U.S. Battling Dictator's Son for Michael Jackson Glove

Government prosecutors are finding that it's not so easy to seize MJ memorabilia from the allegedly corrupt son of Equatorial Guinea's ruler.

For those incredulous that wrongful death lawsuit by Michael Jackson's family against AEG Live is now in its fourth month of trial, consider that the United States government's attempts to seize a Jackson glove from a dictator's son is now in its 28th month, headed for an important hearing on Monday. 

In April 2011, the government filed a complaint for forfeiture in rem, hoping to take away an estimated $71 million worth of prized possessions of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea who once went on a celebrity memorabilia buying splurge in the U.S.

The caption of the case is United States of America v. One White Crystal-Covered "Bad Tour" Glove and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia, and the dispute has been a totally epic thriller.

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As more than 70 percent of the population of Equatorial Guinea lives in poverty, Nguema is said to have "amassed over $300 million in net worth, all while earning an income of less than $100,000 per year as an unelected public official appointed by his father."

How did that happen? Simple, says the government. Officials in the country are corrupt, they say. Government lawyers point to Nguema using banks around the world to launder "stolen" public infrastructure funds.

Nevertheless, taking a Michael Jackson glove from a wealthy dictator's son isn't as easy as seizing a suitcase of cash from a drug lord.

In April 2012, after Nguema's lawyers at Quinn Emanuel objected to the vague charges against him, a California federal judge tossed the U.S. government's complaint because it hadn't shown how Nguema amassed wealth in a manner illegal under his own country's laws and how his assets were derived from ill-gotten gains.

But the U.S. was allowed a second opportunity to file an amended complaint, and this being an important piece of Michael Jackson history plus the chance to stand up to a foreign government's corruption, federal prosecutors took it.

Nguema is now said to have committed bank fraud.

Still, the dictator's son is not letting go of the glove (not to mention yachts, cars, jets and a $30 million mansion in Malibu) without a fight. Not by a long shot.

His lawyers say the government needed -- and never had -- probable cause to institute a forfeiture action against his assets. In a brief filed on July 31 in support of summary judgment on the issue of probable cause, Nguema's lawyers write:

"The government still has not identified a single victim of extortion or bribery, or a specific instance of bid rigging. Nor can it show that it attempted to corroborate any of the reports of illegal activity that were referenced in the newspaper or magazine articles that it heavily relies on. In short, all that the government has is evidence that Claimant spent money. Where the money came from is a matter of pure speculation. Accordingly, at the time it commenced this action, the government lacked probable cause to believe that the Defendant Assets were the proceeds of foreign corruption."

They add that the government's bank fraud claim can't support probable cause because no matter what evidence there is to support that, "there is no dispute that it did not identify bank fraud as a basis for the forfeiture theories it invoked."

The U.S. is irate at this assessment and doesn't see things so black or white. The government says that Nguema has concocted a "novel legal theory" that Title 19 -- the statute that allows the government to seize ill-gotten merchandise imported or exported -- requires that all actionable claims be pleaded up front in the initial complaint.

"But, this is not the law," says the United States in a summary judgment reply brief on Aug. 9. "All that is required under Title 19 is that the Government have in its 'possession' evidence sufficient to demonstrate probable cause at the time the action is instituted. Nothing in Title 19 requires the Government to plead all of its actionable claims in its initial complaint."

If the judge doesn't find the government had probable cause, the question then turns to what happens next.

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According to Nguema's lawyers, it's over. The dictator's son gets his Michael Jackson glove back.

But the U.S. says it should have the ability to file a new action. Perhaps one captioned United States of America v. Dictator Who Committed Bank Fraud and Is Now Stubbornly Trying to Hold on to a Michael Jackson White Crystal-Covered "Bad Tour" Glove.

"Claimants suggest that if judgment is entered on these grounds, the Defendant Assets are forever immunized," write U.S. government lawyers. "Again, Claimants’ arguments lack merit. When judgment is entered against a plaintiff for failure to satisfy a 'threshold' issue, such as Title 19’s probable cause requirement, it is a bedrock principle of federal practice that plaintiff’s right to have its claims adjudicated on the merits is not prejudiced."

A hearing will be held in a Los Angeles courtroom on Monday. The fate of the glove is in the hands of U.S. District Judge George H. Wu.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner