The U.K. Must Legislate to Combat Money Laundering in Its Universities

Parents from developing countries have long sought to provide their children with a world-class university education in wealthy Western countries, such as the US and the UK. There is nothing inherently wrong with this—indeed, universities ought to take pride in their ability to provide an elite education to talented young people from around the world. There is, however, a dark side. In 2021, media reports revealed that nearly fifty UK universities had accepted upwards of £52 million in direct cash payments for tuition and fees from students hailing from countries known to be “high risk” for money laundering—most notably the West African countries of Ghana and Nigeria. A Carnegie Endowment Report on this topic observed that although “[t]he overwhelming majority of West African students in the United Kingdom pose little or no corruption risk, … many West African [politically exposed persons (PEPs)] appear to be using unexplained wealth to pay for UK school and university fees.” Indeed, many of West Africa’s nouveau riche made their money through illicit channels, and they may view an elite UK education for their children as a way to launder their reputations as well as their wealth. As Matthew Page, the author of the Carnegie Report, explained, any university that accepts tuition and fee payments in cash—especially from PEPs in countries with high corruption risk—is essentially “putting out a welcome mat for the world’s kleptocrats and money launderers.”

Although most UK universities acknowledge that they have basic anti-money laundering (AML) responsibilities under Sections 327 and 329 of the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, universities are not clearly covered as “regulated entities” under the UK’s Money Laundering Regulations. And while some universities have responded to recent high-profile scandals and government warnings by adding basic AML provisions to their fee-collection and admissions policies, this is not the sort of problem that is likely to be solved through unilateral action on the part of universities. The incentives to turn a blind eye to the provenance of tuition and fees from international students—which many UK universities have come to rely on as a revenue stream—are simply too strong. (It’s worth noting here that international students typically pay more than three times the fees paid by students from the UK or the European Union, and many UK universities encourage advance cash payments by offering international students discounts of 20-30% if they can pay their fees in advance.) Solving this problem will therefore require the UK to amend its AML legislation to address the particular vulnerabilities in the university sector. Three such reforms would be particularly prudent: Continue reading

How the U.S. Should Tackle Money Laundering in the Real Estate Sector

It is no secret that foreign kleptocrats and other crooks like to stash their illicit cash in U.S. real estate (see here, here, here and here).  A recent report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) found that more than US$2.3 billion were laundered through U.S. real estate in the last five years, and half of the reported cases of real estate money laundering (REML) involved so-called politically exposed persons (mainly current or former government officials or their close relatives and associates). The large majority of these cases used a trust, shell company, or other legal entity to attempt to mask the true owner of the property.

Shockingly, the U.S. remains the only G7 country that does not impose anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations on real estate professionals. But there are encouraging signs that the U.S. is finally poised to make progress on this issue. With the backing of the Biden Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Criminal Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) that proposes a number of measures and floats different options for tightening AML controls in the real estate sector. The U.S. is thus approaching a critical juncture: the question no longer seems to be whether Treasury will take more aggressive and comprehensive action to address REML; the question is how it will do so. And on that crucial question, I offer three recommendations for what Treasury should—and should not—do when it finalizes its new REML rules:

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Summary of Third Annual AML Research Conference. Announcement of Fourth

Thanks to Jason Sharman of Cambridge University and dodging shopping fame, those who didn’t attend last January’s conference “Empirical Approaches to Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crime” are in luck. He has produced an excellent summary of the papers presented at this, the now third annual AML conference jointly sponsored by the Bahamas Central Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  

There are dozens if not hundreds of other AML conferences held each year. At these, bankers and their lawyers, accountants, and consultants flyspeck the latest rules, court decisions, and other matters germane to complying with AML laws and regulations. As well they should, for as AML Penalties chronicles in their weekly bulletin, fines for violations are beginning to creep upwards. Conference attendees are also constantly on watch for cheaper ways to meet their legal obligations; AML compliance costs for all financial institutions are currently estimated to exceed $200 billion per year.

Like the first two conferences, last January’s had a much different agenda than those devoted to compliance. Rather than asking “what are the rules” and “how can we comply,” it asked more fundamental ones: “Are the current anti-money laundering rules worth cost?” “Are they keeping dirty money out of the system?” “Are there more cost-effective ways of doing so?”

It is now clear that Russian oligarchs have had little trouble evading the current AML regime. Might this suggest the sponsors of the Bahamas conference are on to something? That the questions they are posing deserve at least as much attention as those discussed at the many compliance conferences?

Next year’s conference will be held January 19 and 20 in Nassau. The announcement is here.

The Maldives: No Safe Haven for Oligarchs’ Yachts

Contrary to recent reports (here, here), Russian oligarchs’ yachts harbored in the Maldives are by no means safe from confiscation. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), the Maldives has made bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering crimes under its domestic law (here).  Pursuant to article 46, it pledges “to afford [other UNCAC parties] the widest measure of legal assistance in investigations, prosecutions and judicial proceedings” to enforce their laws against bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering.

These provisions put the oligarchs’ yachts at risk of confiscation in two ways. 

One, Maldivian authorities could initiate an action under the domestic antimoney laundering law. Given the evidence on the public record, there is certainly reason (what American law terms “probable cause”) to believe that the yachts were acquired with the proceeds of a crime, likely embezzlement from the Russian state. (Remember, there need not be a conviction for embezzlement in Russia or elsewhere to launch the related prosecution for money laundering.) The yachts’ presence in the Maldives appears to be more than sufficient grounds for its courts to assert jurisdiction under article 13 of the penal code and therefore to issue a “freeze” order which would prevent the yachts from pulling anchor until a final decision on a seizure action issued.

Alternatively, Maldivian courts have the power under UNCAC and domestic law to issue a freeze order at the request of another UNCAC party.  A country where one was built, for example, could open a case to see whether the shipbuilder was paid with the proceeds of a crime, a money laundering offense, and request that the Maldives prevent the yacht from leaving until its case were concluded. 

Some say will say that whatever the law, the Maldives is a small island nation without the guts to stand up to Russia.  Not so. During the UN General Assembly debate on the resolution denouncing Russian aggression, the government not only backed the resolution but its ambassador left no doubts where its stood: “The Maldives has always taken a principled stand on violations of the territorial integrity of a sovereign country, [a] position based on a bedrock belief in the equality of all States and unconditional respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

Others will be claim that confiscating the oligarchs’ yachts is not possible legally for ownership is obscured by layer upon layer of shell of corporations headquartered in countries.  But those layers can be stripped away by the determined efforts of police and prosecutors, a determination surely stiffened by magnitudes given the yacht owners’ complicity in the appalling events daily unfolding in Ukraine.

AML for NFTs: How Digital Artwork Is Used to Clean Dirty Money, and How to Stop It

The art world has gone digital, thanks in large part to the advent of so-called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs, like cryptocurrencies, use blockchain technology (a disaggregated database made up of immutable blocks of data), which makes it possible to attach a unique authenticating token—sort of like a digital signature—to a digital item, most commonly a piece of digital artwork. The primary difference between an NFT and a unit of cryptocurrency is that one NFT cannot be exchanged for another—they are, as the name implies, non-fungible. That non-fungibility enables creators of digital art to sell NFTs of their work for profit. That’s important, because unlike traditional artwork, it’s extremely easy to create perfect copies of digital artwork. But one cannot simply copy an NFT. Of course, one can copy the image itself, but the copy, though identical to the naked eye, will lack the authenticating token. Why, you might reasonably ask, would anyone pay for an NFT when they can get the original image for free? Critics have raised these and other questions, but it seems that a sufficient number of people derive pleasure from collecting the original artwork, or from supporting the artists, or from the belief that the price of NFTs will continue to rise, that trade in NFTs has become big business. An artist known as Beeple sold one NFT for $69 million. Platforms from cryptocurrency exchanges to the hundreds-years-old art auction house Sotheby’s (and potentially the movie theater chain AMC) have entered into the growing NFT market; in the third quarter of 2021, the trading volume of NFTs exceeded $10 billion.

As in other emerging high-value markets, however, NFTs present a money laundering risk. Indeed, NFTs sit at the intersection of two sectors that are already characterized by high money laundering risk: fine art and cryptocurrencies. Because of the uniquely-high money laundering risk posed by these digital assets, FinCEN should issue NFT-specific anti-money laundering (AML) compliance guidance, and Congress should extend the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) to apply to NFT marketplaces.

Before proceeding to regulatory solutions, it’s worth elaborating on why NFTs pose a significant money laundering risk. As just noted, NFTs are particularly high risk because they combine two sectors that are already characterized by high money laundering risk, albeit for different reasons:

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Casey Michel

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview the American journalist Casey Michel about his new book, American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History. In our conversation, Casey and I touch on a variety of topics raised by his provocative book, including the dynamics that led to the U.S. and U.S. entities playing such a substantial role in facilitating illicit financial flows (including the nature of American federalism, the broad exceptions to the coverage of U.S. anti-money laundering laws, and the role of U.S.-based “enablers” of illicit finance), the challenges of regulating lawyers and law firms, the role and responsibilities of universities in light of concerns about “reputation laundering” by kleptocrats and others, the impact of the Trump and Biden Administrations in this area, and the challenges of generating and maintaining bipartisan/nonpartisan support for fighting kleptocracy. 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.

ENABLERS in the Legal Profession: Balancing Client Confidentiality Against Preventing Money Laundering

The anticorruption world is abuzz with discussion of the Pandora Papers, a major leak of financial documents that exposed how wealthy elites, including various political leaders and shady businesspeople, conceal their assets. But alongside revelations about the illicit expenditures of the rich and powerful, reporting based on the Pandora Papers also highlighted the role that lawyers and law firms have played in facilitating these arrangements—many of which are technically legal, but at least some of which suggest possible money laundering or other illicit activities.

This is hardly the first time that concerns have been raised about attorneys’ involvement in money laundering. Indeed, such concerns have existed for years, and have been repeatedly emphasized by groups like the Financial Action Task Force, and a 2010 study found that lawyers played a facilitating role in 25% of surveyed money laundering cases in an American appeals court. But perhaps because of the Pandora Papers revelations, U.S. legislators finally appear to be taking the problem seriously. Within days of the Pandora Papers leak, Members of Congress introduced a bill called the ENABLERS Act, which would expand the scope of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) so that many of the BSA’s requirements, including the duty to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the Treasury Department and to implement anti-money laundering (AML) controls, would apply to a broader set of actors—including attorneys and law firms.

The American Bar Association (ABA), which has consistently resisted pretty much every effort to impose even modest AML requirements on the legal profession, has strenuously opposed this aspect of the ENABLERS Act. The ABA’s principal objection is that many BSA requirements—especially the requirement that covered entities file SARs with the government—conflict with the lawyer’s ethical duty of client confidentiality—the attorney’s obligation not to reveal information gained in the course of representing a client to outside parties, including the government, save in a very narrow set of circumstances. (The duty of confidentiality is related to, but distinct from, the attorney-client privilege, which prevents a lawyer from testifying against her client in court regarding private communications that the attorney had with the client in the course of the legal representation, or providing such communications in response to a discovery request. Some critics have also raised attorney-client privilege concerns about SAR filings.) The ABA and other commentators have argued that extending the BSA’s mandatory reporting requirement to attorneys, as the ENABLERS Act would do, compromises attorneys’ ability to guarantee confidentiality, and thereby discourages the full, frank communications between attorney and client that are essential for effective legal representation.

The ABA has a valid concern, but only to a point. A broad and unqualified extension of BSA reporting requirements to attorneys could indeed impinge on traditional and important principles of lawyer-client confidentiality. But this is not a reason to leave things as they are. Rather, the ENABLERS Act and its implementing regulations can and should draw more nuanced distinctions, imposing SAR and other AML requirements on lawyers when those lawyers are acting principally as financial advisors, but enabling lawyers to preserve client confidentiality—including with respect to suspicious transactions—when lawyers are providing more traditional legal representation, for instance in the context of litigation.

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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:

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Beneficial Ownership Disclosure Mandates and the Legitimate Privacy Interest in Anonymously-Owned Real Estate

In a forthcoming article in the Notre Dame Law Review, Professors Reid Weisbord of Rutgers Law School and Stewart Sterk of the Cardozo Law School examine the trade-offs posed by requiring the public disclosure of the beneficial owners of real estate. While promoting real estate ownership transparency and curbing criminals’ ability to use anonymously-owned real estate, there are clear disadvantages to making the home addresses of all citizens public, the recent murder of a federal judge’s son at the family home by a disgruntled litigant who found their address online the most patent.

As Professors Weisbord and Sterk explain, a common law trust is one way citizens can keep their home address private, but as they also say, the Pandora Papers shows how easy it is for corrupt officials and criminals of all kinds to use a trust to thwart law enforcement. As Congress considers legislation to end trust abuses, the two urge lawmakers not to lose sight of the downsides of requiring the unrestricted public disclosure of the home addresses of all citizens.  At GAB’s request, Professor Weisbord summarized the relevant portion of their article for GAB readers. The Notre Dame article and an earlier article by Professor Weisbord prompted by publication of the Panama Papers should be required reading for those struggling with how to ensure criminals cannot hide from law enforcement through the use of anonymous corporations, trusts, and other “offshore vehicles,” while protecting judges, victims of domestic or sexual abuse, or others with a legitimate need to keep their home address private.

On October 3, 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) published the findings of a massive worldwide investigation that painstakingly reviewed nearly 12 million confidential financial documents, a collection now known as the Pandora Papers. In keeping with its prior bombshell investigations, including the Panama and Paradise Papers, the ICIJ has once again exposed a trove of secret financial transactions by a global cohort of world leaders, politicians, and billionaires who have offshored assets by covertly acquiring or storing property in foreign countries. There can be legitimate reasons for individuals to secretly acquire property abroad, but such transactions are also notoriously used to launder money and defraud creditors or tax collectors by evading the jurisdictional reach of the individual’s domestic legal system.

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A Dearth of Data in the De-Risking Debate

As readers of this blog are likely well aware, the fight against grand corruption is closely linked to the fight against money laundering. After all, kleptocrats and others involved in grand corruption need to hide the origins of their ill-gotten wealth. While the criminals who seek to launder their illicit cash are sometimes prosecuted for money laundering, much of the burden of the anti-money laundering (AML) regime falls on banks and other financial institutions. These institutions have obligations to perform due diligence on prospective clients—especially those clients with attributes suggesting high risk—and to report suspicious transaction to the government. Financial institutions can be held liable for failing to fulfill these obligations, and in some cases for their complicity in money laundering schemes. Yet many advocates believe that the current AML framework is not stringent enough, and have called for reforms that would impose additional obligations, and potential liabilities, on the financial institutions that handle clients and transactions that pose a high money laundering risk.

Banks and other skeptics often resist these reforms, arguing not only that the various proposals will do little to reduce money laundering, but also that more stringent AML regulations will lead to a phenomenon known as “de-risking.” This piece of industry jargon refers to the practice of ending or avoiding relationships with individuals or businesses perceived as “high risk” for money laundering. Of course, we want banks to eschew an individual client or transaction with characteristics that suggest a high probability of money laundering. But when banks and others warn about de-risking, they are referring to a phenomenon in which banks refuse to do business with broad categories of clients – for instance, those from particular countries or regions, or in specific lines of business – despite the fact that most of the individuals or firms in that category do not actually present a serious money laundering risk. If the monitoring costs and legal risks associated with certain kinds of accounts are too high relative to the value of those accounts, the argument goes, it’s easier for banks to simply close all of the accounts in the “de-risked” category. But this indiscriminate closure of allegedly risky accounts cuts off many deserving people, firms, and organizations from much-needed financial services.

Is de-risking really a significant problem? Skeptics might observe that the financial industry has incentives to resist more stringent AML regulation, and their warnings of de-risking may be, if not deliberately pretextual, then at least self-serving. That said, other actors, including non-profit groups, have alleged that they have experienced account closures due to de-risking. So the concern is likely a real one. Still, to set rational AML policy, we would want to know not just whether de-risking is a potential problem (it is) or whether it occurs sometimes (it probably does); we would want to know whether it is a systematic and serious problem, one that would likely be exacerbated by a significant enhancement of banks’ AML obligations.

So, what do we know about the extent and magnitude of de-risking in response to AML regulations? The short answer is: not much.

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