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How an investigator unearths the assets of a corrupt regime

In the past three decades, Eric Lewis has taken part in some of the world's largest and complex asset recovery lawsuits. Mr Lewis, a partner at the Washington law firm of Lewis Baach, spoke with Bradley Hope, The National's Cairo correspondent.

In the past three decades, Eric Lewis has taken part in some of the world's largest and complex asset recovery lawsuits. Mr Lewis, a partner at the Washington law firm of Lewis Baach, spoke with Bradley Hope, The National's Cairo correspondent.

What have you learned over the years about asset recoveries? What are the key techniques?

What I've learned is that time is always of the essence to go after wrong converted assets by prior regimes. The longer you wait, the more things become more difficult to find. You also need a strategy that is coordinated generally through the United States.

Why?

All dollar transactions come through New York. Most asset deals and moving of illicit funds are done in dollars and it will come through New York. The United States has no patience or respect for bank secrecy, so a government can have unique access to financial information, even if the money is not in the United States. Not only will you be able to see where it went, but the US authorities can compel foreign banks that do business in dollars to give information.

That seems to be a problem in Egypt, where only $1.2 billion has been frozen in accounts overseas according to the Illicit Gains Authority. What advice do you have for the Egyptian government?

They have lost time, but they can make up for by making sure they create a coordinated international effort. It needs to be done by a powerful and focused executive branch. Focus, speed and coordination are essential. I know there is a judicial committee in Egypt, but I don't think there is going to be a lot of confidence abroad with a judicial committee that includes people from previous governments. It's not good that 18 months went by, but sooner is always better than later. There is a lot of good will toward Egypt, so that will help.

What is the key to an investigation? Where should it start?

You need to find out who the person's bankers are. When you know them, you figure out a strategy in each country, sometimes on a less formal basis. But you need to find people who know how [the] corruption was done. Then you go to central banks in countries and use diplomatic tools.

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