Little Trust on the Prairie

Offshore finance has always been glamorous. The world’s tax dodgers and kleptocrats seem to favor the same jurisdictions as James Bond, places with soring vistas, crystalline waters, and plenty of five-star resorts. Yet as the recent release of the Pandora Papers makes clear, the geography of offshore finance has shifted in recent years. For those seeking to obscure the origins of their wealth, South Dakota now eclipses Grand Cayman. Customer assets in South Dakota trusts have more than quadrupled over the past decade to $360 billion. And while there are of course legitimate reasons to set up a trust, trusts offer an ideal mechanism—even better than shell companies—for concealing ownership and preserving anonymity.

South Dakota is an especially attractive jurisdiction for setting up such trusts because it offers not only low costs and flexibility, but also a combination of privacy and control that those seeking to hide their wealth find attractive. Notably, South Dakota automatically seals trust records, preventing outsiders from identifying settlors and beneficiaries, and does not require publicly filing trust documents. (Although South Dakota’s privacy laws do not shield settlors and beneficiaries from federal law enforcement, they do conceal the trust from journalists and the private parties, making it less likely that those involved in the trust come to the attention of government authorities.) South Dakota also allows the creation of “dynasty trusts,” which exist in perpetuity, as well as “directed trusts,” which give families and their advisors maximum control in managing the trust’s affairs. Unusually, South Dakota also allows trusts whose settlor and beneficiary are the same person.

These rules make South Dakota trusts particularly appealing to business and political elites whose assets may be the target of civil as well as criminal litigation. Indeed, the Pandora Papers identified, among those who used South Dakota trusts to conceal their assets, a Colombian textile baron who had sought to launder international drug proceeds, a Brazilian orange juice mogul who allegedly underpaid local farmers, and the former president of a Dominican sugar producer who was accused of exploiting workers. With banks and even real estate agents wary of taking large sums from officials in corrupt regions, a U.S. domiciled trust offers a veneer of legitimacy.

Allowing states like South Dakota to join the archipelago of secrecy jurisdictions where bankers and trustees ask few questions undermines the United States’ fight against global corruption. Indeed, attacking those who abet foreign corruption while welcoming dirty money as an investment strategy is not just hypocritical but self-defeating. The rise of anonymous domestic trusts in the United States demands and an aggressive response from federal regulators. That response can and should include the following measures:

Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–November 2021 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. Additionally, the bibliography is available in more user-friendly, searchable from at Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Corpus website. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

Conference on Empirical Approaches to Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crimes

The Central Bank of the Bahamas hosts the Third International Research Conference on Empirical Approaches to Anti-money Laundering and Financial Crimes this January 20 and 21 in Nassau. 

Countering the laundering of the proceeds of corruption and other financial crimes has become a critical issue at both the national and international level. Enormous time and attention has been devoted to putting an end to money laundering and enormous sums spent complying with existing laws and directives. Few, however, are happy with the results to date. 

The principal reason for the failure of anti-money laundering laws is the lack of a sound empirical base on which to build an enforcement regime, a point their critics have made at since Reuter and Truman’s 2004 Chasing Dirty Money. The conference is an important step towards remedying our lack of knowledge about how such basic issues as how money launderers works, where the risks are the greatest, and what are the most effective means for reducing them. Details on attending either in person or online here. Current list of speakers and papers follows.

[Submissions to last week’s poll on the definition of corruption still being received.  It is not too late to enter with the chance to win a lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate.]

Continue reading

Some Reflections on the Meaning of Anticorruption “Success”

Last month, we had a spirited debate in the anticorruption blogosphere about the conceptualization of corruption, academic approaches to the study of the topic, and the relationship between research and practice. (The debate was prompted by provocative piece by Bo Rothstein, to which I replied; my critical reaction prompted a sur-reply from Professor Rothstein, which was followed by further contributions from Robert Barrington, Paul Heywood, and Michael Johnston.) I’ve been thinking a bit more about one small aspect of that stimulating exchange: How do we, or should we, think about evaluating the success (or lack thereof) of an anticorruption policy or other intervention? I was struck by the very different assessments that several of the participants in last month’s exchange had regarding whether the anticorruption reform movement had been “successful,” and this got me thinking that although part of the divergence of opinion might be due to different interpretations of the evidence, part of what’s going on might be different understandings of what “success” does or should mean in this context.

That observation, in turn, connected to another issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while, that I’ve been having trouble putting into words—but I’m going to take a stab at it in this post. My sense is that when it comes to defining and measuring “success” in the context of anticorruption reform (and probably many other contexts too), there’s a fundamental tension between two conflicting impulses: Continue reading

Why the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act Should Cover Trusts

In late 2020, anticorruption and transparency advocates scored a major victory: the passage of the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which requires U.S. corporations, limited liability companies, and “other similar entities” to disclose the identities of their true beneficial owners to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). FinCEN is currently in the process of drafting regulations to implement the CTA. One of the key questions FinCEN is considering concerns the scope of the CTA’s coverage—in particular whether trusts should be considered “similar entities” to which the CTA’s disclosure obligations apply.

The answer ought to be a resounding yes. As the recent revelations from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) stories on the so-called Pandora Papers has made all too clear, trusts are prime vehicles for kleptocrats, organized crime groups, and others who want to hide their illicit assets. To be sure, trusts have legitimate uses, such as estate planning, charitable giving, and certain (lawful) strategic business purposes. But the potential for abuse means that it is essential to increase transparency and oversight of trusts.

Continue reading

Leniency Revisited: China Should Also Reward Bribe Takers Who Confess

China’s anticorruption campaign has focused almost exclusively on the so-called “demand side” of bribe transactions—the public officials who request or accept bribe payments. Indeed, it is quite common for a bribe-taking government official to be prosecuted while the bribe giver receives no punishment at all (see here, here, and here). Overall, China has convicted and punished almost four times as many bribe-takers as bribe-givers, and only 1% of bribe-givers have faced criminal prosecution. 

This lopsided emphasis on the demand side of bribery is mostly caused by a odd asymmetry in China’s Criminal Law. According to Article 390, bribe givers who confess their crimes to the authorities before the case is handed over the procuratorate office for criminal prosecution are eligible for leniency, including outright exemption from punishment, but there is no equivalent provision for bribe takers. (There are some general provisions in Chinese criminal law that afford criminal defendants mitigated punishment, but these sections are applicable only when suspects voluntarily turn themselves in before any investigation has commenced, or provide sufficiently valuable service in uncovering other criminal misconduct. These provisions are not as generous as Article 390.) Due to the asymmetric structure of Article 390, coupled with the fact that bribery is often hard to uncover without the cooperation of one of the parties involved in the transaction, China’s principal anticorruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), has cut deals almost exclusively with bribe givers, offering them immunity pursuant to Article 390 in exchange for their assistance in going after the corrupt officials.

This asymmetry has contributed to criticism that China is too lenient on bribe givers. Some critics have argued that China should eliminate the disparate treatment of bribe givers and bribe takers by abolishing Article 390 altogether, thus making it equally difficult for bribe givers and bribe takers to receive leniency (see, for example, here and here). While China has not gone that far, it has taken steps in this direction, for example by amending Article 390 back in 2015 to narrow the set of bribe givers who would be eligible to receive mitigated punishment under that section.

I agree that the asymmetric treatment of bribe givers and bribe takers makes little sense, but rectifying that asymmetry by restricting the availability of leniency to bribe givers who voluntarily confess is the wrong approach. On the contrary, China should expand Article 390 so that bribe takers who report to the government and offer evidence against the bribe payer would be eligible for leniency. But only the party that reports first (and fully and candidly) should be eligible for leniency—the other party to the transaction would be punished harshly. This system, which would resemble the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Leniency Program, creates a prisoner’s dilemma problem for both parties to the bribe transaction, thus helping to detect and deter bribery more efficiently.

Continue reading →

Guest Post: Shifting Anticorruption Messaging from “Crime and Punishment” to “Guardrails for Good Government”

Today’s guest post is from Joe Grady, a co-founder of the Topos Partnership, a firm that specializes in public opinion research:

Public backing is critical to the success of anticorruption reform efforts. Yet communications intended to mobilize the public against corruption often backfire, making audiences less engaged and less confident the problem can be solved. To better understand this problem, the Open Society Foundations recently sponsored an international research effort led by the Topos Partnership to better understand how residents of three countries—the United States, North Macedonia, and Brazil—think about corruption in the public sphere, and how best to engage them in efforts to combat the problem. In each country, ethnographers spoke at length with roughly 150 people, followed by internet surveys testing different kinds of messages.

Not surprisingly, findings across the countries are distinct in various interesting ways. Macedonians, for example, often have a sense that their country lags behind other European countries, and they may also look back nostalgically at the Yugoslav era when things seemed to run more predictably. Brazilians see themselves as being culturally averse to rigid rules and procedures, including those that keep government “honest.” The U.S. public has a strong sense that government is supposed to be by and for the people. But despite these important differences, there are also important similarities across the three countries. Continue reading

Defining Corruption: What Do Readers Say?

Recent posts have treated readers to a discussion of what corruption means.  Professor Rothstein suggested coming at it from its opposite and offered “impartiality” so corruption would mean the absence of impartiality or bias. [Note: I had flubbed Prof. Rothstein’s view in the original text as per his comment below.] Professor Johnson argued that at its core corruption is about an imbalance of power and suggested tying the definition to notions of “justice.” Transparency International’s “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” was also examined.

I think it time for GAB readers to be heard. Rather than asking which one of these definitions they prefer, or whether they have another candidate, however, I thought it more interesting to see how a definition of corruption helps them judge actual conduct in the real world. 

Below are six cases where at least some have alleged corruption was afoot. What say, GAB readers? Do any of the cases described below involve corruption as you define it?

A yea or nay on each in a comment to this post will suffice. Extra credit for explaining how one of the definitions proffered helped you decide. Lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate to the best entry or entries. How each played out in court and in the court of public opinion will be revealed in a future post.

Case 1. To defeat a motion of no confidence, Vanuatu’s Unity of Change government offered two MPs parliamentary appointments in return for withdrawing their support for the motion.  Another MP was offered the position of Minister of Health, and a fourth Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries. All four accepted the offers, and the government defeated the motion. Bribery?

Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Peter Solmssen

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Peter Solmssen, an American lawyer who currently serves as the chair of the International Bar Association’s Subcommittee on Non-Trial Resolutions of Bribery Cases, and who previous served as the General Counsel of the Siemens Corporation in the immediate aftermath of Siemens’ foreign bribery scandal in 2007-2008. In our interview, Mr. Solmssen discusses his perspective on the Siemens case, including both how and why a successful and large company like Siemens developed systematic bribery schemes in the first place, and how Siemens new leadership in the aftermath of the scandal took steps to clean up the company and change its culture. Our conversation then moves from the Siemens case to broader questions concerning how best to combat transnational bribery, whether statutes like the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) are effective, and the role of the private sector in promoting ethics and integrity.
You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior 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.

Will Afghanistan’s New Taliban Rulers Govern Corruptly?

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban marched into Kabul unopposed, toppling the Western-backed government. The Taliban came to power in a very corrupt country. Afghan police regularly used informal checkpoints to extort truck drivers. Education and banking were also rife with corruption. Some estimates put the amount of bribes paid annually in Afghanistan at somewhere between $2 and $5 billion, or about 13 percent of the country’s GDP. Afghan military commanders siphoned off huge amounts of money by listing non-existent soldiers in their units, and then pocketing the salaries of these “ghost soldiers.” And on top of all this, former president Ashraf Ghani allegedly stole over $100 million on his way out of Afghanistan. From top to bottom, Afghanistan had a major corruption problem. 

The Taliban, by contrast, cultivated a reputation for relatively clean government. During the Taliban’s previous reign, from 1996 until 2001, bribes were uncommon, and the justice system was viewed as comparatively honest (and certainly less corrupt than that of the Western-backed government established after the Taliban’s ouster). Over the last two decades, the justice administered by Taliban judges in areas under Taliban control has been popular among many Afghans precisely because they perceive it as less corrupt and more efficient. This may explain why, despite the Taliban’s extremism and abysmal human rights record, the group was viewed favorably by many ordinary Afghans—at least when contrasted with the Western-backed government. Many commentators have suggested this factor contributed to the Taliban’s takeover of the country (see here and here). And since the Taliban has come to power, early reports suggest that it is governing in a relatedly non-corrupt manner. For example, business owners in Kabul—often the targets of shakedowns by security forces under the Ghani government—note that Taliban security forces check in on them regularly to offer help with security, without demanding bribes. Afghans also report that the police no longer extort bribe payments from truckers, who now just pay a single toll to the Taliban. More generally, citizens in places like Kabul have offered positive preliminary assessments, regarding the comparatively lower corruption of the new Taliban government.

Does this mean that, notwithstanding the Taliban’s terrible record on other issues, the Taliban government is likely to continue governing the country relatively cleanly? There is no way to know, but there are good reasons to be skeptical. Those who welcomed the Taliban as a less corrupt alternative to the Western-backed government are likely to be disappointed.

Continue reading