Justice News

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Brightbill Delivers Remarks at Forest Legality Week
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Thank you Chip [Barber] for the kind introduction. 

I would like to thank our host, the World Resources Institute, for inviting the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) to provide the opening remarks to officially open the third Forest Legality Week. 

I also want to thank the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development (or USAID).

They  not only help to support this important global forum, but their daily support for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division is critical to our efforts to combat illegal timber trafficking and promote forest legality globally.

Let me start by congratulating the organizers for successfully bringing together this amazing collection of representatives from around the world.

Each Forest Legality Week continues to grow in terms of attendance, both in person, and via the web.

This reflects both the excellent work of the organizers and the global importance of these issues.   

This year there are more than 215 registrants from 27 countries representing Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. 

You are a diverse mix of government officials, private sector representatives - including wood products producers and service providers, NGOs, academics, and technical specialists. 

Over the coming days, we look forward to our further dialogue to more effectively implement and monitor timber trade legality.

As Chip said, I am the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

ENRD is one of the litigating divisions of the U.S. Justice Department and one of the oldest, at 110 years old. 

We are the “world’s largest environmental law firm,” with over 600 employees including more than 400 attorneys.  

ENRD represents the U.S. government in all cases in United States federal courts relating to protection of the environment and natural resources.

We also have an active docket of animal welfare and worker safety cases, and cases relating to the rights of Native Americans. 

Our docket of active cases includes over 3800 cases.

We have represented virtually every federal agency in connection with cases arising in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. 

I am joined by a few of the talented and dedicated attorneys from our Environmental Crimes Section and Law and Policy Section. 

I think some of you may know them already – but let me introduce them to all of you: Elinor Colbourn, Laurie Dubriel, Patrick Duggan, Juge Gregg.

I encourage you to speak with them this week to continue making connections and finding ways we can support each other on these issues of global importance to us all. 

On behalf of ENRD, including my boss, Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, I want to express how extremely honored we are that ENRD has been invited to speak at Forest Legality Week. 

The theme of this year’s Forest Legality Week - “Forest Legality and Sustainable Landscapes: making the connections” – is one that is especially relevant to ENRD.

That is because “making connections” is central to a role that we play in combating illegal timber trafficking.

The public, private, and civil society sectors each have an invaluable role in promoting forest legality and sustainable landscapes but without all three working together, we cannot achieve these crucial global goals.

In my remarks today, I plan to focus on two major topics. 

First, the United States commitment to addressing forest legality. 

Second, I will outline the approach the United States has taken to actively combat timber trafficking.

U.S. Commitment

First, I want to emphasize to all of you that addressing illegal logging is an important part of our mission at ENRD, and the Department of Justice and United States as a whole.

The United States has championed measures to fight illegal logging for many years, with bipartisan support.

The landmark 2008 amendments to the Lacey Act were passed by a Democratic Congress, and signed by then-President Bush. 

I understand that this was the first time any country made it a crime to import or possess forest products harvested or traded in violation of a source country’s own laws.

The United States is conscious that it is one of the largest consumers and producers of forest products in the world. 

As a major consumer, we want to ensure the wood entering our markets is legal and as a major producer, we promote the legal trade of wood.

We wish to ensure a level playing field for producers of timber and wood products around the globe, including U.S. industry. 

This has continued with President Trump, who is committed to ensuring that the U.S. and its trading partners live up to their obligations.

The United States is doing its part in this regard.

We are aggressively enforcing our laws to prevent illegally-harvested timber from being exported to our country.

Illegal logging and associated corruption, conflict, and environmental degradation, harms all of us. 

The United States is committed to ensuring that only legal wood enters our markets, thus promoting the legal trade of wood and strengthening the rule of law.  

Economic Impacts

In the United States, we believe a fair and consistent application of the rule of law is indispensable to prosperous and thriving societies. 

Among other things, it ensures a fair playing field in the marketplace, thus promoting economic growth, competition and efficiency. 

If there are no consequences for violating the law, taxes are evaded, corruption flourishes, countries are denied the benefits of their natural resources.

Worse, with this exploitation, poverty rates and conflict increases, and ultimately economies decline.

So illegal logging not only harms important natural resources, it robs countries and their communities of the shared benefits to be derived from those resources through legal and sustainable harvesting.

And, of course, illegal logging takes trees from this and future generations, as well as the many species that depend upon protected forests for habitat. 

Legal Process

We are pleased that an increasing number of consumer countries are passing and enforcing criminal laws prohibiting the trade of illegally harvested timber and forest products. 

Through these laws, producers must trade in wood that is demonstrably legal to ensure access to lucrative markets such as in the European Union, United States, Australia, Republic of Korea and elsewhere around the globe. 

On the flip side, communities and governments that allow illegal logging on their lands—and governments that take a permissive approach to illegal harvesting—end up receiving a mere fraction of the revenues they would earn from equitable, legal logging operations.

Thanks to increasing attention and enforcement by consumer countries, those who trade in illegal timber must increasingly sell the wood to less regulated and less lucrative markets.

Transnational Organized Crime

Most people are aware of the negative environmental and ecological impacts of illegal logging but one less appreciated impact of illegal logging is that it is a major source of funding for criminal operations.

Another is that it robs developing nation governments around the world collectively of at least $10 billion USD in revenues and taxes annually. 

These are revenues that could be used to improve the lives of people in the Americas, the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and other forested countries around the world. 

On the issue of transnational crime, in a March 2017 report titled “Transnational Crime and the Developing World,” the NGO Global Financial Integrity identified the trade in illegally logged timber as the third most lucrative form of transnational crime worldwide, following only counterfeiting and illegal drug trafficking. 

The international police organization INTERPOL has identified the value of forestry crimes, including illegal logging and related corporate crimes, at $51-152 billion USD annually. 

Therefore, in 2017, the United States strengthened its commitment to combat transnational criminal organizations. 

In an Executive Order titled “Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking,” President Trump specifically recognized wildlife trafficking—which includes timber  trafficking - as one of the illicit activities by TCOs that the United States must work to combat. 

And these efforts continue to receive the attention of top officials in the U.S. government.

In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the time to attend and participate in the 2018 London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, which focused on the illegal trafficking of flora and fauna. 

As part of the post-conference commitments, the United States and more than 60 other countries specifically recognized the impacts of the illegal wildlife trade, including timber trafficking. 

The United States recognizes that forest crimes are serious crimes.

They fund terrorist and other international criminal syndicates, and are associated with money laundering, drug trafficking, government corruption, and all manner of other traditional criminal enterprises. 

So by combatting illegal logging, we combat many types of transnational crime, making all of us safer and better off.  Safe from criminal organizations and political instability, and better off economically.    

U.S. Approach, 2008 Lacey Act Amendments

So what steps, specifically, is the United States taking to address illegal logging?

Well, as I mentioned, in 2008, the United States amended a century-old statute, the Lacey Act, to broadly cover, among other things, illegally harvested plants and their products, including timber. 

The Lacey Act requires that importers file a declaration with the United States government upon importation of plant products.  

The declaration must include the country of harvest and the scientific names of the species of all plants in their products. 

This declaration forces those who trade in timber to take responsibility for their products, and their sourcing, to ensure legality.

Moreover, the Lacey Act is a fact-based as opposed to a document-based statute.  It applies to all portions of the supply chain. 

There is no one document that can be provided by the regulated person or can be obtained from the U.S. government that would guarantee the legality of the wood. 

The U.S. government does not establish any particular protocol that the private sector should follow to ensure legality. 

So industry is at liberty to determine the most efficient manner of ensuring legality in its particular sector and supply chain.   

However, if enforcement authorities find illegally-sourced plant materials in commerce, and the government can prove that those dealing in the materials failed to exercise “due care” – a long standing legal principle in the U.S. -  to avoid dealing in such illegal materials, they may face criminal liability. This provides a powerful incentive for the private sector to ensure it is exercising such “due care.”

Criminal violations of the Lacey Act are punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $500,000, or more and violators can be made to forfeit the goods and instrumentalities of the crimes, such as vessels or processing plants.

The two most common criminal charges under the Lacey Act are (1) knowingly trafficking in illegally sourced wood and (2) knowingly making or submitting false labels or import declarations. 

Related charges include smuggling, conspiracy, false statements, money laundering and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act.

Lacey Act Implementation and Capacity Building

ENRD acts to combat transnational timber trafficking crimes under the Lacey Act in two ways: first, capacity building and, second, direct enforcement. 

The role we play in capacity building is what ties most directly to the theme of this year’s conference:  “Making Connections.”

As noted, illegal logging crimes—both harvest violations and related smuggling—and associated crimes such as money laundering and corruption, can generate large amounts of money.  

As a result, criminals often have the resources to avoid authorities.

They often apply sophisticated methods, such as setting up shell companies, engaging in tax fraud, money laundering, and other financial crimes. 

Combatting such sophisticated criminals and criminal schemes requires training, coordination, and connections around the world.

The United States Department of Justice, in partnership with the State Department and U.S. Forest Service, works in collaboration with our international partners, including the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Interpol, foreign governments, and civil society organizations, to make these connections.

We conduct timber trafficking workshops to enhance the enforcement capacities of our international partners to investigate and prosecute timber crimes. 

This includes training on how the Lacey Act and other U.S. statutes, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and smuggling and money laundering statutes, can be used to support the rule of law in other countries.

These workshops are forum to build collaborative working relationships between law enforcement and prosecutors in the host countries and the United States. 

This past May, Assistant Attorney General Clark and I had the opportunity to visit China as part of a project sponsored by the Vermont Law School. 

I know we have some attendees from VLS with us here today – where are they?

While there, we met with Chinese prosecutors, judges, academics, local officials, and members of the public on a range of environmental issues. 

China is one of the major consumer markets in the world for exotic and illegal timber.

Therefore, we took advantage of the trip to highlight ENRD’s work to combat illegal logging and encouraged international cooperation across a range of environmental enforcement issues. 

We had the opportunity to meet with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement attaché stationed at our Embassy in Beijing.

We discussed collaborative efforts with the Chinese government to combat the illicit trafficking of flora and fauna. 

It is essential that we enhance these and other intergovernmental relationships, as well as public-private collaborative efforts.

These are essential tools to combatting timber trafficking and fostering global collaboration.


The United States also is working to improve global forest legality by the connections we make through trade agreements.  

The Trump Administration recently renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which will be superseded by the Agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada (USMCA), and the Administration continues to engage with Members of Congress to ensure its passage in Congress.  

The treaty made many improvements over NAFTA, including strengthening the treaty’s environmental provisions. 

Those new environmental provisions include specific commitments to address illegal logging and associated trade. 

These are not just paper commitments.   

We take our trade agreements seriously, and believe that they play an important role in enhancing legal trade and controlling illegal trade.


But beyond capacity building and partnership, robust enforcement is obviously a critical element of the U.S. response to timber trafficking. 

We are extremely proud of our enforcement actions taken to date.

They have had a significant impact on the behavior of industry and garnered global attention. 

One of the most well known is the criminal prosecution of Lumber Liquidators, a major wood flooring company in the United States. 

In addition to millions of dollars of criminal fines and forfeitures – in fact, the highest financial penalty ever imposed under the Lacey Act—the company had to implement a long term environmental compliance plan as part of its conditions of probation. 

This compliance plan is designed to ensure that the company exercises due care by scrutinizing its entire supply chain. 

This prosecution has had a continued significant impact by changing how industry operates in the United States.

It affected how industry trade organizations and others provide technical training on how to comply with the Lacey Act.

During the month of June, the United States participated in Operation Thunderball. 

Not to be confused with the classic James Bond film – but also featuring more than its fair share of international intrigue and drama – this was a worldwide law enforcement operation against wildlife and timber trafficking.

During the operation, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization (WCO) coordinated police and customs administrators from 109 countries. 

To date, the operation has yielded the identification of almost 600 suspects and 1,828 global seizures that included wildlife, marine species, animal parts, plants, and timber. 

Specifically, it included 2,551 cubic meters of timber—the equivalent of 77 truckloads—and 2,600 plants weighing 1.7 tons. 

Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as each country continues to analyze the evidence collected and investigations continue. 

You do not get successful global enforcement operations of this type without every country doing their part and the United States proudly continues to be a part of and support the international connections that make this possible.

So as you can see, the United States remains committed to being a part of global solutions for ensuring forest legality. 

We are encouraged by the increasing number of countries that have passed forest legality legislation to prevent illegal forest products from entering their markets and the United States offers itself as a resource, and a partner, to enhance the timber legality systems of our partner nations and to enforce the rule of law related to timber trafficking.

I want to thank WRI again for inviting me to kick off the 2019 Forest Legality Week. 

I thank the U.S. Forest Service and USAID as sponsors for this important event and I wish you success for the rest of the week.

I look forward to hearing from the ENRD attorneys participating throughout this week about your ideas about how we can continue our work towards “Forest Legality and Sustainable Landscapes-making the connections.” 

Thank you.

Foreign Corruption
Updated October 8, 2019