist in the U.S. to make sure that the figures at the heart of this book are viewed and treated as “philanthropists” and “financiers,” as “benefactors” and “allies,” rather than the morally repugnant and criminal figures they actually are. The irony is glaring: the system transforms them into “democratizers” and “pro-Western” and “reformist” figures. As a result, investigations are blocked and reforms are stalled, all while these kleptocrats continue to expand and entrench their financial foothold and power.
This can only occur systematically, rather than in a geopolitical vacuum or within national borders. It cannot exist in isolation. Which is also why it cannot exist without culpable American lawyers, real estate agents, financial specialists, or PR professionals—aiding and abetting this sinister iteration of the American Dream. And it’s all legal.
It’s a phenomenon that should reframe our understanding of both domestic and international politics. Because in this kleptocratic environment, the West isn’t the Cold War victor as understood in the popular imagination. Instead, another group appears to have won: the gangsters, the oligarchs, and the criminal networks masquerading as governments around the globe. The U.S., which helped make this world a reality, simply profited along the way.
American Kleptocracy, anchored by the stories of Teodorin and Kolomoisky, reveals how we got here. Broadly, it is a story of how the U.S. transformed into the global leader in pro-kleptocratic industries, and all that that entails. It’s also a book about key players in the fight to reform the U.S. systems—people like Carl Levin, a senator out of Michigan, who carved a career out of pushing anticorruption and counterkleptocracy policies—and how those reform efforts fell apart, assaulted by forces both within and outside the U.S. It’s about how the Trump era was, in so many ways, the logical outcome of this trajectory—and how it always was, and always has been, bigger than a single administration, however corrupt. It’s about a range of topics I’ve been researching and writing on for years, both as a journalist and member of the advisory board for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative, trying to catalogue all of modern kleptocracy’s myriad threads, its range of impacts, its players and patterns, and all that it says about capitalism in the twenty-first century.
As this book lays out, dirty money doesn’t infect only the places we may assume, like luxury real estate in Manhattan or beachfront condos in Malibu. It isn’t limited to any specific geographic space, or any specific financial institutions. Modern kleptocracy oozes into the nooks and crannies and unsuspecting corners of everyday life. It reaches into the public pensions and private endowments steered by private investors, who are under no compunction to check the source of the money they’re accepting. It smothers factories and mills across industrial America, those beating iron hearts of small towns whose best days are behind them, gutting any prospects of recovery. It captures entire state governments in places like Nevada and Wyoming and South Dakota, transforming those states into international offshore havens and outposts of financial secrecy of their own, which then block any and all efforts at reform. And it reaches into our own political system, upending elections and threatening America’s democratic experiment in the process.
All of this began before Trump ever arrived on the political scene. But he was the first global leader to emerge from one of the key pro-kleptocracy industries—American luxury real estate—and was a clear, obvious symptom of America’s descent into the center of the offshoring world. While the end of Trump’s term saw unprecedented, historic antikleptocracy reforms, those capitalizing on America’s kleptocratic, offshore-onshore services are now beginning to steer American policy to their own ends, without any say from the public, and to strip the U.S. for parts, just as they’ve done elsewhere.
This is a story and a trajectory that’s been decades in the making. And it’s a complicated story, full of interweaving parts and players, shadowboxing across industries and jurisdictions, involving those looking to launder their loot in the U.S. and those dedicated to stopping them. What follows is my attempt to untangle a broader phenomenon through a series of stories and characters that illustrate how we got here, and what’s at stake if we keep going down this path. It may be too big to see, but once you do, it will become impossible to ignore.
AMERICAN KLEPTOCRACY. Copyright © 2021 by Casey Michel.