The Justice Department said Friday it had begun settlement talks with son of Equatorial Guinea’s president to resolve a lawsuit over the seizure of a $38.5 million luxury jet allegedly bought with the proceeds of gross corruption.
The start of talks suggested one or both sides may be seeking to avoid a trial.
Prosecutors had already suffered a setback last year when a federal judge threw out their first complaint, saying it had not tied the jet to alleged corruption with enough specificity.
The case is one of several brought by federal prosecutors as part of a three-year-old government initiative dedicated to seizing the ill-gotten gains of corrupt officials around the world.
The department announced in March that it had frozen more than $458 million in assets once held in Britain and France by the former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and his alleged conspirators.
The case of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as “Teodorin,” who serves as second vice president in the government of his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has won notoriety for the wildly lavish wealth accumulated by the son.
In addition to the Gulfstream G-V jet, the Justice Department alleges that Teodorin plundered his country’s resources to purchase a $30 million mansion in Malibu, California, a $6.5 million house in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, some $3 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia and $10 million in luxury cars — including eight Ferraris, seven Rolls-Royces, five Bentleys and two Lamborghinis.
French authorities in 2012 reportedly seized a five-story house on Paris’s chic Avenue Foch and a $2 million wine collection, among other possessions, and had issued a warrant for Teodorin’s arrest.
Duane R. Lyons, an attorney for Teodorin at the Los Angeles law firm Quinn Emanuel, and Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, both declined to comment on Friday.
Equatorial Guinea is among the top five oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa. Oil production accounts for virtually all of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Energy Department.
The largest investors in the country are U.S. oil companies ExxonMobil, Hess, Marathon and Noble Energy.
Despite rising per capita gross national income, Equatorial Guinea remains chronically underdeveloped, with life expectancy in 2012 at 51.4 years, decades less than for neighbors Sao Tome and Principe (64.9 years) and Cape Verde (74.3 years), according to the United Nations.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras of the District of Columbia granted a motion permitting Teodorin to be deposed via videoconference, rather than appearing in person.
However, the June 9 deposition was postponed after “the parties began engaging in serious and meaningful settlement discussions,” according to a status update signed by Justice Department Trial Attorney Stephen A. Gibbons.
“If a settlement cannot be reached, however, the parties have agreed that the videoconference deposition of Vice President Nguema will take place no later than July 11, 2014.”
Stefanie Ostfeld, a policy advisor at Global Witness, which investigated Nguema’s assets long before the U.S. government, said any settlement should not see him walk away with ill-gotten gains.
“Any settlement must include forfeiture of the $38 million jet,” she said in an email.
“The case is full of details alleging widespread corruption and it shows how anonymous companies are a key tool of the corrupt, including Teodorin Obiang, who used them to spend his ill-gotten gains on a playboy lifestyle, globetrotting around the world,” Ostfeld wrote.