What Is “Beneficial Ownership”? Why the Proposed TITLE Act’s Definition Is Sensible and Appropriate

“Vague, overly broad, and unworkable.” Those were the words ABA president Hilarie Bass used in her February letter to Congress to criticize the definition of “beneficial ownership” that appears in the TITLE Act – a proposed bill that would require those seeking to form a corporation or limited liability company to provide information on the company’s real (or “beneficial”) owners to state governments. The TITLE Act defines a beneficial owner as “each natural person who, directly or indirectly, (i) exercises substantial control over a corporation or limited liability company through ownership interests, voting rights, agreement, or otherwise; or (ii) has a substantial interest in or receives substantial economic benefits from the assets of a corporation or the assets of a limited liability company.” Ms. Bass and other critics assert that this definition is unprecedented, unfair, and unduly vague, making it impossible for regulated entities to understand the scope of their legal obligations and rendering them vulnerable to arbitrary, unpredictable prosecutions.

But Ms. Bass is incorrect: The TITLE’s Act definition of “beneficial ownership,” though “vague” in the sense that it is flexible rather than rigid, is perfectly workable, and aligns with other US laws, European laws, and the G20’s 2015 principles on beneficial ownership. Moreover, the alleged “vagueness” is necessary to prevent the deliberate and predictable “gaming” of the system that would inevitably take place to circumvent a more precise numerical ownership threshold. Continue reading

Applying Anti-Money Laundering Reporting Obligations on Lawyers: The UK Experience

Anticorruption advocates and reformers have rightly been paying increased attention to the role of “gatekeepers”—bankers, attorneys, and other corporate service providers—in enabling kleptocrats or other bad actors to hide their assets and launder their wealth through the use of anonymous companies. An encouraging development on this front are the bills currently pending in the U.S. Congress that would require corporate formation agents to verify and file the identity of a registered company’s real (or “beneficial”) owners, and also would extend certain anti-money laundering (AML) rules, particularly those requiring the filing of suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the US Treasury, to these corporate formation agents.

Not everyone is thrilled. The organization legal profession, for example, is crying foul. American Bar Association (ABA) President Hilarie Bass wrote to Congress that the proposed expansion of SAR obligations to corporate formation agents, many of whom are attorneys or law firms, would compromise traditional duties of lawyer-client confidentiality and loyalty. As Matthew pointed out in a prior post, it’s not clear that this assertion is correct, as the proposed bills contain express exemptions for lawyers. But even putting that aside, it’s worth recognizing that applying SAR obligations to attorneys wouldn’t be unprecedented. Many European countries have had similar requirements in place since the early 2000s, when the European Commission issued directive 2001/97/EC, which required states to adopt legislation imposing obligations on non-financial professionals, including lawyers, to file suspicious transaction reports (STRs, essentially another term for SARs). As in the US right now, that aspect of the 2001 EC directive was extremely controversial. One EU Commission Staff Working Document went so far as to say it was “the most controversial element of the Directive” because it represented “a radical change to the principle of confidentiality that the legal profession has traditionally observed.” Some EU states and national bar associations launched an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to the requirement that attorneys file STRs, on the grounds that it violated the right of professional secrecy guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Yet in the end, the imposition of the STR obligations on lawyers does not seem to have radically altered the legal profession in Europe. Countries appear to have developed safeguards that preserve the essential aspects of attorney-client confidentiality, even while implementing the EC Directive. Consider, for example, how this all played out in the United Kingdom. Continue reading

Are Jury Trials the Solution to Corruption in Armenian Courts?

Judicial corruption should be a priority for anticorruption efforts in nearly every country, since so much anticorruption work relies on the judiciary. Yet many countries struggle to address judicial corruption. Armenia is one such country, as its citizens well know. In 2015, Transparency International reported that “70 percent of citizens in Armenia do not consider the judiciary free from influence.” The practice of bribery is so open and notorious that in 2013, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman published a “price list” that judges used to set the price required to obtain various outcomes. One official estimated that most bribes add up to 10% of the cost of the lawsuit, but could be higher for higher-level courts. And in 2017, four judges were arrested for taking bribes that ranged between $1,200 and $30,000. Corruption is not the only problem with Armenian courts—Armenia’s judiciary is weak and generally subservient to the executive branch, and the courts often struggle with institutional competence and public distrust—but all of these problems are compounded by corruption.

Some advocates, including the American Bar Association, have proposed that one solution to judicial corruption in Armenia is to introduce jury trials. In fact, the first post-Soviet Armenian constitution explicitly allowed jury trials, though in the end no jury trials were ever held due to the absence of implementing legislation and lack of political will. When the constitution was amended in 2005, the language allowing jury trials was removed. Nonetheless, there has been some recent public debate in Armenia about whether introducing jury trials would be a good idea (see, for example, here and here).

Could juries be part of the solution to judicial corruption? There are several reasons to think juries can fight judicial corruption in Armenia, and elsewhere as well:

Continue reading

The Flawed and Flimsy Basis for the American Bar Association’s Opposition to Anonymous Company Reform

In last week’s post, I raised the question of why the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the U.S. legal profession, so strenuously opposes even relatively modest measures to crack down on the use of anonymous companies for money laundering and other illicit purposes. In particular, the ABA has staked out a strong, uncompromising opposition to the bills on this topic currently under consideration in the U.S. House (the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act) and in the Senate (the TITLE Act). As I noted in my last post, the substance of the ABA’s objections (summarized in its letters here and here) appear, at least on their surface, unpersuasive as a matter of logic, unsupported by evidence, or both. This, coupled with the fact that many ABA members strongly disagree with the ABA’s official position on this issue, made me wonder how the ABA’s President and Government Affairs Office had come to take the position that they had.

After doing a bit more digging, and talking to several knowledgeable people, I have a tentative answer: The ABA’s opposition to the currently-pending anonymous company bills is based on an aggressive over-reading of a 15-year-old policy—a policy that many ABA members and ABA committees oppose but have not yet been able to change, due to the ABA’s cumbersome procedures and the resistance of a few influential factions within the organization.

Why does this matter? It matters because the ABA’s letters to Congress deliberately give the impression that the ABA speaks for its 400,000 members when it objects to these bills as against the interests of the legal profession and contrary to important values. But that impression is misleading. There may be people out there—including, perhaps, members of Congress and their aides—who are instinctively sympathetic to the anonymous company reforms in the pending bills, but who might waver, for substantive or political reasons, if they think that the American legal profession has made a considered, collective judgment that these sorts of reforms are undesirable. The ABA’s lobbying documents deliberately try to create that impression. But it’s not really true. The key document setting the policy—the one on which the ABA’s House of Delegates actually voted—was promulgated in 2003, hasn’t been reconsidered or updated by the House of Delegates since then, and doesn’t really apply to the currently-pending bills if one reads the document or the bills carefully.

I realize that’s a strong claim – one could read it as disputing the ABA President’s assertion, in her letters to Congress, that she speaks “on behalf of” the ABA and its membership in opposing these bills. And I could well be wrong, and remain open to correction and criticism. But here’s why I don’t think the ABA’s current lobbying position should be read as reflecting the collective judgment of the American legal profession on the TITLE Act or its House counterpart: Continue reading

Why Does the American Bar Association Oppose Beneficial Ownership Transparency Reform?

Right around the same time that this post appears on the blog, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing on “Beneficial Ownership: Fighting Illicit International Financial Networks Through Transparency.” The main focus of the hearing will be on a pending bill, the True Incorporation for Transparency for Law Enforcement Act (TITLE Act). That bill’s major provisions do two main things:

  • First, subject to certain limited exceptions, the Act would require that every applicant wishing to form a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) in a U.S. State must provide that State with information on the true or “beneficial” owners of the company—that is, the live human beings who actually exercise control over, and/or receive substantial economic benefits from, these entities—and to keep this information updated. This information could then be requested by a law enforcement or other government agency, or by a financial institution conducting due diligence on a customer. Those applicants who don’t have a U.S. passport or driver’s license who want to form a corporation or LLC would have to apply through a U.S.-based “formation agent”; this agent would be responsible for verifying, maintaining, and updating information on the identity of the legal entity’s beneficial owners.
  • Second, the bill would also subject these “formation agents” to certain anti-money laundering (AML) rules applicable to financial institutions, including the requirements for establishing AML programs and filing suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the Treasury Department. However, the TITLE Act expressly exempts attorneys and law firms from this provision—provided that the attorney or law firm uses a separate formation agent in the U.S. when helping a client form a corporation or LLC. (The idea, as I understand it, is that the bill would avoid putting attorneys in the position of potentially having to file SARs on their own clients—but in order to avail themselves of this exemption, an attorney helping a client form a corporation would have to retain a separate formation agent, and it would be this latter agent that would be subject to the AML rules. More on this in a moment.)

Compared to the more aggressive beneficial ownership transparency reforms touted by anticorruption/AML advocates, and adopted in some other countries, the proposed U.S. legislation is fairly mild—but it is still, as prior commentators on this blog have emphasized (here and here), a welcome step in the right direction. After all, while the U.S. record on fighting global corruption and international money laundering is good in some respects (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement and the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative come to mind), when it comes to addressing the facilitators of corruption, such as corporate secrecy, the U.S. is a laggard (as illustrated by poor U.S. score on the Tax Justice Network’s 2018 “Financial Secrecy Index,” released last month). So it’s indeed encouraging that the TITLE Act, and its counterpart in the U.S House of Representatives (the less-cleverly-named “Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act”) have received both bipartisan support and the endorsement of a wide range of interest groups—including not just anticorruption, AML, and tax justice advocacy groups, but also representatives of law enforcement, the finance industry and other business interests (here and here). Many are cautiously optimistic that some version of these bills might actually become law this year.

But some opposition remains. The sources of that opposition are, in some cases, predictable: the Chamber of Commerce, for example, opposes these reforms, as does FreedomWorks, the lobbying group sponsored by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers. One of the major opponents of the legislation, though, was more surprising, at least to me: the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the U.S. legal profession. The ABA has come strongly against this legislation, sending letters to the responsible committees in both the House and Senate expressing strong opposition to even these relatively mild reforms.

What’s the explanation for this uncompromising opposition? Do the objections make sense on the merits? How did the ABA decide to take such a strong stand, despite the fact that I’m sure many ABA members support greater beneficial ownership transparency? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions yet, and I may try to do a few more posts over this month as I try to work through these issues. But for now, let me offer some preliminary thoughts: Continue reading

Should Anticorruption Agencies Be Able to Veto Cabinet Appointments?: The Case of the Indonesian KPK

Independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) have become a vital component for many countries in combating corruption. Generally, these ACAs function like independent police or prosecutors, taking on one or both of those roles in settings where the ordinary law enforcement apparatus cannot be relied on to investigate, arrest, and prosecute corrupt officials. In addition to these prosecutorial responsibilities, ACAs sometimes oversee asset disclosures, and may also perform a public education function. But for the most part, ACAs do not play a direct role in selecting or vetting senior political officials. Should they?

This question is not merely hypothetical: Indonesia recently elected as its new president Joko Widodo, a reform-minded candidate who promised “zero-tolerance towards corruption” during his campaign (see a previous post discussing his election here). Last month, President-Elect Widodo took the unprecedented step of submitting his list of proposed nominees for cabinet positions to Indonesia’s powerful Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi or “KPK”) for evaluation–and approval–before the list of nominees was finally made public. The KPK rejected eight of his submissions, with the result that President Widodo delayed the announcement of his cabinet compositions until he replaced these eight candidates with other nominees approved by KPK. Four days later, Widodo announced his cabinet composition, which presumably did not include the eight individuals to whom the KPK objected.

While the decision to give the KPK a de facto veto over cabinet appointments is in some ways an encouraging development–one that many Indonesians might appreciate as brave, progressive move, which enlarges the power of the popular KPK–it is troubling in certain respects, and should prompt more careful scrutiny and regulation. Continue reading