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

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