The Global Community Must Take Further Steps to Combat Trade-Based Money Laundering

Global trade has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and with this growth has come the increased risk of trade-based money laundering. Criminals often use the legitimate flow of goods across borders—and the accompanying movement of funds—to relocate value from one jurisdiction to another without attracting the attention of law enforcement. As an example, imagine a criminal organization that wants to move dirty money from China to Canada, while disguising the illicit origins of that money. The organization colludes with (or sets up) an exporter in Canada and an importer in China. The exporter then contracts to ship $2 million worth of goods to China and bills the importer for the full $2 million, but, crucially, only ships goods worth $1 million. Once the bill is paid, $1 million has been transferred across borders and a paper trail makes the money seem legitimate. The process works in reverse as well: the Canadian exporter might ship $1 million worth of goods to the Chinese importer but only bill the importer $500,000. When those goods are sold on the open market, the additional $500,000 is deposited in an account in China for the benefit of the criminal organization. Besides these classic over- and under-invoicing techniques, there are other forms of trade-based money laundering, including invoicing the same shipment multiple times, shipping goods other than those invoiced, simply shipping nothing at all while issuing a fake invoice, or even more complicated schemes (see here and here for examples).

As governments have cracked down on traditional money-laundering schemes—such as cash smuggling and financial system manipulation—trade-based money laundering has become increasingly common. Indeed, the NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing has become “the primary means for illicitly shifting funds between developing and advanced countries.” Unfortunately, trade-based money laundering is notoriously difficult to detect, in part because of the scale of global trade: it’s easy to hide millions of dollars in global trading flows worth trillions. (Catching trade-based money laundering has been likened to searching for a bad needle in a stack of needles.) Furthermore, the deceptions involved in trade-based money laundering can be quite subtle: shipping paperwork may be consistent with sales contracts and with the actual shipped goods, so the illicit value transfer will remain hidden unless investigators have a good idea of the true market value of the goods. Using hard-to-value goods, such as fashionable clothes or used cars, can make detection nearly impossible. Moreover, sophisticated criminals render these schemes even more slippery by commingling illicit and legitimate business ventures, shipping goods through third countries, routing payments through intermediaries, and taking advantage of lax customs regulations in certain jurisdictions, especially free trade zones (see here and here). In a world where few shipping containers are physically inspected (see here, here, and here), total failure to detect trade-based money laundering is “just a decimal point away.”

The international community can and should be doing more to combat trade-based money laundering, starting with the following steps:

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Beneficial Ownership Registry Coming to the United States?

This may be the year the United States finally requires disclosure of who owns American corporations.  By a 43-16 vote, the House Financial Services Committee recommended on June 11 that the full House of Representatives approve legislation creating a beneficial ownership registry accessible to federal and state law enforcement agencies and presumably to foreign law enforcement authorities through a valid mutual legal assistance request.  At the same time, a bipartisan group of Senators, including two conservative Republicans who back President Trump, is proposing similar legislation in the Senate.

The American legislative process is an arduous one.  The Financial Services Committee’s proposed bill must be passed by the House of Representatives; an identical bill approved by the Senate, and President Trump must then sign it. Long-time supporters of a registry cite two reasons for optimism a bill will pass this year. One, 10 Republican members of the Financial Services Committee voted for the bill and others may support it when the House considers it, and second, the Senate bill has the support of Republican Senators close to President Trump.

Key provisions of the committee-approved bill: Continue reading

The Case for Governments Maintaining PEP Registries

Financial institutions are obliged to apply enhanced client due diligence to politically exposed persons (PEPs) in order to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) and other regulations. Yet there are no official, government-sponsored or government-endorsed sources for identifying PEPs. As a result, financial institutions typically rely on private firms to identify PEPs across the globe. But this reliance is problematic. With barely any independent oversight into how these firms compile their lists, there is no way to ensure the lists are accurate, and there’s at least some evidence that they aren’t: Many of the vendors on which financial institutions rely were found to have “incomplete and unreliable PEP lists” in the past and these commercial databases also produce thousands of false positives due to people with identical names. Given these problems, very few AML officers rely solely on those external databases; they are forced to supplement the private vendor lists with ad hoc internet searches on Google, Linkedin, and other sources, often relying on Google-translations of foreign media articles. This does not seem very reliable. Some civil society groups have sought to contribute to the identification of PEPs by creating online registries, drawing on publicly accessible data on the international level and the national level. But none of these attempts has been comprehensive enough for AML purposes, and civil society organizations probably would not have the resources to compile PEP lists that would be suitable for financial institutions to use for screening clients on a sustainable, ongoing basis.

It is time to change how we approach the task of identifying PEPs for AML and related purposes. A couple of years ago, Professor Stephenson asked on this blog whether there should be a public registry of PEPs, sponsored and maintained by national governments or by an inter-governmental body such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Such an idea is not entirely revolutionary. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) hints at something along these lines in Article 52(b)(2), which instructs each state party “in accordance with its domestic law … [and] where appropriate, [to] notify financial institutions within its jurisdiction … of the identity of particular natural or legal persons to whose accounts such institutions will be expected to apply enhanced scrutiny,” though the “where appropriate” and “in accordance with domestic law” qualifiers mean that there’s no concrete obligation here. Some countries, such as Australia, have undertaken to circulate lists of PEPs to financial institutions. And the European Union, in its Fifth AML Directive, required Member States to compile a list of government positions that are considered “politically exposed,” though the Directive does not require governments to name the actual persons holding those positions at any given time.

Yet these measures all fall well short of the possibility that Professor Stephenson raised in his post: official PEP lists compiled and maintained by governments. Professor Stephenson framed his post as merely posing the question whether this would be a good idea. I want to argue for what I believe is the correct answer to that question: Not only should governments maintain PEP registries, but the international community, through bodies such as the FATF and the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, ought to require governments to create and maintain such registries, using an internationally-standardized set of functional criteria to identify which public positions should be considered to be politically exposed.  Continue reading

The Incredible Shrinking Scandal? Further Reflections on the Lava Jato Leaks

Last week, I published a lengthy commentary on the recent explosive reports from the Intercept regarding the Lava Jato operation in Brazil—reports that were based primarily on text messages provided by a source who apparently hacked (or otherwise gained unauthorized access to) the cell phone of Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor in the case. Because I am unable to read Portuguese, my discussion was based exclusively on the two substantive English-language reports, here and here. (There are more reports in the series, but so far they’ve not been translated into English; if and when they are, I may update my commentary.) The Intercept’s reports argued that these leaked text messages indicate: (1) that Judge Moro engaged in unethical and possibly illegal coordinating with and coaching of the prosecutors; (2) that the prosecutors recognized that their case against former President Lula was without solid legal or evidentiary foundation; and (3) that the prosecutors were motivated by political/ideological bias against Lula and his party, the PT.

In last week’s commentary, based on my preliminary analysis of the Intercept stories, and what I knew about the background context, I reached the following tentative conclusions:

  • First, I thought that the evidence of extensive text communications between the lead prosecutor and the presiding judge was (or at least should be) per se impermissible. I used very strong language in making this point, describing the fact that the two were in regular text contact as “the height of impropriety,” and a “shocking and inexcusable breach of judicial ethics.”
  • Second, though, I thought that the specific text exchanges reported by the Intercept—the ones that allegedly showed the coaching and collaboration—were largely innocuous, and didn’t seem to contain much problematic material over and above the fact of the communications themselves.
  • Third, I did not think that the text messages reported by the Intercept provided any reason to call into question the legal and evidentiary basis for Lula’s conviction. That conviction was and remains controversial, but the leaked text messages don’t show anything other than a prosecutor preparing appropriately for his case.
  • Fourth, I concluded that although texts exchanged among prosecutors in late September 2018 did indeed indicate that the prosecutors did not want the PT candidate to win the election, this didn’t necessarily show that the prosecutors were biased against the PT back in 2015-2016 (when the decision to investigate and prosecute Lula took place), nor was there any evidence that the prosecutors had taken any concrete action that could be ascribed to partisan bias.

Much to my surprise, last week’s post seems to have attracted a lot of attention, particularly in Brazil. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in substantive exchanges with multiple Brazilian experts from across the political spectrum, who hold a wide range of views on Lava Jato, Lula, and related matters. Some of these exchanges can be found in the comment section of last week’s post, which I highly recommend that interested readers check out (particularly those who might have read that post the day it came out, before the comment thread included over 60 separate entries); others have communicated with my privately. (To be clear, though, I have not communicated about the post, publicly or privately, with Mr. Dallagnol or anyone else named or discussed in the Intercept story.)

Based on these conversations, and on further reflection, my views on the Intercept’s reporting have shifted somewhat, mainly in the direction of thinking that this “scandal” is considerably less scandalous than the Intercept reported, or that I’d originally believed. Continue reading

How Anticorruption Enforcement Can Undermine Antitrust Amnesty Programs, and What To Do About It

One of the most important law enforcement techniques that has emerged in the last few decades to combat cartels (anticompetitive collusion between competitors) is the use of programs that promise automatic amnesty to the first member of a cartel to self-report the illegal enterprise. These amnesty programs enable law enforcement authorities to gather the evidence they need to build strong cases against other members of the scheme, and, perhaps more importantly, these amnesty programs destabilize cartels—and might even deter their formation—by taking advantage of the incentive that individual cartel members have to cheat on each other. Since the 1990s, after the success of the amnesty program pioneered by the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), antitrust amnesty programs have been replicated in many jurisdictions, leading some to declare a “leniency revolution” in competition law.

But the existing amnesty programs have a weakness They usually only offer protection for violations of antitrust laws, leaving even the firm that self-reports the antitrust violations potentially liable for other unlawful conduct that the cartel members engaged in as part of their anticompetitive scheme. And many of these anticompetitive schemes turn out to involve corruption, especially in the public procurement context. Cartels often bribe the official in charge of the procurement process, because a corrupt official can monitor and punish defections from the cartel, facilitate the exclusion of non-aligned competitors, and ensure an equal distribution of cartel profits. A firm that hopes to take advantage of an antitrust amnesty program might have to report all of this to qualify for amnesty, as often the programs require, as a condition for amnesty, reporting on the involvement not only of other cartel members, but of any public officials who may have facilitated the collusive conduct. But the fact that a self-reporting cartel member is not guaranteed amnesty from prosecution for corruption or other associated wrongdoing (such as money laundering) complicates the operation of antitrust amnesty programs, because this lack of guaranteed amnesty weakens the incentive of cartel members to self-report in cases where the cartel has engaged in bribery. The problem is especially pronounced when the penalties for bribery are much more severe than those typically imposed in cartel cases.

This is less of a problem in jurisdictions where anticorruption and antitrust authorities are departments of a single agency, as with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). But in many other jurisdictions, such as the EU, Brazil, and Mexico, competition law enforcement—and administration of the antitrust amnesty programs—are handled by enforcement agencies that do not have authority to prosecute corruption cases. From a potential self-disclosing company’s perspective, this poses a challenge: Disclosing participation in a bribe-paying cartel to the competition authority may also trigger an enforcement action by the separate agency responsible for prosecuting corruption, meaning the company will have to negotiate with both agencies, with the anticorruption agency not bound by the antitrust amnesty program. Indeed, in many countries anticorruption agencies may not have the same authority as antitrust agencies to grant leniency to self-reporting companies. In Brazil, for instance, though an antitrust amnesty program has been in place since 2000, settling corruption cases only became possible in 2014. In Mexico, the antitrust amnesty program was created in 2006, but a program for self-reporting bribery cases only entered into force in 2016. In both countries, although there is an established process for settling corruption investigations, there is no immunity provision for self-reporting; a discount in the applicable fines is often the best a firm can hope for. And even when both the antitrust agency and the anticorruption agency have authority to settle and grant leniency, the mere fact that a company knows it will need to enter into two or more separate negotiations increases the uncertainty and costs associated with self-disclosure, undermining the effectiveness of the amnesty program.

How should this problem be addressed in those countries where merging authority over antitrust and anticorruption enforcement in a single agency is not feasible or desirable? There are several possibilities:

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Paul Heywood

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, ICRN members Nils Köbis and Anna Schwickerath interview University of Nottingham Professor Paul Heywood about a range of topics, including the ways in which corruption subverts justice, how Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index helped put corruption on the global agenda, what academic researchers in this field have been doing too much (“admiring the problem”), and what new an dbetter questions scholars should be investigating in order to figure out how to combat corruption more effectively.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Who Owns a Bribe? And Why It Matters

A public servant who accepts a bribe can do with it as he or she pleases. Put it in a bank, sell it, give it away, or even bet it at the roulette table.  What if the bribe-taker is caught, though, and government wants to recover the bribe?  Does it matter what the bribe-taker did with it? It does, and greatly, especially for large bribes stashed in another country — precisely the cases the U.N. Convention Against Corruption addresses.

Article 57(3) of the convention requires the state where the proceeds of a bribe are discovered to return them to the state seeking them if the requesting state “reasonably establishes its prior ownership” of the bribe. If the recipient stashed the bribe in Singapore, the United Kingdom, or another common law country, the requesting state is in luck. If, on the other hand, it was squirreled away in a civil country, the requesting state is likely not so lucky.  It all depends upon the quirky national laws governing who owns the proceeds of a bribe. Continue reading