U.S. says it plans to criminally charge Gabonese president's American lobbyist

WASHINGTON, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors are preparing to file criminal charges against an American lobbyist for the Gabonese president, saying on Wednesday he made a false statement to a U.S. customs official stemming from a long-running money-laundering probe.

Patricia Sulzbach, a prosecutor in the U.S. Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section, told a U.S. District Court hearing in Washington that the department had approved plans to seek an indictment against Joseph Szlavik.

Prosecutors did not go into specifics but said the planned charges were relevant to a related civil asset forfeiture complaint that was the subject of Wednesday’s court hearing.

Szlavik, a special adviser to Gabon President Ali Bongo, told U.S. border agents when he arrived at Dulles International Airport in 2013 that he was carrying $100,000 in cash because it would take too long to wire from Africa, according to the government’s complaint in the related civil action.

Wednesday’s hearing centered on a battle between Szlavik and the Justice Department over about $475,000 that the government’s kleptocracy unit is trying to seize from him and his wife in a civil asset forfeiture complaint filed in May.

Szlavik denies wrongdoing and is trying to recover the frozen assets.

The civil complaint alleges that Szlavik’s consulting firm Scribe Strategies & Advisors is acting as an “unlicensed international money transmitting business” to help the Gabonese ruling family skirt anti-money-laundering rules.

Bongo and his father, Omar, Gabon’s former president, were subjects of a U.S. Senate investigation into foreign government officials who allegedly used the American financial system to launder assets.

Szlavik is seeking to dismiss the civil case, saying the money transfers were for legitimate business expenses, including tuition payments for Gabonese cadets attending U.S. military academies.

Szlavik’s lawyer, David Smith, said on Wednesday the Justice Department was using the threat of an indictment to intimidate his client into backing down on the civil fight to recover his money and called the false statement allegation “baseless.”

“I see this new indictment as ... more powerful medicine to deter them from proceeding with defending their property,” Smith told the judge.

The government froze Szlavik’s bank accounts in 2013 as part of a criminal probe into the money flows from Gabon, although Szlavik was not charged with a crime.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize assets if there is ample evidence to show they are connected with certain crimes such as money laundering, even if the owner of the assets is never criminally charged. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney)