Will 2019 Be the Year the US Finally Passes Anonymous Company Reform? Not If the ABA Gets Its Way

It’s a new year, a new US Congress, and a new opportunity for the United States to take action to close some of the most glaring loopholes in its anticorruption and anti-money laundering (AML) framework. So far, Washington has been consumed with the government shutdown fight, along with early chatter about who might seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020, such that there hasn’t yet been much coverage of what new legislation we might see emerging from this new Congress over the next two years. And to the extent there has been such discussion, it has tended to focus on initiatives—such as the Democrat-sponsored “anticorruption” bills that focus on lobbying, voting rights, and conflict-of-interest law reform—that, whatever their usefulness in shaping the debate and setting an agenda for the future, have virtually no chance of passing in the current Congress, given Republican control of the Senate and the White House. Indeed, many commenters assume that on a wide range of issues, political gridlock and polarization means that the new Congress is unlikely to accomplish much in the way of new legislation.

That may be true as a general matter, but there are a few areas—including some of particular interest to the anticorruption community—where the opportunity for genuine legislative reform may be quite high. Perhaps the most promising such opportunity is so-called anonymous company reform. Anonymous companies are corporations and other legal entities whose true “beneficial owners” are unknown and often hard to trace. (The registered owner is often another anonymous legal entity registered in another jurisdiction.) It’s no secret that anonymous companies are used to funnel bribes to public officials, to hide stolen assets, and to facilitate a whole range of other crimes, including tax evasion, fraud, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. And although in the popular imagination shady anonymous shell companies are associated (with some justification) with “offshore” jurisdictions, in fact the United States has one of the most lax regulatory regimes in this area, making it ridiculously easy for kleptocrats and others to use anonymous companies registered in the US to shield their assets and their activities from scrutiny.

Of course it’s possible for law enforcement agencies, armed with subpoena power and with the assistance—one hopes—with cooperative foreign partners and sympathetic courts can eventually figure out who really owns a company involved in illicit activity, doing so is arduous, time-consuming, and sometimes simply impossible. It would be much better if there were a central register of beneficial ownership information, with verification of the information the responsibility of those registering the companies and stiff penalties for filing inaccurate information. Indeed, one of the striking things about the debate over anonymous company reform is how little disagreement there seems to be among experts about the benefits of a centralized company ownership register. There’s still significant controversy over whether these ownership registers should be public (see, for example, the extended exchange on this blog here, here, here, here, and here). But even those who object to public registers of the sort the UK has created acknowledge, indeed emphasize, the importance of creating a confidential register that’s accessible to law enforcement agencies and financial institutions conducting due diligence. But the US doesn’t even have that.

There’s a chance this might finally change. Continue reading

The Case for State-Level Anticorruption Prosecutions in the U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.

The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.

This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:

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Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes: The West Virginia Supreme Court Needs To Address Its Corruption Problem

The headlines wrote themselves: a $32,000 couch (complete with $1,000 worth of throw pillows). A $10,000 payment to a private attorney to “ghostwrite” a court opinion. Illegal overpayments to former colleagues in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public outcry erupted in late 2017 when news broke that the justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) had spent lavishly on office renovations. Further investigations revealed that some justices had used state-owned vehicles and government credit cards for personal use. Three of the justices were accused of scheming to overpay retired judges who were contracted by the judiciary to fill in on the trial courts in times of vacancy or high caseloads. But the most brazen allegations were leveled against Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who was convicted of wire fraud and obstructing an investigation into his enriching himself at taxpayer expense—despite the modest fame and fortune he (ironically) earned as the author of a book on political corruption in West Virginia.

The pervasiveness and diversity of the misdeeds on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals over the past few years suggest that the corruption was in many ways a cultural problem. But it’s worth noting that the most serious allegations of corruption were likely not actually criminal. A quirk in West Virginia’s law gave the Supreme Court near-total control over its own budget, paving the way for the unchecked spending. Likewise, the intentional overpayments to retired judges reeked of cronyism but may or may not have been illegal; while a statute capped payments to part-time judges, the judiciary still arguably retained ultimate control how and how much to spend.

In response to the revelations of corruption, West Virginia’s government settled on two aggressive solutions. First, in August 2018 the West Virginia House of Delegates approved 11 articles of impeachment against the four justices still on the court and scheduled trials for each of them before the State Senate to determine if they should be removed from office. (The normally five-member court was already down a justice, who resigned in July a few weeks before pleading guilty to federal fraud charges.) The impeachment proceedings were met with outrage by some commentators (see here, here, and here), who saw them as a partisan power grab. Questionable motives aside, the results of the impeachment charges were still a mixed bag: one justice resigned from the Supreme Court before her trial. Another was acquitted of all charges but formally censured by the State Senate in a lopsided vote. The other two justices escaped any impeachment trial after an interim slate of state Supreme Court justices threw out the impeachment charges against their fellow justices on technical grounds. Chief Justice Loughry resigned following conviction in federal court (that makes three resignations overall, if you’re keeping count), and the legislature backed down from further impeachments. Second, after the impeachments, West Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that wrested control over the judiciary’s budget away from the Supreme Court, giving the legislature the power to cap the judiciary’s annual spending, so long as the total amount is no less than 85% of the previous year’s budget.

But even if these measures work precisely as planned, the problem in West Virginia is far from solved. The damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy has been severe. A common refrain states that judges “like Caesar’s wife, must not only be virtuous but above suspicion.” And Chief Justice Loughry—of all people—echoed this same bold claim in his book: “Of all the criminal politicians in West Virginia, the group that shatters the confidence of the people the most is a corrupt judiciary…. It is essential that people have the absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our system of justice.”

Unfortunately, the remedies implemented thus far serve only the short-sighted goals of stopping yesterday’s corruption. What is missing in the aftermath of the West Virginia scandals is a concerted effort on rebuilding trust in the judiciary. As previous scandals in the public and private sectors suggest, regaining trust in the judiciary requires public remedial actions by the judiciary itself. Replacing certain justices and adding high level legislative oversight may have been appropriate, even essential, measures, but they don’t necessarily help the court restore its integrity and repair its tarnished reputation. Moreover, focusing exclusively on these externally-imposed remedies may send a signal that the judiciary can’t be trusted to handle its own affairs. This makes it all the more imperative that the judiciary take the initiative in addressing its cultural problem and rebuilding public trust in the courts. A willingness to accept responsibility for past mistakes and engage in transparent self-evaluation will be critical as the West Virginia Supreme Court begins its new term this month. In particular, there are two steps the Court could take that would be helpful: Continue reading

Guest Post: Do Anticorruption Advocates Practice What They Preach?

GAB welcomes back Alan Doig, Visiting Professor at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, who contributes the following guest post:

About a year ago (in January 2018) I saw an advertisement from the NGO Publish What You Pay (PWYP) seeking applications for a consultant to draft a “mandatory disclosures charter” for PWYP India members and other allies working to advance natural resource governance in India. It’s not unusual to see an advertisement encouraging publicly-available standards for others, and this led me to question how good the anitcorruption advocacy industry is in practicing and publishing what it preaches for others. For governments and public bodies, after all, there are a whole host of documents, agreements, and declarations (such as the UN Convention against Corruption, the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Anti-Corruption Strategies, and the G20 High-Level Principles on Fighting Corruption to Promote Strong, Sustainable And Balanced Growth) that point to what are invariably thought to be the necessary requirements for transparency, accountability, and integrity—often in the form of lists that include items on things like financial transparency, institutional control and oversight arrangements, conflict-of-interest procedures, codes of conduct, whistleblowing arrangements, and so on.

PWYP is a UK-registered charity and thus subject to a government regulator which provides guidance on what is required, but many other advocacy bodies–as organizations–are left to their own devices. To look into what this may mean in practice, I selected five NGOs, chosen unscientifically for their engagement in different aspects of anticorruption advocacy; an international advocacy organization, a national advocacy organization, an investigative body, an educational body, and the secretariat of an NGO coalition. I looked for evidence specifically published on their websites of what may be considered a basic anticorruption prevention framework, including: board oversight, a statement of values, a code of conduct for staff, a whistleblowing policy (including external reporting), an anticorruption and fraud policy, conflict of interest procedures, a declaration of annual income by source and amount, identification of expenditure by category (including highest-paid staff), and whether or not the organization is subject to any evaluation as an organization. This is what I found: Continue reading

The Promise – and Risk – of Internationalizing the Corruption Fight: Prosecuting the Mozambique Loan Fraud

Manuel Chang, Mozambique’s longest serving Finance Minister, has just lost the first round in his attempt to duck U.S. charges he defrauded the Mozambique people out of some $2 billion.  A South African Magistrate ruled January 9 that Chang’s December 30 arrest in South Africa, requested by the U.S. Justice Department, was valid.  Assuming South Africa stands firm in the face of legal maneuvering by Chang and political pressure by the Mozambique government, Chang will join accomplices in a Brooklyn jail to await trial for corruption.

That the corruption trial of a former official of the one of the world’s poorest nations will be held in the courts of one of the world’s wealthiest and that the trial turns on the strength of a third country ’s legal system and the political resolve of its government shows both the promise – and the risk – of the internationalization of the fight against corruption. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–January 2019 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. The January 2019 update is now available here. There are a number of important (and disturbing) additions to this month’s update. Most notably:

  • Federal prosecutors are now investigating a range of possible legal violations related to Trump’s inauguration committee, which raised a record amount ($107 million) for President Trump’s inauguration. According to reports, there is evidence that much of this money was raised from questionable sources, and that much of it was spent in ways that brought windfall profits to the Trump Organization–in violation of various federal laws. In particular, on the fundraising side, it seems that both domestic and foreign interests donated heavily to the inaugural committee with the apparent intent of influencing US policy. And on the spending side, the inauguration committee spent heavily at Trump Organization properties, apparently at above-market rates. Though the investigation is ongoing, there’s at least suggestive evidence that the inauguration committee might have been a surreptitious way for interest groups and foreign governments to funnel money directly to the Trump family.
  • Previous editions of this tracking project have noted concerns about the Trump Organization’s past and current business dealings in the Dominican Republic. A recent Global Witness report suggests that although the Trump Organization claims that its current business in the Dominican Republic is a continuation of an older deal that started before Trump took office, in fact the Trump Organization and its local partner are pursuing an entirely new development project, in clear violation of President Trump’s pledge that the Trump Organization would not pursue any “new foreign deals” during his presidency.
  • Jared Kushner and his family stand to benefit personally from a federal program–the “Opportunity Zone” program–that offers large tax breaks to developers who invest in low-income neighborhoods. This program was heavily promoted by Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s wife, and though neither of them will play a direct formal role in determining which neighborhoods will be designated “opportunity zones” eligible for tax credits, there is an obvious conflict of interest concern, especially since the Kushner family owns multiple properties in areas that have already been designated as opportunity zones–including neighborhoods that are actually quite affluent.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Technical Foul: When Anticorruption Enforcement In Sports Goes Too Far

From the U.S. federal government prosecuting FIFA officials in New York City to Transparency International both announcing an organizational initiative on sports anticorruption and publishing a 398-page report on the topic, it seems clear that governments and NGOs alike have deemed sports corruption a high priority. One can debate whether sports corruption is sufficiently important to merit this level of attention, though there’s a case to be made (as Lauren Ross argued on this blog a few years back) that sports’ broad appeal, media coverage, and status as a symbol for fair competition together give anticorruption efforts in sports an importance that exceeds the direct social harm caused by, say, match fixing relative to other forms of corruption (like medicine theft). That said, just because there may be special value to sports-related anticorruption initiatives in general doesn’t mean that all legally viable sports-related anticorruption enforcement opportunities should be pursued. Indeed, over-emphasizing sports can lead to a dubious allocation of government resources, a problem illustrated by a recent US case (United States v. Gatto) in which several defendants were convicted for their roles in a college-basketball bribery scheme.

To understand the Gatto case, it’s important first to understand the underground economy for student-athletes. In the U.S., the non-profit National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) governs the $13-billion college sports industry, with most of the NCAA’s revenue coming from men’s college basketball. (If men’s college basketball programs could be bought and sold like professional sports franchises, the most valuable would be worth $342.6 million.) Critically, however, because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules, the student-athletes whose talent drives this industry can neither receive compensation from their universities (beyond cost-of-attendance athletic scholarships), nor earn money through endorsements, autographs, jersey sales, or any other monetization of their name or likeness. The value generated by the unpaid players is captured by others in this system, such as head coaches (who are the highest-paid public employees in 39 out of 50 states), NCAA executives, and university athletic directors. Given this system, it’s altogether unsurprising that top high-school basketball prospects often receive compensation for attending a given university via an underground economy. The corruption scheme at issue in Gatto was a particularly egregious example of this underground economy in action: Employees at an athletic-shoe company (Adidas), which sponsors a number of men’s college basketball programs, conspired with assistant coaches at those programs, and with an aspiring talent agent, to bribe elite high-school basketball prospects to attend the Adidas-affiliated universities. This deal looked to be win-win-win-win. The athletes benefited because they received compensation that better reflected their market value. Adidas benefited both from having elite college-basketball players wearing their brand on national television and from the increased probability that some of these players would sign an endorsement deal with Adidas if they turned professional. The universities profited from the economic windfall associated with enrolling an elite basketball prospect. And the aspiring talent agent boosted his odds of being formally retained when the player turned professional.

Nonetheless, this scheme was technically illegal, and so the jury was analytically correct in convicting the defendants at trial. But just because the defendants broke the law doesn’t mean that the prosecutors should have brought the case. Indeed, this case is one where, for three policy-related reasons, it would’ve been better if the U.S. Department of Justice hadn’t gotten involved: Continue reading