This post is the second in a two-part series on the report and recommendations of the UN’s High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda (the FACTI Panel). In its report, published this past February, the Panel issued 35 recommendations (grouped into 14 categories) for addressing the problem of illicit financial flows. Of those 35 recommendations, 8 principally concerned tax matters, but the other 27 are directly relevant to corruption—especially though not exclusively grand corruption, which often involves cross-border flows of illicit money. I decided that it might helpfully contribute to the conversation about these topics to respond directly with a bit of commentary on each of those 27 recommendations. My last post covered the first 13, and this post will cover the remaining 14. With that prologue out of the way, let’s dive in. Continue reading
The war on corruption is being fought on many fronts. One where victory is especially critical is the battle to prevent leaders of poor countries from robbing their citizens blind, and nowhere will a victory be more welcome or more hard-fought than in Africa. Seventy percent of the world’s poor live on the continent while, thanks first to colonialism and then to Cold War machinations, Africans are saddled with governments ill-equipped to keep greedy leaders in check. Courts, legislatures, and other accountability institutions are weak; the media and civil society hobbled by repressive, non-democratic measures.
Not that in recent years there have not been promising developments. South Africa’s once powerful leader Jacob Zuma was forced to resign the presidency over corruption allegations for which he is now on trial. Former Guinea Minister of Mines Mahmoud Thiam forfeited $8.5 million and was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruptly granting virtually the whole of his nation’s mineral sector to a Chinese conglomerate. The son of former Mozambique President Armando Guebuza is one of over a dozen members of the country’s ruling circle facing trial for his role in the “hidden debt” scandal.
What will be required to continue this progress is the theme of John Hatchard’s latest book, Combating Money Laundering in Africa: Dealing with the Problem of PEPs. Like his earlier ones on African anticorruption laws and institutions (here, here, and here), it’s a must have for African corruption fighters.Continue reading
In February, former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh became the latest in the long line of Maryland politicians sentenced to prison for corruption-related crimes. According to the Department of Justice, Pugh sold copies of a self-published children’s book series to a variety of local organizations that already had or were attempting to win contracts with the city and state governments. Over eight years, Pugh and her longtime aide failed to deliver, re-sold, and double-counted the orders, squirrelling away nearly $800,000 into bank accounts belonging to two shell corporations registered to Pugh’s home address. Pugh, who did not maintain a personal bank account, used the funds to purchase and renovate a private home as well as fund her re-election campaign, among other activities.
These facts are classic red flags in the anti-money laundering (AML) world. Pugh would have had more difficulty executing this corrupt scheme, and might have been brought to justice much earlier, if the banks handling her illicit revenues had conducted the sort of enhanced customer due diligence and monitoring that financial institutions are required to perform on so-called “politically exposed persons” (PEPs), as well as their immediate family and close associates. While there is no uniform definition, PEPs are typically understood to be someone who holds a powerful government position, one that provides greater opportunities for engaging in embezzlement, bribe-taking, and other illicit activity. (Defining a PEP’s “close associates” is more challenging, but the category is generally thought to include someone like Pugh’s aide, who has the requisite status and access to carry out transactions on behalf of the PEP.) But U.S. financial institutions were not required to subject Pugh or her aide to enhanced scrutiny, because under the U.S. AML framework, such scrutiny is only obligatory for foreign PEPs, not domestic PEPs.
For many years, that was the standard approach internationally. But a new consensus is emerging that financial institutions should subject all PEPs, both domestic and foreign, to enhanced scrutiny. This position has been embraced by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international body which sets standards for combating corruption in the international financial system, by the Wolfsberg Group, an association of the world’s largest banks, and by the European Union’s Fourth AML Directive. But far from joining the growing tide of domestic PEP screening, the United States seems to be swimming against it. The United States is one of the few OECD countries that does not require domestic PEP screening, and this past August, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the primary U.S. agency tasked with investigating financial crimes, reiterated that it “do[es] not interpret the term ‘politically exposed persons’ to include U.S. public officials[.]”
This is a mistake. It’s time that the United States joined the international consensus by formally requiring enhanced scrutiny of domestic PEPs as well as foreign PEPs. Continue reading
Global trade has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and with this growth has come the increased risk of trade-based money laundering. Criminals often use the legitimate flow of goods across borders—and the accompanying movement of funds—to relocate value from one jurisdiction to another without attracting the attention of law enforcement. As an example, imagine a criminal organization that wants to move dirty money from China to Canada, while disguising the illicit origins of that money. The organization colludes with (or sets up) an exporter in Canada and an importer in China. The exporter then contracts to ship $2 million worth of goods to China and bills the importer for the full $2 million, but, crucially, only ships goods worth $1 million. Once the bill is paid, $1 million has been transferred across borders and a paper trail makes the money seem legitimate. The process works in reverse as well: the Canadian exporter might ship $1 million worth of goods to the Chinese importer but only bill the importer $500,000. When those goods are sold on the open market, the additional $500,000 is deposited in an account in China for the benefit of the criminal organization. Besides these classic over- and under-invoicing techniques, there are other forms of trade-based money laundering, including invoicing the same shipment multiple times, shipping goods other than those invoiced, simply shipping nothing at all while issuing a fake invoice, or even more complicated schemes (see here and here for examples).
As governments have cracked down on traditional money-laundering schemes—such as cash smuggling and financial system manipulation—trade-based money laundering has become increasingly common. Indeed, the NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing has become “the primary means for illicitly shifting funds between developing and advanced countries.” Unfortunately, trade-based money laundering is notoriously difficult to detect, in part because of the scale of global trade: it’s easy to hide millions of dollars in global trading flows worth trillions. (Catching trade-based money laundering has been likened to searching for a bad needle in a stack of needles.) Furthermore, the deceptions involved in trade-based money laundering can be quite subtle: shipping paperwork may be consistent with sales contracts and with the actual shipped goods, so the illicit value transfer will remain hidden unless investigators have a good idea of the true market value of the goods. Using hard-to-value goods, such as fashionable clothes or used cars, can make detection nearly impossible. Moreover, sophisticated criminals render these schemes even more slippery by commingling illicit and legitimate business ventures, shipping goods through third countries, routing payments through intermediaries, and taking advantage of lax customs regulations in certain jurisdictions, especially free trade zones (see here and here). In a world where few shipping containers are physically inspected (see here, here, and here), total failure to detect trade-based money laundering is “just a decimal point away.”
The international community can and should be doing more to combat trade-based money laundering, starting with the following steps:
More evidence of the ease with which corrupt officials can dodge the antimoney laundering laws, and thus hide money offshore, emerged from a recent Panama Papers story out of New Zealand. It discloses how lax the standards are for becoming an “eligible introducer.” An eligible introducer is a law firm or other entity that under the antimony laundering laws can arrange for an offshore corporation to be established in a client’s name and for a bank account to be opened in the corporation’s name. An offshore corporation with attached bank account is what all corrupt officials want. It gives them a covert way to accept and hold bribes and money from other illicit activities.
The antimoney laundering laws are supposed to make it virtually impossible for corrupt officials to get their hands on an offshore corporation with a bank account: first by requiring the firms that establish corporations to scrutinize the background of those wanting to create a corporation and second by requiring banks, before opening a corporate account, to know who the company’s owner is and what the owner plans to do with the company and its account. If those providing incorporation services and the banks each conduct this “due diligence,” a corrupt official is very unlikely to slip through both screens. That leaves the official with one of two decidedly inferior options: hide the illicit funds under the mattress or entrust them to a close relative or friend.
Enter the eligible introducer. Continue reading