Thai Official’s Forfeiture Action Stalled in D.C.

     WASHINGTON (CN) – With the criminal prosecution of a Thai official in limbo, it is premature to force the forfeiture of suspected bribery proceeds, a federal judge ruled.
     The United States indicted Juthamas Siriwan, the former governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, back in 2009, along with her daughter, Jittisopa Siriwan, accusing the pair of accepting bribes from Los Angeles-based filmmakers Gerald and Patricia Green.
     The Greens received at least $14 million for work they did for the Thai tourism authority, which included contracts that let them run the yearly Bangkok International Film Festival between 2002 and 2006, according to the indictment against the Siriwans in Los Angeles.
     After the Greens were found guilty in the United States of paying Siriwan nearly $1.8 million in exchange for the film festival contracts, they were sentenced to six months imprisonment and ordered to pay $250,000 in restitution.
     With Thailand stalling on the request to extradite Siriwan, the United States brought a civil asset forfeiture complaint in Washington, D.C., against Siriwan and her daughter, a Thai native who has never lived in the United States.
     Prosecutors say the Siriwans deposited the proceeds of their illegal scheme in seven bank accounts in Jittisopa’s name in Singapore, the Isle of Jersey and the United Kingdom.
     Meantime the California court has stayed the U.S. indictment after Thailand’s attorney general announced plans in November 2014 to prosecute the former official.
     Siriwan’s daughter persuaded U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper on Monday to stay the forfeiture proceedings pending the outcome of the criminal case in California.
     The government missed the mark in calling the daughter a mere “straw owner” of the bank accounts who lacked standing to challenge the forfeiture.
     According to the government’s own complaint, Siriwan’s daughter regularly transferred money from the U.K. account to a personal account she used to pay her tuition and credit card bills.
     “The government’s contention that Siriwan may have withdrawn funds to pay for her own expenses only with the permission of her mother is speculative,” Cooper wrote. “And in any event, forfeiture would injure Siriwan regardless of whether her mother gave permission to use the funds because she would be deprived of their benefit.”
     Cooper also refused to let the United States rely on the fugitive disentitlement doctrine, which bars fugitives of criminal prosecution from contesting civil forfeitures.
     There is no evidence that Siriwan’s daughter is avoiding prosecution in the United States, and the California court previously ruled that the fugitive disentitlement doctrine does not apply to Jittisopa, who had a legal right to oppose the extradition request and to ask for stay of the forfeiture, Cooper said.
     Though the government says Siriwan’s daughter visited the United States at least once, it cannot prove that she planned to return to the United States before learning of the indictment against her, the opinion states.
     With Siriwan entitled to contest the forfeiture at this stage of the litigation, further proceedings must be stayed while the related criminal case is ongoing, the court concluded.
     Cooper stayed the action for 180 days, asking the parties to notify the court of changes in any of the two related cases.

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