Guest Post: Every Bank Robber Needs A Getaway Car; Banker Held Accountable For Money Laundering

GAB is pleased to publish this analysis by Emile J. M. Van Der Does De Willebois, Coordinator of the World Bank/UNODC Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, of the significance of a decision of the Gerechtshof Den Haag, the Dutch appeals court in The Hague. As he explains, for too long authorities in the developed world have ignored the role lawyers, bankers, and other “enablers” play in facilitating corruption in the developing world.  Let us hope that the court’s decision marks a turning point in holding them accountable for their role in corruption crimes.  

Last month, a Dutch appeals court ordered the public prosecutor to initiate the criminal prosecution of the former CEO of the nation’s largest bank. The court directed that Ralph Hamers be put on trial for money laundering and other crimes the Amsterdam-based banking giant ING committed during his sevenyear tenure as its chief executive. Financial and legal professionals are rarely prosecuted for crimes they facilitate, and it is even rarer that senior executives, as opposed to the institution they run, are targeted. Until this decision, the indictment of Goldman Sachs bankers for their role in the 1MDB scandal was a notable exception.

The culpability of those who, like the driver in a bank robbery, facilitate a crime is not particularly controversial. We all know that the corruption that happens “over there” needs the services of bankers, lawyers, accountants and other facilitators “over here.” We like to pay lip service to the idea that “it takes two to tango” and acknowledge, at least verbally, that the financial and corporate services in the financial centers of the developed world facilitate the corruption found in large parts of the developing world.

But whether those working on anti-corruption always act upon that notion is another matter. A quick look at the Transparency International corruption perceptions index helps maintain the illusion that the rich developed world is doing well on corruption, and that, looking at the bottom of the table, corruption is really a developing-country problem. We have not really internalized the lessons of the Panama Papers, 1MDB, Danske Bank and, most recently, the FinCEN files, which shone a spotlight on the services provided by banks, lawyers and other professionals in making corruption possible.

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It’s Not Just the Corporate Transparency Act: Other Reasons To Welcome the Passage of the U.S. NDAA

Last week I posted about the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), the new law requiring companies to provide the government with information about their ultimate beneficial owners. The CTA, which was passed (over President Trump’s veto) as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), has been getting a lot of attention in the anticorruption and anti-money laundering (AML) community, and rightly so. The product of decades of tireless and shrewd advocacy, the CTA—despite its limitations and imperfections—will make it substantially harder for kleptocrats, terrorists, organized crime groups, and others to abuse corporate structures to facilitate their crimes and hide their loot. But the CTA is not the only part of the NDAA that may have a substantial positive impact on the fight against corruption and money laundering. And while it’s entirely understandable that most of the attention (and celebration) in the anticorruption community has focused on the CTA, I wanted to use today’s post to highlight several other provisions in the NDAA that may also prove important in combating corruption and money laundering. Continue reading

A Few Thoughts on the Passage of the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act

[Note: I drafted the post below earlier this week, before yesterday’s shocking events in the U.S. Capitol. I mention this only because it might otherwise seem odd, and perhaps a bit tone-deaf, to publish a commentary on new corporate transparency rules when we just saw an attempted insurrection incited by the siting U.S. President. I don’t really have anything to say about the latter events (at least nothing that others haven’t already said), so I decided to go ahead and publish the post I planned to publish today anyway.]

Last week, as I suspect many readers of this blog are well aware, the United States Congress enacted one of the most significant anticorruption/anti-money laundering (AML) reforms in a generation. The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which was incorporated as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), will require—for the first time in the United States—that corporations, limited liability companies, and similar entities will have to provide the U.S. government (specifically, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)) with the identities of the ultimate beneficial owners of those entities. That beneficial ownership information, though not made publicly available, will be provided to law enforcement agencies, as well as to financial institutions conducting due diligence (with customer consent). This reform will make it substantially harder for kleptocrats and their cronies—as well as other criminals, including human traffickers and terrorists—to conceal and launder their assets in the United States through anonymous shell companies, and will make it substantially easier for law enforcement to “follow the money” when investigating possible criminal activity.

This important reform has already gotten a ton of coverage in the anticorruption/AML community (see here, here, here, and here), as well as the mainstream media (see here, here, here, and here), though mainstream coverage has understandably been overshadowed by both the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s attempts to subvert the recent election. And we’ve had quite a bit of discussion of the issue on GAB prior to the passage of the NDAA (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here). So, I’m not sure I really have that much to add to what others have already said. Nevertheless, it felt strange to allow this landmark event to go entirely undiscussed on GAB, so at the risk of self-indulgence, I’d like to throw out a few additional thoughts and observations related to the CTA. Continue reading

Combating Money Laundering in Africa: John Hatchard’s Latest Guide for African Corruption Fighters

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.

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FACTI Background Paper: Analysis of the Different Peer Review Mechanisms for Ensuring Compliance with Anticorruption and Financial Integrity Norms

For two decades governments have been signing agreements where they promise to curb corruption and halt the international flow of illicit funds. A promise, however, is only as good as the method for enforcing it, and in the case of international conventions and treaties the only method available is the peer review.  Experts from neighboring or similarly situated nations review how well the government is keeping its promises, recommending ways it can do better and sometimes chastising it for breaking its promises. The theory is that threat of a bad review will put pressure on a government to live up to its commitments.

Peer reviews come in various shapes and sizes, and experience with ones has shown that some are more effective than others.  At the request of High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda Financing for Sustainable Development (FACTI), Valentina Carraro, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Groningen, and Hortense Jongen, Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, reviewed the effectiveness of the peer review mechanisms of six of the most important anticorruption and financial integrity agreements:

  • the Implementation Review Mechanism of the United Nations Convention against Corruption,
  • the Follow-Up Mechanism for the Implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (MESICIC),
  • the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development Working Group on Bribery (OECD Antibribery Convention),
  • the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes,
  • the Inclusive Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting,
  • the Financial Action Task Force and the Financial Action Task Force-Style Regional Bodies.

Their summary of their findings and recommendations is below. and their paper here.  (Background on the FACTI and a link to its interim report recommending changes in international and domestic laws to combat corruption and stem  illicit financial flows is here.)

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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

FACTI: Launch of Interim Report// Background Paper on Global Anticorruption Efforts

The United Nations High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda Financing for Sustainable Development, or FACTI, presents its interim report tomorrow, September 24, 8:00 – 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time, 12:00 – 14:30 UTC (register for webinar here). The report will identify reforms to the laws governing international tax cooperation, anticorruption, and money laundering needed to staunch illicit financial flows and hasten the return of stolen assets. As explained last week, the FACTI panel was created by the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council as part of the effort to ensure developing states will have sufficient resources to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Professors J.C. Sharman, Daniel L. Nielson, and Michael G. Findley of Cambridge, Texas, and Brigham Young Universities respectively, prepared a background paper for the panel assaying the progress made in curbing money laundering and other abuses of the financial system that facilitate corruption. A summary of their paper is below; the full text is here.

Progress in Global AntiCorruption Efforts? Not So Fast

In April of 1989, Laurence Greenwald, a partner in the NYC law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavin had reached the end of his patience. His firm had spent thousands of hours and tallied $1.2 million in legal fees seeking to identify and seize hundreds of millions of dollars in assets stolen from Haiti’s treasury by its notorious dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The successor Haitian government had retained Stroock firm to investigate and launch recovery proceedings. Yet after years of legal work by Stroock and other firms around the globe, in 1988 the new government stopped cooperating and refused to pay its legal bills.

In a letter to the Haitian government, Greenwald fumed, “The behavior of your ministers leaves us no alternative except to conclude that your ministers apparently want our efforts on behalf of Haiti to fail, are not concerned that Haiti will lose the substantial investment it has made in pursuing the Duvaliers, and want the Duvaliers to keep the money they stole.” Such frustrations commonly afflicted those seeking an end to corrupt practices in the international financial system during the late 20th Century. What progress has the international community made in the intervening decades?

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