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HRF is pleased to announce we recently welcomed Casey Michel as the new head of the Combating Kleptocracy Program at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).

Casey is a longtime HRF community member, former HRF Senior Investigative and Global Magnitsky Fellow, and previous Oslo Freedom Forum panelist. He has an extensive career as a writer, analyst, and investigative journalist, working on topics ranging from kleptocracy, illicit finance, dark money, foreign lobbying, and foreign interference.

We are excited to have Casey and his incredible expertise on board. Soon, he will be regularly publishing an HRF kleptocracy newsletter and spinoff of our Dissidents & Dictators podcast series, “Dictators & Dirty Dollars.” More updates on that soon! 

Below is a Q&A with Casey to learn more about him and how he plans to help HRF combat kleptocracy and authoritarianism

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m an investigative journalist based in New York, where I’ve spent years covering transnational money laundering, illicit finance, and how dictatorships and autocracies around the world hide their dirty money — and, especially, how they turn to the West for all of their money laundering needs. 

As an American, much of my work has focused especially on the United States and especially on how the US has overlooked transformation into one of the key offshore and illicit finance hotspots in the world, attracting billions — and potentially more in questionable, suspect, and kleptocratic wealth. Much of that wealth has been cycled through things like real estate and shell companies, but I’ve also written on many of the newer tools available: anonymous trusts in South Dakota, manufacturing plants across the Midwest, private equity and hedge funds in New York and Connecticut, and so on. It’s a massive, massive problem — not least because these laundering networks allow kleptocratic regimes to hide their wealth and use it for their own benefit, without anyone being aware. And as we’ve seen, that illicit wealth has had incredibly damaging effects on those populations suffering under dictatorships — and, increasingly, on those in democracies as well.

Q: You have a book out, “American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History” and another on the way, can you tell us about those and how you got interested in kleptocracy?

A: I have, of all people, former Kazakhstani dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev to thank for sparking my interest in kleptocracy. While living in Kazakhstan, I had a firsthand look at how the ruling regime and its inner circle looted staggering sums from the populace in Kazakhstan —  and then how Nazarbayev and his family, instead of turning to traditional offshore havens in places like the Caribbean, instead turned to democracies, and especially to the US. It was a bizarre realization in that those dictators were pouring their illicit wealth, not into small islands, or even places like Switzerland, but were instead burrowing into places like Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming and that they were apparently doing all of this perfectly legally. 

Hence, “American Kleptocracy” was born. It’s a full-length look at how the US led this so-called “race to the bottom” to attract dictatorial dollars, and the kinds of sectors and policies that made it happen —  and just how much damage it’s done to democracies around the world. 

My second book —  “Foreign Agents,” due early next year from St. Martin’s Press, will be something of a complement to the first book. It will dive into the world of foreign lobbying and take a look at how a broad swath of American industries —  public relations, consultancies, law firms, and even think tanks and universities —  have transformed into vehicles for dictatorships around the world to launder their reputations and upend American and Western policy in the process. And it will look at how all of that intersects with modern kleptocracy writ large and how all of this illicit wealth sloshing around dictatorships has begun infecting some of America’s most prominent firms and institutions.

Q. In the world of kleptocracy, illicit finance, and dark money, what concerns you the most? What should the world be watching more closely?

One of my biggest concerns is relatively simple: far too many observers, even those at the highest level of government, still view the world of offshore finance as something relegated to islands in the Caribbean or South Pacific, or maybe places like Cyprus or Switzerland. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, it’s the major democracies that, over the past two decades especially, have transformed into the go-to destinations for dictatorial regimes looking to transform their dirty money into clean, licit assets. 

And even though I write primarily about the US, this isn’t just an American story. It’s also something we’ve seen play out in a range of democracies around the world, from Australia and Canada servicing ill-gotten gains out of China to places like Sweden and Estonia acting as sieves for illicit Russian wealth. It is a global, transnational phenomenon, in which every dictatorship takes part —  and which democracies around the world continue to abet.

Q. How can the international community get involved and help combat kleptocracy?

I think one of the easiest things to do is remind those in democracies —  and especially in America —  that it is their countries that have become the destinations for kleptocratic wealth from around the world, and that it is incumbent on those in democracies to actually change their policies to end these networks. Because at the end of the day, these networks not only strengthen the dictatorial regimes pillaging national treasuries — but they effectively gut pro-democracy movements and funding around the world.

One of the most staggering statistics I uncovered in my research is that the total estimate of illicit cross-border financial flows tied to criminal and kleptocratic activity is ten times higher than total annual global foreign aid.

It’s no wonder democratic movements struggle against entrenched autocracies, given that kind of financial imbalance —  and given how central democracies around the world are to laundering kleptocratic wealth in the first place.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish with HRF’s Combating Kleptocracy Program?

More than anything, I want to elevate the discourse surrounding all things kleptocracy. We’ll have podcasts and newsletters, we’ll have reports and investigations, we’ll have recommendations and new findings — and we’ll have all kinds of conversations on the realities, threats, and solutions of modern kleptocracy. This is, unfortunately, an issue that’s not limited to one country, or one regime, or even one industry. It is, in many ways, all-encompassing, and one that’s been ignored for far, far too long. Thankfully, HRF is now going to be leading the fight against modern kleptocracy, in all its incarnations —  and I can’t wait to help.