Dollar Signs

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Author: Richard Willing

More than a dozen photos of the Treasury Department’s top leaders stare down at you from a wall in the main lobby of the department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. Notre Dame law professor Jimmy Gurule is not hard to pick out.

The 50-year-old Gurule, Treasury’s undersecretary for enforcement, is the one who is only half smiling. His intense dark brown eyes seem prepared to drill through yet another deep stack of the currency transaction reports, corporate filings and other paperwork that comprise terrorism’s money trail. Gurule is in charge of all federal efforts to track the money that finances terrorists.

The emergence of Al Qaeda has turned the world of money-laundering upside down.

Gurule’s fourth-floor corner office, with a view of the White House next door, completes the image of a hard-bitten white-collar warrior: law books, bust of Churchill, a four-foot-square government issue desk with neatly arranged papers, an easel-mounted flow chart of three- and four-letter acronyms connected by hand-drawn arrows.

But there’s another piece to the Jimmy Gurule story, and it’s lurking on the dedication page of a weighty tome on the undersecretary’s bookshelf. In what must surely be a first in legal publishing, co-author Gurule has dedicated The Law of Asset Forfeiture not to a colleague or a legal mentor but to Frances “Pancha” Yanez-Gonzalez, the Mexican-American grandmother who helped raise him in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“She was a saint, one of the wisest people I ever met, wiser certainly than the vast majority of judges I’ve appeared before,” says the highest-ranking Hispanic in law enforcement. “But she’s in there because she’s the most upbeat person I’ve ever known, someone who had very little material wealth but who was determined to always, always leave you feeling upbeat and positive whenever you went for a visit.”

These days, Gurule finds uses both for his asset forfeiture book and for his grandmother’s hopeful message.

Nearly a year spent in the war on terrorism’s back shop has left Gurule feeling better about the federal government’s ability to defend against an enemy whose financial sophistication nearly matches its ruthlessness. Border security, including efforts by the Customs Service that Gurule oversees, has been enhanced. Interagency rivalry — Gurule calls it “stovepipe thinking” — has been curtailed, leading to an unprecedented sharing of information between Treasury, the FBI and CIA. And more than $112 million in suspected terrorist assets have been frozen by Gurule’s department and its allies worldwide.

But Gurule’s work also has brought him face to face, or at least computer-screen to computer-screen, with Islamic terror’s economic brain trust. Al Qaeda, he notes, used the world’s consumer-oriented banking system to raise and launder money and to move it from Asia to Europe to America. Wire transfers and ATMs kept the September 11 hijackers flush with cash, like well-heeled college students.

That, he says, is a continuing source of unease.

“There are Al Qaeda cells in up to 60 countries around the world,” he notes during an interview in his office. “And the other part is, how do you deter an enemy that is willing to give his life for the cause? Where’s the deterrent value, from a law enforcement perspective?”

Gurule took his current job in August 2001, when the greatest challenge seemed to be coordinating Treasury’s disparate enforcement agencies. In addition to the Customs Service, the agencies Gurule oversees include the Secret Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Center. The center attempts to catch criminals and now terrorists by monitoring literally millions of currency transfers and suspicious activities reports that financial institutions file annually.

Gurule’s background made him a likely fit. As a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he handled several narcotics prosecutions and headed up the team that won a conviction of Mexican drug smugglers who had killed an American undercover agent. During the presidency of the first George Bush, Gurule led the Office of Justice Programs, which is the research, development and social services arm of the Justice Department. At Notre Dame Law School, where he became a full professor in 1996, Gurule taught complex criminal litigation and the law of scientific evidence. He also developed a specialty in money-laundering law, which has turned out to be particularly useful.

The drug paradigm

Gurule was an adviser in the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, where he served on a criminal justice advisory group headed by a friend, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. In November 2000, Gurule drew the notice of Bush’s transition team with an understated op-ed piece in USA Today arguing that Bush should win the Supreme Court case challenging the Florida vote count.

At Treasury, Gurule collided head-on with a problem he had first taken on in academia. The nation’s money-laundering laws focus on criminals trying to make illegal income appear legitimate — the “drug paradigm,” Gurule calls it.

But the emergence of Al Qaeda had turned the world of money-laundering upside down. The task now was finding private businesses and charities that generated cash legitimately then converted it to terrorist purposes.

The process is laborious, Gurule says, and often entails tracking money as it flows through shell corporations, offshore banks, phony and real foundations and a welter of suspect and legitimate payees. The key, he says, is getting federal law enforcement agencies to share tips and sources. And to get financial institutions, especially foreign banks, to share information usually kept private, such as the identity of account holders.

“Clean money is harder to find than, for instance, drug money,” Gurule says. “You use all the information you can get your hands on — from the CIA and FBI and Customs, even what we call ‘open source,’ which is newspapers, magazines, public records. . . . The job is to separate the legitimate money from the terrorist money, and it is designed [by Al Qaeda] to be tough.”

The effort Gurule is leading has scored some signal successes. By late August, 210 terrorist organizations and their supporters had been publicly “listed,” and a record $112 million had been frozen in accounts in 166 countries. Dozens of local offices of Al Barakaat and Al Taqwa, financial and telecommunications networks believed to be helping Al Qaeda raise and move funds, were shut down in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In Chicago, Gurule and company moved quickly to shut down the Benevolence International Foundation, a Muslim charity suspected of raising money for Al Qaeda. The federal government used expanded enforcement powers that Gurule helped push through Congress to shutter the charity and freeze its assets just weeks after the legislation passed.

Gurule receives generally high marks from lawyers and public interest advocates who follow the once-arcane area of Treasury enforcement. Brad Jansen, a financial transactions and privacy specialist with the Free Congress Foundation, says Gurule has taken a “system designed to catch offenders after the fact” and made it “proactive.” Janis Meyer, an international banking lawyer at Dewey Ballantine in New York City, says Gurule has become an expert at treading softly when dealing with nations whose banking secrecy laws to conflict with his goal of international information sharing.

“The bottom line is that the banking community has sovereignty issues [but] doesn’t want to seem to be on the side of terrorism,” she says. Gurule, she adds, is “focusing on that.”

Gurule’s leave of absence from Notre Dame Law School extends through at least next year. With his wife, Julia, and the couple’s 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, he has resettled temporarily in the D.C. suburbs. An older son, Santiago, is a senior at Notre Dame.

In the near term, Gurule is keeping a busy schedule. He travels abroad frequently, lobbying other nations’ enforcement officers to adopt America’s. approach to disrupting terrorism’s financial networks. At home, he is focusing on getting U.S. banks to whittle down the 12-million plus reports they file each year on currency transactions of $10,000 or more and other “suspicious activity.” Gurule is urging banks to use more “initiative and judgment” to report only truly suspicious activity, saving investigators valuable time.

Asked if a year on the Al Qaeda trail has made him feel safer personally, Gurule says “yes and no.”

“Federal law enforcement is doing a better job. I can see it and am part of it,” he answers. “On the other hand, I am still very uneasy and concerned that there may be more terrorist attacks. I have an appreciation for the enemy and his resources. . . . I’ve seen the way he keeps his books.”


Richard Willing is a reporter for USA Today.


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