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

Offshore Tax Havens: Whose Fight Is It Anyway?

By the end of 2017, offshore tax havens were (again) in the spotlight. This was largely thanks to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which helped release the “Paradise Papers”, a trove of documents primarily concerning the clientele of Appleby, a prestigious law firm with offices in the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. These documents illustrated how firms like Appleby help wealthy individuals use offshore tax havens to avoid or evade paying taxes in their home jurisdictions; this is possible because tax havens offer significantly lower tax rates compared to the home jurisdiction, and also offer a measure of secrecy surrounding financial transactions. (Tax havens often have little to offer but these discounts; they rarely have good governance, and opportunities outside the finance industry are difficult to find for the locals.)

The movement to crack down on offshore tax havens has gathered much support from anticorruption activists. Pointing to leaks like the Paradise Papers (and the Panama Papers before them), anticorruption activists argue that the secrecy associated with offshore tax havens exacerbates the problems of kleptocracy and corruption. While I agree that offshore tax havens pose serious problems, I’m skeptical whether this issue should be a focal point for anticorruption activists (rather than, say, advocacy groups concerned primarily with tax justice or global wealth inequality). There are two reasons for this: 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

Guest Post: Global Progress on Beneficial Ownership Transparency

Joseph Kraus, Director, Transparency and Accountability at The ONE Campaign, contributes today’s guest post:

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the pernicious effects of anonymous companies, those all-too-secretive corporate vehicles that can be – and often are – used to facilitate corruption. Such entities thwart the ability of investigators, journalists, and civil society watchdogs to “follow the money” and hold bad actors accountable. Despite this obvious problem, there has been little political will to better regulate such entities.  Yet that is changing. In the past five years, there has been growing political momentum to put an end to corporate anonymity. Most recently, last month the European Union agreed on landmark regulations that will require public registers of company beneficial ownership information. (The EU also agreed to allow law enforcement, financial institutions, and anyone with an as-yet undefined “legitimate interest” to access trust ownership information.) These groundbreaking new rules will be implemented across the bloc’s 28 Member States.

Given the recent victory in the EU, it’s worth taking stock of global progress and tracing what has helped fuel gains that few thought plausible just a few years ago. Continue reading

A New BOSS in Town: Changes to BVI Beneficial Owner Information Regime

As the British Virgin Islands (BVI) continue to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, attention is properly focused on humanitarian relief and the repair of the BVI’s physical infrastructure. But there have also been important recent developments associated with the BVI’s legal infrastructure—changes designed to address the BVI’s reputation as one of the world’s premier tax havens, and as a popular destination for money laundered by corrupt public officials, organized crime networks, and others.

Thanks in part by a campaign by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron to remove the “cloak of secrecy” from Britain’s offshore territories, and in part to the embarrassing publication of the Panama Papers, the BVI recently enacted a new Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System (BOSS) Act, which went into effect last June.

The BOSS Act is the latest in a series of steps designed to clean up the BVI’s image. Previous moves have included signing an intergovernmental agreement with the United States on Foreign Account Tax Compliance and becoming a signatory to the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard for the automatic exchange of tax and financial information. In 2016, the BVI changed the law to make it mandatory – for the first time – for companies to report their lists of directors to the government. Overall, it’s not yet clear whether these moves have had any effect on the island’s offshore economy. Indeed, the BVI’s interest in preserving its status as a center of the world’s offshore economy has prevented more drastic steps and weakened those that have been taken. (The 2016 law changes, for instance, did not require the reporting of ownership stakes.) Half-measures are unsurprising given the centrality of secrecy to the BVI’s economic success – after all, you can’t expect turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving. While the BVI points out in its defense that its level of transparency is no worse than that of other UK offshore territories, and is in fact better than that of some US states, the fact remains that most of the BVI’s legal reforms have weighed business interests in secrecy more heavily than public interests in transparency.

The BOSS Act unfortunately seems to suffer from the same problem, though it is a step in the right direction. 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

Guest Post: Rolling Back Anticorruption

Laurence Cockcroft, a founding board member of, and current advisor to, Transparency International, contributes today’s guest post:

The global campaign against corruption has become a cornerstone of Western foreign and development policy for the last 25 years. This campaign built on a number of earlier measures, most notably the 1977 enactment of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which criminalized foreign bribery by companies under US jurisdiction, but the campaign really accelerated beginning in the late 1990s. For example, while European countries had resisted adopting legislation similar to the FCPA for 20 years, this changed with the adoption of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1997, which was followed a few years later by the 2002 UN Convention Against Corruption. International financial institutions like the World Bank have become more aggressive about debarment of contractors found to have behaved corruptly, and we have also seen the proliferation of corporate-level ethical codes, promoted by organizations like the World Economic Forum and UN Global Compact, designed to prevent corrupt behavior.

More recent initiatives have pushed for greater corporate transparency. For example, in the United States, the Dodd-Frank Act ended the aggregation of corporate income across countries; an EU Directive promulgated shortly afterwards imposed similar requirements. More recently, an initiative to disclose the true beneficial owners of corporations and other legal entities, pushed by former British Prime Minister David Cameron, has already taken legislative form in the United Kingdom; beneficial ownership transparency is also the subject of an EU Directive, and was being promoted by the Obama administration. And although the so-called “offshore centers” have yet to embrace similar transparency of beneficial ownership, regulatory systems in these centers have been significantly improved. There have also been a number of important sector-level initiatives, particularly in the resources sector. These include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)—which requires participating governments of mineral and energy exporting countries, as well as companies in the extractive sector, to commit to a process of revenue transparency—as well as national-level laws, such as Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which impose so-called “publish what you pay” obligations on extractive firms.

Even more encouragingly, this gradually improving regulatory environment has been accompanied by growing public opposition to corruption, as reflected in large-scale demonstrations around the world. Crowds on the streets, for example, have recently supported the proposed prosecutions of the current and past Presidents of Brazil, and opposed weakening of anticorruption laws in Romania.

But in spite of public opinion, the forces opposed to anticorruption initiatives have never gone away. The arrival of President Trump has let many of them loose both inside and outside the United States: Continue reading