U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. Department of Justice. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ.)

A federal judge has refused to force a top government official of Equatorial Guinea to fly to Washington to contest the federal government’s effort to seize a multimillion-dollar jet from him.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington said Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue could respond to written questions from prosecutors about the jet, appear via video or talk on the phone.

Nguema’s attorneys and DOJ lawyers said Monday they will conduct the deposition via videoconference “as soon as practicable.”

Prosecutors in 2011 filed forfeiture papers to seize a $38.5 million Gulfstream jet from Nguema, a vice-president of Equatorial Guinea. Government lawyers contend Nguema acquired the aircraft with funds derived from public corruption. At issue in the dispute now is whether Nguema has standing to challenge the forfeiture.

Nguema’s attorneys at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Foreman, DeGeurin & DeGeurin fought the U.S. Department of Justice’s push to set up a deposition in Washington. The lawyers argued, among other things, the government failed to justify why the deposition should be held in the United States.

“As a high-ranking public official of a sovereign nation, claimant should not be subjected to the harassing and burdensome demands of the U.S. government for him to appear at a deposition in a distant forum that has no meaningful connection to the government’s claims in this case,” the attorneys wrote in court papers filed on April 23.

Prosecutors had insisted that an in-person deposition in Washington would not impose a substantial burden on Nguema. Justice Department lawyers argued that flying a team of government officials to Equatorial Guinea, on the other hand, posed cost issues and presented “a number of health and safety concerns.”

“If, after all, Nguema remains the Gulfstream jet’s beneficial owner, flying to the United States would by no means constitute an undue burden,” Stephen Gibbons of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division wrote in court papers on April 22.

Nguema has vowed to cooperate in any deposition conducted remotely. Contreras concluded that “several reasonable alternatives exist” to conducting the deposition in Washington.

“Given that Nguema, the second vice president of Equatorial Guinea, tells this court that the deposition may occur in his country—whether written, remotely, or in person—the court is not persuaded at this time by the government’s apprehension about the political infeasibility of conducting the deposition there,” Contreras wrote on Friday.

Contact Mike Scarcella at mscarcella@alm.com. On Twitter: @MikeScarcella.