Guest Post: More on the Hazards of Public Beneficial Ownership Registries–What Stephenson and Others Miss

Today’s guest post, from Geoff Cook (the CEO of Jersey Finance), continues an ongoing debate an exchange we’ve been hosting here at GAB regarding the desirability of public (as opposed to confidential) registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of companies and other legal entities. This exchange was prompted by a piece that Martin Kenney, a lawyer specializing in asset recovery in the British Virgin Islands, published on the FCPA Blog, which criticized the UK’s decision to mandate that the 14 British Overseas Territories create public UBO registries. Mr. Kenney’s post prompted reactions from Rick Messick and from me. Our critical reactions stimulated another round of elaboration on the critique of the UK’s decision, with a new post from Mr. Kenney and another from Mr. Cook. I subsequently replied, explaining why I did not find Mr. Kenney’s or Mr. Cook’s criticisms fully persuasive. Mr. Kenney responded to that post earlier this month, and in today’s post Mr. Cook contributes his critical reactions to my response: Continue reading

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

Guest Post: Are Public UBO Registers a Good or a Bad Proposition? A Further Reply to Professor Stephenson

Today’s guest post, from Martin Kenney, the Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co., a law firm based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), continues an ongoing debate/discussion we’ve been hosting here at GAB on the costs and benefits of public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of companies and other legal entities. That debate was prompted by the UK’s decision to mandate that the 14 British Overseas Territories create such public registries, and Mr. Kenney’s sharp criticism of that decision in a post he published on the FCPA Blog. That post prompted reactions from Rick Messick and from me. Our pushback against Mr. Kenney’s criticisms stimulated another round of elaboration on the critique of the UK’s decision, with a new post from Mr. Kenney and another from Geoff Cook (the CEO of Jersey Finance). I subsequently replied, explaining why I did not find Mr. Kenney’s or Mr. Cook’s criticisms fully persuasive. Today’s post from Mr. Kenney continues that exchange:

Public [UBO] registers are rather cheap political playing to the gallery, saying “Aren’t we wonderful to have done this?” – ignoring the fact that what we have established in the UK does not work properly….  It seems to me outrageous that the UK Government, who lack a lot in the area of anti-money laundering, should thus seek to impose on their overseas territories measures – often, where they cannot be afforded economically, that go far beyond what the UK has.

Lord Flight (Conservative), Member of the House of Lords, Speech to the House of 21 May, 2018, Debate on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [HL] 

The fact that Professor Stephenson welcomes a good discussion and has opened the doors to his blog once again, means it would be impolite of me to not provide a response to his latest observations.

From the outset, I will stress that I will not seek to address every point Professor Stephenson makes. However, having addressed those below, if there are others he wishes me to respond to, I will endeavor to do so. Continue reading

The Debate Over Public UBO Registries Continues: A Response to Kenney and Cook

As our regular readers know, over the past few weeks GAB has had the opportunity to host on what is shaping up to be a lively and interesting debate over the advantages and disadvantages of creating public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of companies and other legal entities. A UBO, for those not familiar with the lingo, is the real-live flesh-and-blood human being who has a sufficiently strong direct or indirect ownership interest in a company to be considered the “true” owner. Increasing UBO transparency is a top priority for many civil society activists, who argue that anonymous company ownership facilitates grand corruption, as well as money laundering, tax evasion, and other harmful activities. In many jurisdictions, UBO information is not available, and even law enforcement may have difficulty determining a company’s true owners. In other jurisdictions, companies must submit and update validated UBO information to the authorities, but that information is confidential, available only to law enforcement or other regulatory agencies in the context of an investigation, or perhaps to others in a limited set of circumstances (for example, banks performing customer due diligence). Most anticorruption advocates, as well as law enforcement agencies and most experts, agree that a confidential UBO registry is far superior to having no registry at all. The harder question, and the one we’ve been debating here at GAB, concerns whether the UBO registry should be public, so that anyone—not just law enforcement agencies acting pursuant to an investigation—can examine the registry to see who owns what.

The most recent round of discussion and debate was triggered when the UK—one of the few major economies that has implemented a public UBO registry—decided to require the 14 British Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI)—to create and maintain public UBO registries. Many in the civil society community celebrated this as a huge triumph, but others denounced the UK’s decision. The denunciation that got the debate going over here at GAB was a provocative piece by Martin Kenney, a BVI asset recovery lawyer, on the FCPA Blog. Mr. Kenney’s piece prompted replies from GAB Senior Contributor Rick Messick (here) and from me (here). Then last week, we were able to publish two more pieces, one from Mr. Kenney and another from Geoff Cook (the CEO of Jersey Finance). Both Mr. Kenney and Mr. Cook took issue with some or all of the arguments that Rick and I advanced, and pressed the claim that the UK’s imposition of public UBO registries on the Overseas Territories was a bad mistake.

Both of their pieces raise important points that deserve a reply. For that reason, and because I think that this issue is important enough that continuing this exchange on GAB for another round or two may be worthwhile for our readership, in this post I’m going to offer a response to Mr. Kenney’s and Mr. Cook’s posts. To lead with the conclusion: While I respect their experience and expertise in these matters, I found most of their arguments unconvincing, or at the very least in need of further explanation before I’m ready to reconsider my (admittedly tentative) view that public UBO registries have sufficient advantages over confidential UBO registries that moving from the latter to the former is desirable. Continue reading

Guest Post: The UK Order on UBO Registries in Overseas Territories–A Reply

Earlier this month, Martin Kenney, the Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co. Solicitors (a specialized investigative and asset recovery practice based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI)) posted a widely-read piece on the FCPA Blog that criticized the UK Parliament’s decision to require that British Overseas Territories create public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of legal entities registered in those jurisdictions. Mr. Kenney’s post provoked two critical responses here on GAB, the first from Senior Contributor Rick Messick, the second from Editor-in-Chief Matthew Stephenson. GAB is delighted that Mr. Kenney has chosen to continue the debate over this important topic by providing the following rebuttal to those criticisms:

Matthew Stephenson wrote in his recent response to my FCPA Blog, about the futility of the UK Parliament’s proposed changes to open company UBO registers in the British Overseas Territories, that: “At the very least, beneficial ownership information should be verified and kept on file so that it will be available to law enforcement in the event of an investigation.”

In my piece, I had explained: “The fact is that the BVI already has its house in order. The island’s systems now include the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search system (BOSS System). A database that is searchable, with the information being available to UK law enforcement agencies within 24 hours. In addition, the BVI has signed up to no fewer than 28 Tax Information Exchange Agreements, with countries that include the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Netherlands, etc. So what part of this is secret?” Continue reading

Public Beneficial Ownership Registries: A Response To Recent Criticisms

Anticorruption activists and other advocates for greater corporate and financial transparency scored a big win earlier this month when the UK announced that it would require the 14 British Overseas Territories (such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Cayman Islands) to create public beneficial ownership registers for all corporations and other legal entities registered in those jurisdictions. Many in the pro-transparency community believe that such registers are critical for fighting corruption and money laundering, as they make it harder to use anonymous companies to engage in unlawful transactions and hide the proceeds of crime by requiring information on the actual human beings (the ultimate “beneficial owners”) who own or control these artificial legal entities. At the very least, beneficial ownership information should be verified and kept on file so that it will be available to law enforcement in the event of an investigation, but many in the pro-transparency community believe that public beneficial ownership registers would be even more effective, as they would provide open data that civil society groups, the media, and others could scrutinize and analyze in order to unearth shady transactions and make it harder for kleptocrats and others to hide their loot. The British Overseas Territories are not the only or even the worse offenders when it comes to corporate secrecy—the United States is still struggling to enact laws that would provide for a non-public register, which the BVI and some other Overseas Territories already have—but there’s no doubt that these jurisdictions are often a preferred destination for dirty money.

So when the UK announced that it would require the Overseas Territories to adopt public beneficial ownership registers, many cheered. But not everybody. A couple weeks back, over at the FCPA Blog, Martin Kenney, a lawyer based in the BVI, published an intemperate denunciation of the new policy, lambasting the so-called “transparency brigade” for having a “mob mentality,” for being “naïve,” “hypocritical,” and neo-imperialist (and possibly racist), and of taking advantage of the devastation that many of the Caribbean Islands suffered in Hurricanes Irma and Maria to push their agenda at a time when “they perceive their prey to be weakened.” Indeed, the ad hominem invective in the post is so thick that it’s sometimes hard to discern the serious, substantive objections underneath all the vitriol. Which is a pity, because Kenney actually does advance at least one or two arguments that, while in my view likely incorrect, are worth taking seriously.

Last week, Rick offered a thoughtful, measured response to Mr. Kenney’s piece that got at some, but perhaps not all, of the core issues. I want to pick up where Rick left off, to lay out what I think are the most sensible concerns about the new UK policy (and about public beneficial ownership registers more generally). And, following Rick’s lead, I’ll try to turn the rhetorical temperature down a few notches, as there’s little to be gained in a (virtual) shouting match on a complicated issue like this. Continue reading