It’s Time for the United States to Mandate Enhanced Scrutiny of Domestic Politically Exposed Persons

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

Reforming the US AML System: Some Proposals Inspired by the FinCEN Files

Last week, I did a post with some preliminary (and under-baked) reflections on the so-called “FinCEN Files” reports by BuzzFeed News and the Independent Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These stories relied in substantial part on a couple thousand Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that had been filed with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and leaked to a BuzzFeed journalist in 2018. The documents, and the reporting based on them, highlight the extent to which major Western banks assist suspected kleptocrats, terrorists, and other criminal actors move (and launder) staggering amounts of money all over the world, and highlight the deficiencies of the existing anti-money laundering (AML) system.

What can we do to rectify this depressing state of affairs? Much of the commentary I’ve seen so far (both in the FinCEN Files stories themselves, and commentary on the reporting from other sources) emphasizes the need for more individual criminal liability—putting bankers in jail, not just fining banks. Even when banks are threatened or hit with penalties, the argument goes, this doesn’t really have much of a deterrent effect, partly because even what seem like very large monetary sanctions are dwarfed by the profits banks stand to make from assisting shady clients with shady transactions, and partly because the costs of monetary sanctions are mostly passed on to the bank’s shareholders, and don’t really hurt the individuals responsible (or the managers who tolerate, or turn a blind eye to, misconduct).

I’m quite sympathetic to both of these arguments, though with a couple of important caveats. Caveat number one: The absence of individual prosecutions of bankers is sometimes attributed to the fecklessness—or, worse, the “soft” corruption—of federal prosecutors, but as I noted in my last post, I tend to think that the more significant obstacle is the fact that it is very difficult in most cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the that bankers or other intermediaries had the requisite level of knowledge to support a criminal money laundering conviction. Caveat number two: I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss the idea that levying significant monetary penalties on banks can affect their behavior. After all, these institutions are motivated overwhelmingly by money, so hitting them in the pocketbook is hitting them where it hurts. The problem may be less that monetary sanctions are inherently ineffectual in this context, but rather that they are too low and too uncertain to have a sufficient impact on incentives and behavior.

In that vein, I want to suggest a few legal reforms that might make the U.S. AML system function more effectively. I acknowledge that these are “inside the box” ideas, insofar as they seek to make the existing framework more effective rather than to drastically transform that system. That may make these proposals feel unsatisfying to some, though I suspect the proposals will seem radical, even outlandish, to others. I should also acknowledge that I am not at all an AML expert, so it’s quite possible that the discussion below will contain errors or misunderstandings of the law or the system. But, in the spirit of trying to stimulate further discussion by those who really understand this field, let me throw out a few ideas. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Frederik Obermaier

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke welcome back to the podcast Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, who is also affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Obermaier on the podcast about his work breaking the Panama Papers story, which shed unusual light on how corrupt officials and other criminals use anonymous companies to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity. In the new episode, Mr. Obermaier discusses the so-called FinCEN Files (which I blogged about last week): the leak of over two thousand suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed with the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Mr. Obermaier explains why and how the FinCEN Files reveal how badly broken the international anti-money laundering (AML) system is, the likely reasons for the ineffectiveness of the system, how the ICIJ and its journalistic collaborators handled such a sensitive story, and the possible political implications of the stories based on the FinCEN Files reporting.

You can find this episode here. 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.

FinCEN Is Seeking Public Input on Proposed Amendments to Its AML Regulations. AML Advocates Should Comment!

In my last post, I discussed the so-called “FinCEN Files” (leaked Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by banks with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)), and the reports from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) based on those leaked documents. This reporting highlighted serious weaknesses in the current anti-money laundering (AML) system, both in the United States and globally. Perhaps coincidentally (but perhaps not), just a couple of days before the FinCEN Files stories went public, FinCEN issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), seeking public comment on various proposed changes to its current regulations implementing the AML provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). The comment period will remain open until November 16th, 2020. Of course, it’s never clear how seriously federal agencies will take public comments, but in at least some circumstances sophisticated comments, supported by evidence and analysis, can move the needle, at least somewhat, on agency policy. So, I very much encourage those of you out there in ReaderLand, especially those of you who work at organizations that have expertise in this area and might be well-positioned to submit the sort of detailed, substantive comments that stand a chance of making some practical difference, to submit your comments before that deadline. (Comments can be submitted through the federal government’s e-rulemaking portal, referencing the identification number RIN 1506-AB44, and the docket number FINCEN-2020-0011, in the submission. The link above goes directly to the comment section for this rule, though, so you don’t need to enter that info again if you follow the link.)

The full ANPRM is not that long, but let me provide a very quick summary, highlighting the main proposal under consideration and the specific questions on which FinCEN is seeking public input. Continue reading

The FinCEN Files: Some Scattered Preliminary Thoughts

As most readers of this blog are likely well aware, last week BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a bombshell story about international money laundering through major financial institutions. The collection of stories—more of which are likely in the works—is based on an analysis of a large trove of leaked documents from the U.S Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which the journalists reporting on the case have dubbed the “FinCEN Files.” These files consist of so-called Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), which are documents that, pursuant to a U.S. statute called the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), banks and certain other institutions are legally required to file with FinCEN whenever the bank has reason to suspect that a transaction it’s handling involves money laundering or some other criminal activity, or simply lacks an apparent lawful purpose. The bank does not inform its customer that it’s filing a SAR—indeed, the BSA prohibits banks from doing so. FinCEN can use SARs to detect and investigate financial crime, and may share SARs with other law enforcement agencies in the context of an investigation, but otherwise SARs are supposed to remain strictly confidential. However, in October 2018 a FinCen employee leaked over 2,100 SARs to a BuzzFeed reporter. (While BuzzFeed and ICIJ do not identify their source, it is almost certain that this former employee, who pled guilty last January to illegally leaking the documents, is the source.) Journalists with BuzzFeed and the ICIJ analyzed these documents and have published multiple stories (see, for example, here and here) about what these documents reveal regarding the global anti-money laundering (AML) regime, together with a subset of the actual SARs. (The journalists released only those SARs that support reporting in specific stories, principally SARs that pertain to known criminal figures. They are not publishing a database of all the SARs in their possession due to concerns about privacy of the individuals involved, many of whom are not currently accused of any wrongdoing.)

The picture that these stories paint of the global AML regime is not a pretty one. While the stories are lengthy and detailed, and discuss many different aspects of the overall issue, if I had to try to distill all this reporting into a simple punchline, it would go something like this: The leaked SARs reveal that the major banks repeatedly handled huge and highly suspicious transactions for corrupt kleptocrats, organized crime groups, terrorists, fraudsters, sanctions evaders, and others, and relatively little was done, by the government or the banks, to stop it. As the ICIJ puts it, “The FinCEN Files show trillions in tainted dollars flow freely through major banks, swamping a broken enforcement system.” Or as BuzzFeed puts it, the FinCEN files reveal “how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions,” while “the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”

I’m still working my way through all the FinCEN Files stories, and I’m certainly no expert on money laundering or banking regulation. (I come to this issue sideways, from an interest in anticorruption, rather than any professional expertise in AML as such.) But, in the interest of getting some ideas down in writing and perhaps stimulating some further conversation on what we can learn from the FinCEN Files reporting, let me share a few scattered, somewhat disconnected preliminary observations. Continue reading

Are Legislative Changes to US AML Rules Finally on the Way? Some Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Subcommittee Hearing

Although the United States has been a leader in the fight against global corruption in some respects—particularly in its vigorous enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and, at least until recently, its diplomatic efforts—there is widespread agreement in the anticorruption community that the United States has not done nearly enough to address the flow of dirty money, much of it stolen by kleptocrats and their cronies, to and through the United States. Effectively addressing this problem requires updating the US legislative framework, a task made difficult by the checks and balances built into the federal legislative process, coupled with high levels of political polarization. Yet there are reasons for cautious optimism: Thanks in part to skillful lobbying efforts by several advocacy groups, and aided in part by the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in the most recent mid-term elections, it looks as if there’s a real chance that the current Congress may enact at least some significant reforms.

Three of the reform bills under consideration are the subject of a hearing to be held tomorrow (Wednesday, March 13, 2019) before the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, International Development, and Monetary Policy. That hearing will consider three draft bills: (1) a draft version of the “Corporate Transparency Act” (CTA); (2) the “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Act” (KARRA); and (3) a draft bill that currently bears the unwieldy title “To make reforms of the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” (which I’ll refer to as the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) Amendments). The subcommittee’s memo explaining the three proposals is here, and for those who are interested, you can watch a live stream of the subcommittee hearing tomorrow at 2 pm (US East Coast time) here.

For what it’s worth, a few scattered thoughts on each of these proposals: Continue reading

Ownership Transparency Works: Geographic Targeting Orders in the US Real Estate Market

The anticorruption community, along with those concerned about tax evasion, fraud, and other forms of illicit activity, has made anonymous company reform a high priority on the reform agenda. It’s not hard to see why: Kleptocrats and their cronies, as well as other organized criminal groups, need to find ways to hide and launder their assets, and to do so in ways that are difficult for law enforcement authorities to trace. Moreover, those whose legitimate sources of income would be insufficient to obtain luxury assets would like to conceal their ownership of such assets, as the ownership itself could arouse suspicion, and might make the assets more vulnerable to forfeiture.

So-called “know-your-customer” (KYC) laws in the financial sector have made it much more difficult—though, alas, far from impossible—for account owners to conceal their identities from the banks and government overseers, at least in the US and most other OECD countries. But it is still far too easy for criminals to purchase substantial assets in wealthy countries like the United States while keeping their identities hidden. All the bad actor needs to do is, first, form a company in a jurisdiction that does not require the true owner of the company to be disclosed and verified to the government authorities, and, second, have this anonymous shell company purchase assets in a transaction that is not covered by KYC laws. Step one is, alas, still far too easy. Though we often associate the formation of these sorts of anonymous shell companies with “offshore” jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands, in fact one can easily form an anonymous shell company in the United States. Step two, having the anonymous company purchase substantial assets without having to disclose the company’s owner, is a bit trickier, because you’d need to avoid the banking system. But you can get around this problem by having your anonymous company purchase assets with cash (or cash equivalents, like money orders or wire transfers), so long as no party to the transaction is under obligations, similar to those imposed on banks, to verify the company’s true owner.

One of the sectors where we’ve long had good reason to suspect this sort of abuse is common is real estate, especially high-end real estate. Though money laundering experts had long been aware of the problem, the issue got a boost from some great investigative journalism by the New York Times back in 2015. The NYT reporters managed to trace (with great effort, ingenuity, and patience) the true owners of luxury condos in one Manhattan building (the Time Warner Center), and found that a number of units were owned by shady characters who had attempted to conceal their identities by having shell companies make the purchases.

The US still hasn’t managed to pass legislation requiring verification of a company’s true owners as a condition of incorporation, which would be the most comprehensive solution to the anonymous company problem. Nor has the US taken the logical step of extending KYC laws to real estate agents across the board. But starting back in 2016, the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (known as FinCEN) took an important step toward cracking down on anonymous purchases of luxury real estate by issuing so-called Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs). And thanks to some excellent research by the economists C. Sean Hundtofte and Ville Rantala (still unpublished but available in working paper form), we have strong evidence that many purchasers in the luxury real estate market have a strong interest in concealing their true identities, and that requiring verification of a company’s ultimate beneficial owners has a stunningly large negative effect on the frequency and aggregate magnitude of anonymous cash purchases. 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

Guest Post: Encouraging Signs for a Possible U.S. Legislative Crackdown on Anonymous Companies

Gary Kalman, the Executive Director of the FACT Coalition, contributes today’s guest post:

A little over a year ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released the Panama Papers, a treasure trove of information and a window into the world of financial secrecy. In some ways, much of what the Panama Papers revealed was already well known. Previous estimates put the amount of money hidden in offshore secrecy havens somewhere between $8 trillion and $32 trillion. In 2015, The New York Times published an impressive five-part series on the use of anonymous shell companies to purchase prime real estate in New York City. Prior to that, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit (which they just won on June 29th) to force the forfeiture of New York property secretly owned by the government of Iran in direct violation of economic sanctions. And so on. Yet it is hard to deny the captivating intrigue of the specific stories in the Panama Papers involving Russian kleptocrats, world leaders, athletes, movie stars, and others.

The big question is: more than a year later, did anything change? As I recently observed, there are indeed encouraging signs around the world, particularly in Great Britain, several EU member-states, and some developing countries such as Ghana. What about the United States? After all, with U.S. transparency laws ranging from weak to non-existent, there is little need to go to Panama to launder one’s dirty money. While Delaware gets the most notoriety, no state collects information on the true (“beneficial” owners of corporations. In fact, in its recent assessment of the U.S., the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering body, noted that for all the progress the U.S. has made, the lack of beneficial ownership transparency remains a glaring weakness. And in the past, when some U.S. legislators – most notably former U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) – pushed legislation to require states to collect beneficial ownership information, the proposed bills never received so much as a hearing.

That may be about to change, and anticorruption advocates should take note. Continue reading

Equity Crowdfunding: Considerations for Anti-Money Laundering Regulation

Equity crowdfunding involves the use of an internet-based platform to market equity shares in a given company to a wide range of potential investors (the “crowd”). The result is financial democratization of sorts – harnessing the power of the crowd to make many small investments instead of relying on large capital infusions from a relatively small number of sophisticated investors. The key to equity crowdfunding is to keep transaction costs low, so that small businesses are able to participate, without sacrificing investor protection. This latter consideration is especially important given the potentially low financial sophistication of the crowd.

In my last post, I discussed how equity crowdfunding could help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries overcome corruption-related barriers to accessing finance. Because equity crowdfunding makes use of internet-based platforms, it is particularly useful for cross-border transactions. As a result, SMEs in developing countries that are unable to access finance through traditional means (often because of corruption in domestic capital markets) can use equity crowdfunding platforms to connect with investors outside of their home countries. As with other technology-based tools that have the potential to sidestep the effects of corruption and contribute to economic development, though, there is also reason to be concerned about the opportunities for corruption for which equity crowdfunding could be abused. In particular, equity crowdfunding platforms could be used to facilitate money laundering, in at least two ways: Continue reading