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

How to Crack Down on Cryptocurrencies

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are electronic currencies that rely on a technological innovation called a “blockchain”—essentially, a complete transaction record, or “ledger,” stored across a network of computers rather than on a single site. Because of the transparency and alleged incorruptibility of the blockchain ledger, many anticorruption advocates have welcomed the possibility that blockchain technology might be an effective technology to combat corruption in a variety of ways, from ensuring transparency and accuracy in land records to helping to fight money laundering. Whether that optimism is justified remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the most popular application of blockchain to date—Bitcoin—is proving to be a major problem for the fight against corruption, money laundering, and a whole range of other black-market transactions.

Bitcoin is an unregulated currency and is fundamentally difficult to track. Bitcoin allows for the transmission of large amounts of money without the need to go through the traditional, and heavily regulated, financial service providers. Unlike cash, which is also difficult to trace, bitcoins are easy to hide, as the information necessary to stash hundreds of millions of dollars can be kept on a small USB thumb drive. And despite the vaunted transparency and incorruptibility of the Bitcoin “ledger,” which does indeed record all Bitcoin transactions, there is no easy way to establish the real-world identities of Bitcoin users. Nor is there any easy way to generate a record of individuals’ bitcoin holdings, which would have to be reconstructed from hundreds of thousands of transactions. Laundering money with bitcoins is further facilitated through the use “mixing” technologies that pool bitcoins and forward them onward to other accounts, thwarting the transparent blockchain.

Government efforts to address these problems have so far fallen short. China has begun to crack down on domestic Bitcoin exchanges, and some countries such as Bolivia have outright outlawed the use of Bitcoin. But these efforts have largely failed because the storage and exchange of bitcoins requires so little information; you can send bitcoins using protocols as simple as email or text message. Many governments have financial disclosure laws that require public officials to declare all their assets, including bitcoins. And sometimes officials do: three Ukrainian ministers recently disclosed, pursuant to Ukraine’s new asset declaration law, holdings of a combined US$45 million worth of bitcoins. But if corrupt government officials chose to violate the law by failing to disclose their Bitcoin holdings, it would be all too easy for them to do so without getting caught. Governments could also crack down on the services that make bitcoins easier to use—the digital exchanges and apps—but all this would likely do is cause the providers of those electronic services to shift their operations to other jurisdictions, as has happened with digital torrenting sites (which facilitate the pirating of digital content) after the US cracked down.

There is, however, an alternative regulatory strategy that holds more promise:  Continue reading

Fixing India’s Anti-Money Laundering Regime

In the past year, India has been among the most zealous countries in the world in stepping up the fight against money laundering and related economic and security issues. The effort that probably got the most attention was last year’s surprise “demonetization” policy (discussed by Harmann in last week’s post), which aimed to remove around 85% of the total currency in circulation. But to assess India’s overall anti-money laundering (AML) regime, it’s more important to focus on the basic legal framework in place.

The most important legal instrument in India’s AML regime is the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which was enacted in 2002, entered into force in 2005, and has been substantially amended since then. The Act defines a set of money laundering offenses, enforced by the Enforcement Directorate (India’s principal AML agency), and also imposes a range of reporting requirements on various institutions. Furthermore, the law gives the Enforcement Directorate the authority to freeze “tainted assets” (those suspected of being the proceeds of listed predicate offenses), and to ultimately seize those assets following the conviction of the defendant for the underlying offense.

How effective has India been in its stepped-up fight against money laundering? On the one hand, over the past year (since the demonetization policy was announced), banks logged an unprecedented increase of 706% in the number of suspicious transaction reports (STRs) filed, and reports from last July indicated that the total value of the assets frozen under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in the preceding 15 months may have exceeded the cumulative total of all assets frozen in the prior decade-plus of the law’s operation. And the government further reported that its crackdown on shell companies had discovered around $1.1 billion of unreported assets.

Yet these encouraging numbers mask a number of serious problems with India’s AML system, problems that can and should be addressed in order to build on the momentum built up over the past year. Here let me highlight two areas where greater reform is needed: Continue reading

Chasing Dirty Money: A Public Database of Ukrainian PEPs

Two weeks ago I posted Ferreting Out Kleptocrats’ Buddies: The Ukrainian Solution which described a list of Ukrainian public officials, their relatives, and close associates that a Ukrainian NGO had compiled. Banks and other financial institutions are required by national antimoney laundering laws to ask these individuals, “politically exposed persons” in antimoney laundering lingo, how they came by their money before doing business with them.  The idea is to keep money obtained through corrupt and other criminal means from polluting the financial system.  The hope is that such controls will either discourage PEPs from stealing from the public or, if not, open up one more way to catch those who have.

As Ferreting Out explained, currently the institutions subject to the antimoney laundering laws rely on PEP lists sold by large international companies, lists that often omit many names that should be on them.  Despite antimoney laundering laws in place around the globe, Ukrainian PEPs are spiriting money out of the country and into foreign financial institutions, real estate, and other investments at an alarming rate.  To help staunch the flow, the Ukrainian Anticorruption Action Center developed and published its own list of Ukrainian PEPs.  The list draws on many local sources and was compiled to complement the ones peddled by commercial vendors.

Center staff presented their work last weekend at the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings.  A summary of their presentation with a link to the database follows. Continue reading

Ferreting Out Kleptocrats’ Buddies: The Ukrainian Solution Part I

Every kleptocrat needs a buddy.  Someone to serve as an intermediary between the corrupt official and the bankers, real estate agents, and others in London, New York, and elsewhere happy to profit from handling dirty money.  A kleptocrat can’t just walk into a bank or real estate office in the United Kingdom, the United States, or other preferred offshore haven with a pile of money to invest.  As a public official, the antimoney laundering (AML) laws would oblige the banker or real estate agent to ask searching questions about how the kleptocrat came into the money and the law would likely also require them to report the transaction or proposed transaction to the authorities.  A buddy, particularly one who has remained out of the public limelight, is the perfect solution.  So long as they don’t know a potential customer is close to a senior public official, the banker or real estate agent meets their obligation to ascertain the source of the would-be customer’s funds by asking a few pro forma questions.

To plug the buddy loophole, the AML laws require banks and real estate agents to determine if anyone wanting to do business with them is a “close associate” of a senior official — a “politically exposed person” in the inelegant term coined by AML specialists.  If a potential customer is a PEP, the bank or real estate agent must ask the same searching questions about the origins of the individual’s funds that they must ask of a senior official.  Recognizing that bankers and real estate agents can’t be expected to know whether a foreign national wanting to do business with them is a close associate of a senior official in 190 plus countries, AML regulators allow them to rely on one of the several PEP lists peddled by commercial firms.  So long as the potential customer doesn’t appear on whatever PEP list they use, the banker or real estate agent need not conduct a detailed inquiry (“enhanced due diligence” in AML-speak) into where their money came from.

So how well do these commercial PEP lists do at identifying kleptocrats’ buddies?  Continue reading

Guest Post: Encouraging Signs for a Possible U.S. Legislative Crackdown on Anonymous Companies

Gary Kalman, the Executive Director of the FACT Coalition, contributes today’s guest post:

A little over a year ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released the Panama Papers, a treasure trove of information and a window into the world of financial secrecy. In some ways, much of what the Panama Papers revealed was already well known. Previous estimates put the amount of money hidden in offshore secrecy havens somewhere between $8 trillion and $32 trillion. In 2015, The New York Times published an impressive five-part series on the use of anonymous shell companies to purchase prime real estate in New York City. Prior to that, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit (which they just won on June 29th) to force the forfeiture of New York property secretly owned by the government of Iran in direct violation of economic sanctions. And so on. Yet it is hard to deny the captivating intrigue of the specific stories in the Panama Papers involving Russian kleptocrats, world leaders, athletes, movie stars, and others.

The big question is: more than a year later, did anything change? As I recently observed, there are indeed encouraging signs around the world, particularly in Great Britain, several EU member-states, and some developing countries such as Ghana. What about the United States? After all, with U.S. transparency laws ranging from weak to non-existent, there is little need to go to Panama to launder one’s dirty money. While Delaware gets the most notoriety, no state collects information on the true (“beneficial” owners of corporations. In fact, in its recent assessment of the U.S., the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering body, noted that for all the progress the U.S. has made, the lack of beneficial ownership transparency remains a glaring weakness. And in the past, when some U.S. legislators – most notably former U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) – pushed legislation to require states to collect beneficial ownership information, the proposed bills never received so much as a hearing.

That may be about to change, and anticorruption advocates should take note. Continue reading

The Road Ahead in Anti-Money-Laundering (AML): Can Blockchain Technology Turn the Tide?

One of the most exciting developments in financial and information technology in the past decade is the emergence of so-called blockchain technology. A blockchain is a database of information distributed over a network of computers rather than located on a single or multiple servers. The first and most famous practical application of blockchain technology is the electronic currency Bitcoin. Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies using blockchain technologies offer users the equivalent of anonymous cash transactions, and have been linked to illicit transactions in drugs, weapons, and prostitution as they. It is therefore no wonder then that blockchain technology is sometimes viewed as a problem, or at least a challenge, for those interested in fighting financial crime and corruption.

But blockchain technologies have other uses, many of which could in fact aid in the fight against these crimes. In an earlier post on this blog, Jeanne Jeong discussed how blockchain technology could be used managing land records. Another use for blockchain that has occasionally been mentioned (see here and here), but not yet sufficiently pursued, is anti-money-laundering (AML). Currently, banks spend about US$10 billion per year on AML measures, yet money laundering continues to take place on a vast scale. The goal of laundering money is to “wash” illegally obtained money (e.g. through corruption) into “clean” money, making the origins of the money untraceable. Blockchain technologies have five features that could make AML efforts both more effective and less costly:

Continue reading