Guest Post: To Be Effective, Public Company Ownership Registries Must Be Linked

Today’s guest post is from Louise Russell-Prywata, Program Manager at OpenOwnership, a global non-governmental organization that promotes greater corporate transparency by making it easier to publish and access data on company ownership.

Danske Bank’s Estonian branch appears to have enabled international money laundering on an enormous scale, with Danske Bank currently investigating  about $236 billion in suspicious transactions (including, but not limited to, the notorious “Azerbaijani Laundromat” in operation from 2012-2014). Yet while money laundering on this scale may be unusual, the mechanisms that allowed funds to flow undetected from countries such as Russia, through Danske Bank Estonia, and into jurisdictions including the UK, are quite familiar. One of the most important of these techniques is the use (and abuse) of anonymously-owned companies.

If we want to stem the tide of money laundering through corporate vehicles, then public registers of the every company’s “ultimate beneficial owners” (UBOs) are an important part of the solution. Publicly available information would decrease reliance on whistleblower allegations to uncover money laundering, and companies themselves would benefit by reducing the costs of due diligence. There has been significant progress to implement public UBO registers in some countries, including the UK and Ukraine, and several other countries have committed to adopting UBO registers in future. There is already some evidence that these registers can make a difference. For example, following the requirement for UBO disclosure for Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs), the number of new incorporations fell dramatically; this is encouraging, as SLPs have featured prominently in several grand corruption cases. However, the Danske Bank revelations highlight that the power of national registers in isolation is limited.

To effectively deter and detect corruption and money laundering, public UBO data from different countries needs to be linked in a manner that is useful for law enforcement, investigative journalists, and others. The data from different registers must be compatible, so that it would be possible, for example, to ascertain whether the Ms. Doe owning Doe Holdings Ltd. registered in the UK, is the same Ms. Doe owning Doe’s Ltd. in Cayman Islands. This is important because a money-laundering trail rarely leads neatly from source jurisdiction straight to a company whose UBO is listed in a public register. Criminals and their associates tend to create a complex chain of legal entities to hide the illicit origin of their funds. This was the case in the Azerbaijani Laundromat, for example. Linking together UBO information from different jurisdictions would make it far easier to “follow the money” in grand corruption and money laundering cases. While law enforcement in some cases have powers to do this now, in practice the process can be complex and expensive, and it is not easily possible to link information at scale. Continue reading

Unexplained Wealth Orders: Godsend for London Property Bargain Hunters?

Those looking for bargains in London real estate may want to follow developments in National Crime Agency v Mrs A [2018] EWHC 2534 closely. The case is the first to rule on Unexplained Wealth Orders, Britain’s new tool for halting the purchase of British properties with money derived from corruption, human trafficking, and other wrongdoing perpetrated on a massive scale.  In its October 3 decision, the court held that Zamira Hajiyeva, owner of a tony Knightsbridge townhome, must tell authorities how she could afford the place when her only means of support is a husband now serving 15 years for defrauding the Azerbaijan state-owned bank he ran. If she cannot show the house was bought with money from legitimate sources, the U.K. National Crime Agency will seize the property, now worth an estimated £15 million.

The Hajiyeva case could prompt a run on London real estate.  Owners of other properties with a questionable provenance may decide to dump them on the market at fire sale prices rather than wait for the NCA to confiscate them.  If so, there could indeed be many bargains on offer.  Transparency International U.K. estimates £4.2billion (US$5.4 billion) worth of U.K. properties are held by those at risk of receiving an UWO.

But both bargain hunters and dodgy real estate owners might best hold off ringing an estate agent until considering another recent directive aimed at curbing criminal money flows into real estate markets. The Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 is likely to crimp quick sale plans.  It is also very likely to ensure that any quick sale effort produces instead even quicker service of an UWO. Continue reading

Bad News for Bad People: Decision in U.K.’s First Unexplained Wealth Order Case

Reports of a $21 million shopping spree at the posh London department store Harrods (examples here, here, and here) dominated accounts of the first court decision to test the new U.K. law requiring those owning a high-end property to show how they could afford it. The court cited the Harrod’s binge in its October 3 decision denying Zamira Hajiyeva’s application to quash an order compelling her to explain how she could afford her $15 million London home in Knightsbridge (walking distance to Harrods) when her only visible means of support is Mr. Hajiyeva, a deposed Azerbaijan oligarch now serving 15 years in an Azeri prison for bank fraud. Tabloid fascination with Mrs. Hajiyeva’s spending binge is understandable, but the decision’s import stretches far beyond the disclosure of the crass excesses typical of a gangland moll.

Even before the law took effect, concerns were heard it would not advance its objective of making the United Kingdom “a more hostile place for those seeking to move, hide or use the proceeds of crime or corruption or to evade sanctions.”  Would the British judiciary’s traditional respect for property rights and qualms about forcing individuals to reveal their personal finances produce such narrow readings of the law as to eviscerate it? Would law enforcement authorities reach too broadly when seeking an order, giving well-financed targets multiple grounds on which to mount a challenge?  The Hajiyeva decision is the first to answer these questions, and for kleptocrats, crime bosses, drug kingpins, and other malefactors hoping the law would go awry, the answers are all bad. Continue reading

The FCPA Is Not an All-Purpose Anti-Foreign-Illegality Law

A few months back, Adam Davidson did a terrific New Yorker piece on the Trump Organization’s shady business dealings in Azerbaijan, focusing on evidence of corruption, money laundering, and sanctions evasion in connection with the Trump Organization’s licensing deal for a Trump Tower in Baku, the country’s capital. While I greatly admired the piece, I nonetheless criticized one aspect of it: the argument that the Trump Organization’s licensing deal ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), an allegation which, it seemed to me, wasn’t adequately supported by the otherwise impressive body of evidence assembled in the piece. While I recognize that a piece written for a general audience can’t get too lost in the technical legal weeds, I do think that it’s important to convey an accurate sense of what the FCPA does, and what it doesn’t do.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks back when I read an otherwise incisive essay by the political commentator Heather Digby Parton (whose work I very much admire) on Ivanka Trump’s shady business dealings and possible legal violations. Though Ms. Parton’s piece focused mainly on the Trump Ocean Club in Panama (dubbed “Narco-a-Lago” in an excellent Global Witness report), she also brought up Mr. Davidson’s reporting on the Azerbaijan project, and repeated the suggestion that the Trump Organization’s involvement in this project likely violated the FCPA. In making this case, Ms. Parton states:

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act requires that American companies not make profits from illegal activities overseas, and simply saying you didn’t know where the money was coming from isn’t good enough…. Courts have held that a company needn’t be aware of specific criminal behavior but only that corruption was pervasive.

I hate to be nitpicky, especially when it involves criticizing a piece I generally agree with by an author I admire, but this is simply not a correct statement of the law. Continue reading

Getting Serious (and Technical) About Procurement Corruption: The Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project

For corruption fighters, public procurement is notable for two reasons. One, it is damnably complex. Two, it is often permeated with corrupt deals.  The latter makes it a critical target of anticorruption policy, the former a tough nut to crack. The thicket of laws, regulations, standard bidding documents, and practices that govern procurement means civil society groups advocating counter corruption measures are often at sea.  Lacking expertise on this bewildering set of rules, they can do little more than campaign in general terms for reform, urging steps like “greater transparency” or “tougher penalties” for corrupt activities.

But as anyone knows who has tried to persuade a government of uncertain will and commitment to adopt effective anticorruption policies, the devil is in the details.  Unless one has mastered the details of public procurement, a government can do all sorts of things to “improve transparency” or “crack down on procurement scofflaws” that are nothing but public relations gambits. So it is a pleasure to report that civil society organizations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have joined to form the Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project, which provides a way for staff to master the details of the public procurement and to thus be able to present detailed proposals for rooting corruption out of their nation’s public procurement systems.    Continue reading

Guest Post: The U.S. Retreat from Extractive Industry Transparency–What Next?

Zorka Milin, Senior Legal Advisor at Global Witness, contributes today’s guest post:

The US Department of the Interior recently took steps to halt its work on implementing a global transparency initiative for the resource sector, known as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This announcement came on the heels of the Congressional action repealing a related rule, adopted by the SEC pursuant to Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, that required oil, gas and mining companies to publish their payments to governments. The two issues are related but distinct. First, 1504 rule required US-listed companies to report payments they make to governments around the world. In contrast, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) applies in those countries whose governments choose to join the initiative (including the US) and requires payments to be disclosed both by the recipient government as well as by all extractives companies that operate in that country. These differences in scope make the two transparency measures necessary complements to each other. EITI produces valuable information from governments about the payments they receive for their natural resources, whereas mandatory legal rules like 1504 are necessary to ensure meaningful and broad reporting from companies, including in those resource-rich countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Angola that are not part of EITI but are in desperate need of more transparency. Indeed, the US EITI experience shows that even in those countries that do commit to implementing EITI, EITI alone might not be enough to compel all companies to report, if it is not backed by domestic legislation.

Officials at Interior appear to be retreating from their ill-advised decision to effectively withdraw from EITI, but these mixed signals, especially when viewed together with the Congressional action, send a troubling message about the US government’s changing stance on anticorruption, and set back a long history of US leadership on these issues. Nonetheless, while these recent US developments are a setback from a US anticorruption perspective, the rest of the world is powering ahead with this much needed transparency. Continue reading

Did the Trump Organization’s Azerbaijan Deal Violate the FCPA?

Adam Davidson’s New Yorker piece from earlier this month, “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. The article, which focuses on the Trump Organization’s involvement in a hotel deal in Baku, Azerbaijan, does a very nice job highlighting the troubling background of the Trump Organization’s Azeri business partners and the Trump Organization’s casual approach (to put it charitably) to due diligence. However, the piece also suggests that the Trump Organization’s involvement with the Baku hotel deal may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and many of the follow-up discussions of Mr. Davidson’s piece have repeated this claim (see, for example, here and here). On this point, not everyone agrees. Professor Mike Koehler, for example, wrote a lengthy critique of Mr. Davidson’s discussion of the FCPA issues, concluding that nothing in the facts as reported in the article suggests that the Trump Organization violated the FCPA – and that many of the article’s assertions to the contrary are based on incomplete and misleading representations of the statute and prior case law.

After having finally had a chance to read Mr. Davidson’s article carefully, it seems to me that Professor Koehler has the better of the argument—mostly. Much of the discussion of potential FCPA violations in Mr. Davidson’s article is confused and potentially misleading. That said, I do think there’s at least one plausible basis for the claim that the Trump Organization may have violated the FCPA in this case.

Here’s my take: Continue reading