Guest Post: Oversight of Beneficial Owners Can Strengthen Integrity in the Transition to Renewable Energy

Today’s guest post is from Alanna Markle, a Policy and Research Associate at Open Ownership, and Erica Westenberg, the Governance Programs Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute.

The transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources is crucial to the health of the planet. Yet the renewables sector is likely to face political, social, and governance challenges—including risks of corruption and conflict of interest—similar to those that have been observed in extractive industries and other sectors. One of the tools that anticorruption advocates have emphasized as crucial across sectors—transparency regarding the true beneficial owners of private companies—may be highly important in addressing corruption and conflict of interest risks in the sustainable energy transition for several reasons: 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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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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Why the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act Should Cover Trusts

In late 2020, anticorruption and transparency advocates scored a major victory: the passage of the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which requires U.S. corporations, limited liability companies, and “other similar entities” to disclose the identities of their true beneficial owners to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). FinCEN is currently in the process of drafting regulations to implement the CTA. One of the key questions FinCEN is considering concerns the scope of the CTA’s coverage—in particular whether trusts should be considered “similar entities” to which the CTA’s disclosure obligations apply.

The answer ought to be a resounding yes. As the recent revelations from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) stories on the so-called Pandora Papers has made all too clear, trusts are prime vehicles for kleptocrats, organized crime groups, and others who want to hide their illicit assets. To be sure, trusts have legitimate uses, such as estate planning, charitable giving, and certain (lawful) strategic business purposes. But the potential for abuse means that it is essential to increase transparency and oversight of trusts.

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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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Commentary on the FACTI Panel’s Report and Recommendations (Part 1)

This past February, the United Nation’s cumbersomely-named “High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda”—which, thankfully, everyone simply refers to as the FACTI Panel—released its report on Financial Integrity for Sustainable Development. The report (which was accompanied by a briefer executive summary and an interactive webpage) laid out a series of recommendation for dealing with the problem of illicit international financial flows. Though the report states that it contains 14 recommendations, most of these have multiple subparts, which are really distinct proposals, so by my count the report actually lays out a total of 35 recommendations.

I had the opportunity to interview one of the FACTI panelists, Thomas Stelzer—currently the Dean of the International Anti-Corruption Academy—for the KickBack podcast, in an episode that aired last week. Our conversation touched on several of the report’s recommendations. But this seems like a sufficiently important topic, and the FACTI Panel report like a sufficiently important contribution to the debates over that topic, that it made sense to follow up with a more extensive analysis of and engagement with the FACTI Panel’s recommendations.

Of the 35 distinct recommendations in the report, eight of them (Recommendations 2, 3B, 4A, 4B, 4C, 8A, 11A, and 14B) all deal with tax matters (such as tax fairness, anti-evasion measures, information sharing among tax authorities, etc.). While this is an important topic, it is both less directly related to anticorruption and well outside my areas of expertise. So, I won’t address these recommendations. That leaves 27 recommendations. That’s too much for one post, so I’ll talk about 13 recommendations in this post and the other 14 in my next post.

I should say at the outset that, while some of my comments below are critical, overall I am hugely grateful to the members of the FACTI Panel for their important work on this topic. The Panel’s report should, and I hope will, prompt further discussion and careful consideration both of the general problem and the Panel’s specific recommendation. Part of that process is critical engagement, which includes a willingness to raise concerns and objections, and to probe at weak or underdeveloped parts of the arguments. I emphasize this because I don’t want my criticisms below to be mistaken for an attack on the Panel or its report. Rather, I intend those criticisms in a constructive spirit, and I hope they will be so interpreted.


With that important clarification out of the way, let’s dig in, taking each recommendation in sequence.

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Guest Post: The U.S. Just Created a Public Beneficial Ownership Registry for a Subset of Companies

Today’s guest post is from Neil Gordon, a Senior Researcher at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Companies with anonymous ownership structures are a serious global problem. Anonymous companies, as readers of this blog are likely well aware, play a significant role in facilitating grand corruption. Anonymous companies are associated with a wide range of other criminal misconduct as well. Unfortunately, the United States bears much of the blame for the proliferation of anonymous shell companies and the harm they cause. Most states make it relatively easy to set up a business without revealing the real owners—even easier than getting a library card, according to the anticorruption think tank Global Financial Integrity. That’s why it was so important that Congress finally enacted two key corporate transparency provisions as part of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The first provision, the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), requires most companies to register their beneficial owners—the people who really own, control, and financially benefit from the company—with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. This provision received a great deal of media coverage, and rightly so. But the second key beneficial ownership transparency provision in the NDAA has received almost no attention, even though it could be a real game-changer. That second provision can be found in Section 885 of the NDAA. Section 885 requires all companies receiving federal contracts or grants over $500,000 to report their beneficial owners in the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), a database containing the misconduct and performance histories of federal contractors and grantees. Continue reading

Guest Post: An Anticorruption Agenda for the Biden Administration

Today’s guest post is from Lucinda A. Low and Shruti Shah, respectively Acting Chair and President of the Coalition for Integrity, a U.S. based non-governmental organization focused on fighting corruption. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and should not be attributed to the organization..  

The United States has a long history, across administrations of both parties, of showing leadership internationally in the fight against corruption. The passage and enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) has served as an example for other countries to adopt their own transnational anti-bribery laws. Additionally, the United States has championed international anti-bribery efforts in multilateral organizations and worked to build coalitions to root out all types of corruption. For the last several years, however, U.S. has faltered. In order to reestablish the U.S. as a global leader against corruption, and to get its own house in order, the Biden Administration and the new Congress should embrace an ambitious agenda that includes the following elements: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Gary Kalman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, we’re delighted to welcome back to the podcast Gary Kalman, the Director of Transparency International’s United States office. I was fortunate to be able to interview Gary a little over one year ago, just before he stepped into his new role as TI’s U.S. Director. In our more recent conversation, we had the opportunity to discuss how his first year in this position has gone, touching on some major successes–most notably the passage of the Corporate Transparency Act, which requires companies to provide the government with information on their true beneficial owners–as well as ongoing challenges. Gary discusses some of the advocacy strategies that proved effective on the corporate transparency issues, and suggests how similar strategies might be deployed to advance other aspects of the anticorruption agenda. He also lays out what he sees as the highest priorities for TI’s advocacy work in the United States, and what vulnerabilities have been exposed by the experience with the Trump Administration and how those might be addressed. 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.

Guest Post: For Whose Benefit? Reframing Beneficial Ownership Disclosure Around User Needs

GAB is pleased to publish this post summarizing a recent paper on beneficial ownership disclosure by Anton Moiseienko (Research Fellow) and Tom Keatinge (Director) of the London-based Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.  In the paper, the authors examine current standards governing disclosure of beneficial ownership data, the challenges of ensuring the data’s accuracy, and the needs and interests of the data’s different users. It will be of particular interest to American policymakers given enactment of the Corporate Transparency Act.

Beneficial ownership disclosure – the collection and sharing of information on genuine (rather than formal or nominee) owners of assets – has become a central issue in the fight against corruption and other financial crimes. To whom to disclose it can be controversial, as the very public spat between the United Kingdom, and several of its Overseas Territories shows. Moreover, even countries committed to full public disclosure face challenges in ensuring implementation meets promise as continuing discussions among EU member states shows.  

Arguments over the extent of disclosure and verification can obscure an equally important issue, ensuring the ownership data meets the needs of domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies, tax authorities, regulated businesses, and the public at large. In our paper, we examine not only to whom the information should be provided and how to guarantee it is accurate but how to be sure what is collected and disclosed serves the interests of different types of users. It is based on a review of publicly available sources and over 40 interviews, including more than 25 with experts based in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, jurisdictions where the lack of information on beneficial ownership has been a major concern internationally.

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