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

The Missing Piece in UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order Mechanism

All of a sudden politicians, public figures, and oligarchs – such as Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Ignor Shuvalov and former Nigerian Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke – have to explain how they are able to afford the swanky apartments in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood on their modest official salaries. This is due to the UK’s new Criminal Finances Act (CFA), which came into force in February and is meant to crack down on the flow of dirty money into the UK—a flow that has given London in particular a reputation as a “Death Star” of global kleptocracy. Most notably, the CFA adds a new investigative tool, the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO), into the civil recovery regime. Originally proposed by Transparency International UK a few years ago, a UWO is an order granted by the High Court in cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe (1) the respondent owns some property worth more than £50,000; (2) either the respondent is a politically exposed person (PEP), or the respondent or a person connected to the respondent has been involved in a serious crime; and (3) respondent’s lawfully earned income would not be sufficient to obtain the property in question. If there are reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three conditions is satisfied, the High Court may issue an order requiring the respondent to provide information regarding the nature of her interests in the property in question and how she was able to lawfully obtained such property. If the respondent is unable to provide a reasonable explanation, the UK Government can subsequently initiate the civil forfeiture process and seize these assets.

Lauded as “a powerful new weapon in[] the anti-corruption arsenal,” UWOs are expected to be particularly helpful when there is no conviction against the respondents in their countries of origin, or when efforts to get a corrupt foreign government to cooperate with investigations have led to naught. Moreover, even though UWOs are a civil enforcement mechanism, the information they uncover may be useful in pursuing criminal investigations, and if respondents recklessly or knowingly make false statements or mislead the enforcement body in responding to an order, they may be criminally prosecuted. There’s already some evidence that the new law will make a difference: In March, a month after the promulgation of the CFA, two UWOs were issued requiring a tycoon in Central Asia to explain how he is able to afford real properties in the UK totaling £22 million.

Yet notwithstanding the enthusiasm for UWOs in some quarters, the effectiveness of the UFO mechanism is likely to be hampered by an important missing piece in the UK’s anticorruption framework, namely an effective means for ensuring genuine transparency regarding the beneficial ownership of real and movable property. Without knowing who really owns what, the new law is unlikely to realize its full potential, and indeed may not make much difference outside of a handful of cases involving particularly careless criminals.

Continue reading

Guest Post: The Financial Secrecy Index Identifies the Countries Most Responsible for the Illicit Financial Flows that Facilitate Global Corruption

Andres Knobel, an analyst at the Tax Justice Network, contributes today’s guest post:

Illicit financial flows have dreadful consequences across the world, not least because they facilitate kleptocracy and other forms of grand corruption. A crucial step toward addressing this issue is identifying those jurisdictions that are the most significant contributors to the problem, and offering specific, concrete recommendations for how they can improve. The Tax Justice Network aims to help do this through its Financial Secrecy Index (FSI), the latest edition of which was published this last January. The 2018 FSI includes a ranking of 112 countries and territories according to their global impact of their financial secrecy, measured by balancing the level of secrecy and the country’s weight in the international financial sector.

The FSI differs from standard “tax haven” lists in that it does not purport to single out a handful of jurisdictions for special opprobrium. Such lists tend to imply that only a few jurisdictions, often small countries, are responsible for all of the world’s illicit financial flows. The 2018 FSI, by contrast, covers 112 jurisdictions, and the next assessment will analyze 130. (The objective is to eventually cover all countries and territories.) Moreover, the FSI ranks countries not solely on the degree of financial secrecy that they allow, but rather on a combination of the degree of financial secrecy (the “Secrecy Score”) and the actual use of a jurisdiction’s financial services (the “Global Scale Weight”), in order to rank countries according to their overall contribution to the problem of illicit financial flows. In other words, the FSI ranking is not necessarily ranking the most secretive countries at the top; rather, the FSI identifies the biggest “problem countries”—those that have financial systems that are both secretive (even if not the most secretive) and that are large and used frequently by non-residents. According to this measure, the ten jurisdictions that make the largest contribution to global financial secrecy are (in order starting with the worst contributors): Switzerland, the United States, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Singapore, Luxembourg, Germany, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and Guernsey. These are the jurisdictions that bear the greatest share of responsibility for enabling global illicit financial flows, including those stemming from corruption and tax evasion, and these are therefore the jurisdictions that most urgently need to become more transparent if we are to see real progress in the fight against illicit global financial flows. While all jurisdictions should act to become transparency, starting with these ten jurisdictions would have the most significant impact in the short term.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly for those who follow these issues, a “heat map” of the worst offenders on the FSI looks like the inverse of the more familiar heat map showing the countries perceived to be most corrupt, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). One way to interpret this is the following: public officials and their private-sector cronies in the world’s most corrupt countries according to the CPI (such as Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Libya, etc.) very likely take advantage of financial secrecy to hide the proceeds of corruptions in the countries that most contribute to financial secrecy according to the FSI. Put differently, the worst CPI countries depend on jurisdictions like the FSI’s top ten in order to launder the proceeds of illicit activities.

And what should these (and other) jurisdictions do? On this question, it is important to emphasize that the FSI is not just a ranking system. The FSI report also includes in-depth discussions of all relevant loopholes and sources of information related to financial secrecy in each jurisdiction. This enables researchers, government authorities, activists, and financial institutions to obtain relevant information to be used for risk assessment, policy decisions, or to advocate for specific transparency measures. (All these details are available online, for free and in open data format.) And while every country is different, most jurisdictions would do well to implement what the Tax Justice Network refers to as the “ABC of Fiscal Transparency”:

  • Automatic exchange of bank account information with all other countries, especially developing countries, pursuant to the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard;
  • Beneficial ownership registration in a central public register for companies, partnerships, trusts and foundations (for more specific information, see Tax Justice Network publications here, here, here, and here, as well as this recent paper I published with the Inter-American Development Bank) ; and
  • Country-by-Country reporting, where all multinational companies publish this information online.

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