Judge Engelmayer today granted the federal government’s motion for leave to effect alternative service on a group of Lebanese financial institutions accused of a $450 million money-laundering scheme involving Hizballah, a group designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State. The government filed its in rem civil forfeiture and money-laundering complaint against the Lebanese institutions and other defendants on December 15, 2011, alleging a scheme by which funds were transferred from Lebanon to the United States in order to purchase used cars, which were then shipped to West Africa and sold for cash. That cash was then allegedly transferred, along with the proceeds of narcotics trafficking and other crimes, to Lebanon. Members of Hizballah were involved at various stages of the process.

The Lebanese institutions filed claims in the in rem forfeiture action.  Their counsel noted that their appearances in that action were “expressly limited” to that claim, and did not “constitute an appearance for any other claim.”  When efforts to effect service of the money-laundering complaint in Lebanon — which is not a party to the Hague Convention — were unsuccessful, the government sought to serve the Lebanese banks through their U.S. counsel.  U.S. counsel refused to either accept or waive service. The government then moved the court for leave to effect service on U.S. counsel, who, it claimed, had made appearances in the action.  The Lebanese institutions’ U.S. counsel argued, however, that they had “properly entered a ‘restricted appearance’ in the in rem action under the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions (‘Supplemental Rules’), thereby precluding the government from, effectively, capitalizing on that appearance as a means to obtain personal jurisdiction in this civil litigation.”  The court rejected the banks’ argument.  Holding that the Supplemental Rules, which specifically reference “admiralty and maritime claim[s],” did not apply in a civil forfeiture case, the court analyzed the government’s service efforts under Federal Rule 4(f).  Under that analysis, because the government had made reasonable attempts to effect service and the Lebanese institutions were “demonstrably aware of the claims brought by the government,” the Court ordered U.S. counsel for the banks to accept service on their behalf.  The Lebanese banks must answer the complaint by July 6.