Cleaning up Corruption in Lebanon’s Central Bank

Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank (the Banque du Liban, or BdL), was once hailed as a “financial wizard” for his stewardship of the Lebanese banking system. But a flurry of recent investigations, led mainly by French and Swiss prosecutors, have implicated Salameh in a variety of corruption schemes. These investigations found, among other things, that Salameh illicitly moved over $300 million of public funds from the BdL into his brother’s company, Forry Associates, between 2002 and 2015 and that Salameh laundered millions in Europe through luxury real-estate purchases. And in March 2022, after Swiss prosecutors asked Lebanese authorities to carry out a separate investigation into embezzlement and money laundering by Salameh and his associates, a Lebanese district court judge charged Salameh and his brother with illegal enrichment and money laundering.

Though Salameh denies all allegations, many Lebanese citizens consider the accusations against him unsurprising. Indeed, if anything is surprising about the case against Salameh, it’s that he is being prosecuted in Lebanese courts. Government elites in Lebanon—including the BdL’s leaders—have long benefited from a culture of impunity. It is encouraging to see Lebanese prosecutors and courts taking steps to hold corrupt actors at the BdL accountable. But cleaning up the BdL, and ensuring that in the future cases like Salameh’s are detected early or prevented altogether, will also require more structural reforms to address the institutional and regulatory problems at the BdL that have enabled such corrupt practices. Three reforms to the BdL are especially important:

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The U.K. Must Legislate to Combat Money Laundering in Its Universities

Parents from developing countries have long sought to provide their children with a world-class university education in wealthy Western countries, such as the US and the UK. There is nothing inherently wrong with this—indeed, universities ought to take pride in their ability to provide an elite education to talented young people from around the world. There is, however, a dark side. In 2021, media reports revealed that nearly fifty UK universities had accepted upwards of £52 million in direct cash payments for tuition and fees from students hailing from countries known to be “high risk” for money laundering—most notably the West African countries of Ghana and Nigeria. A Carnegie Endowment Report on this topic observed that although “[t]he overwhelming majority of West African students in the United Kingdom pose little or no corruption risk, … many West African [politically exposed persons (PEPs)] appear to be using unexplained wealth to pay for UK school and university fees.” Indeed, many of West Africa’s nouveau riche made their money through illicit channels, and they may view an elite UK education for their children as a way to launder their reputations as well as their wealth. As Matthew Page, the author of the Carnegie Report, explained, any university that accepts tuition and fee payments in cash—especially from PEPs in countries with high corruption risk—is essentially “putting out a welcome mat for the world’s kleptocrats and money launderers.”

Although most UK universities acknowledge that they have basic anti-money laundering (AML) responsibilities under Sections 327 and 329 of the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, universities are not clearly covered as “regulated entities” under the UK’s Money Laundering Regulations. And while some universities have responded to recent high-profile scandals and government warnings by adding basic AML provisions to their fee-collection and admissions policies, this is not the sort of problem that is likely to be solved through unilateral action on the part of universities. The incentives to turn a blind eye to the provenance of tuition and fees from international students—which many UK universities have come to rely on as a revenue stream—are simply too strong. (It’s worth noting here that international students typically pay more than three times the fees paid by students from the UK or the European Union, and many UK universities encourage advance cash payments by offering international students discounts of 20-30% if they can pay their fees in advance.) Solving this problem will therefore require the UK to amend its AML legislation to address the particular vulnerabilities in the university sector. Three such reforms would be particularly prudent: Continue reading

For Goodness Sakes, Buy this Man a Cup of Coffee!

If you don’t know whom this post’s headline is talking about, you don’t know who Ray Todd is.  And if you don’t know who Ray Todd is, you don’t know about the eponymously named raytodd.blog.  And if you don’t know about the blog, you don’t know about what I think is the single best aggregator of news and information on corruption, money laundering, economic sanctions, and related topics. 

From a blurb flagging FATF’s recent evaluation of Albania’s money laundering regime to a note on GAB contributor Frederick Davis’ important new Columbia Journal of Transnational Law article “Judicial Review of Deferred Prosecution Agreements: A Comparative Study,” to a link to an English language summary of the just released 2021 annual report of the French Anticorruption Agency, you are missing out. On a lot. Ray’s blog is indispensable source of news for those in the anticorruption community.

All he asks in return is that readers occasionally make a small contribution.  Enough to buy him a coffee. Given the blog’s value added, he deserves much more.  But hey readers, how about starting by financing his morning java?    

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Frederik Obermaier

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, we are pleased to welcome back to the podcast the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, who is also affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. We’ve been fortunate enough to have Mr. Obermaier on the podcast twice before, first in 2019 to discuss the Panama Papers, and then in 2020 to discuss the FinCEN Files. In this week’s episode, my ICRN colleague Christopher Starke talks with Mr. Obermaier about the work he and has collaborators have done on a set of stories based on another major leak, the so-called Suisse Secrets documents–files on thousands of customers of the Swiss Bank Credit Suisse, leaked by an anonymous source, which revealed that many Credit Suisse companies were extremely suspicious figures, including numerous corrupt politicians, as well as other organized crime figures and human rights abusers. The conversation highlights the systemic problems that continue to persist in the Swiss banking system, and more broadly. 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 Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (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.  

Guest Post: Do Governments Have a Clue About the Money Laundering Risks They Face? UPDATE

UPDATE: the World Bank hosts a discussion on the report that is the subject of this post May 30, 12:00 noon EDT. Link to register here.

Today’s guest post summarizes an April World Bank study of money laundering risk assessments. The first step in preventing money laundering is identifying where it occurs and how likely it is to occur. In short, the risks of money laundering. The Bank study evaluated risk assessments eight governments had conducted in accordance with the methodology prescribed by the Financial Action Task Force. For reasons that will become plain, the post’s author has chosen to remain anonymous.

The title from a new World Bank report on money laundering risks could scarcely be blander: National Assessments of Money Laundering Risks: Learning from Eight Advanced Countries’ NRAs.  The content is anything but. Authored by Joras Ferwerda of Utrecht University and Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, the report concludes that not a one of the eight money laundering risk assessments examined, all done as the report’s title advertises by “advanced” countries, is worth a damn. Not a one merits a passing grade from the two professors, both highly regarded money laundering experts. What’s worse, despite close to a decade of experience doing such assessments, the two find that no government seems to have learned a thing from the mistakes of others.

This raises a fundamental question about the existing AML regime. How can it be effective if national authorities lack an understanding of the money laundering risks their countries face?

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The Anticorruption Campaigner’s Guide to Asset Seizure

Anticorruption campaigners have long argued that Western governments should be more aggressive in freezing and seizing the assets of kleptocrats and corrupt oligarchs. While targeting illicit assets has been part of the West’s anticorruption arsenal for many years, attention to this tactic has surged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into Ukrainian territory, not only did Western governments impose an array of economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals close to the Putin regime, but also—assisted by journalists who identified dozens of properties, collectively worth billions—Western law enforcement agencies began seizing Russian oligarchs’ private jetsvacation homes, and superyachts.

Many people who are unfamiliar with this area—and even some who are—might naturally wonder about the legal basis for targeting these assets. And indeed, the law in this area has some important nuances that are not always fully appreciated in mainstream media reporting and popular commentary. Continue reading

The Maldives: No Safe Haven for Oligarchs’ Yachts

Contrary to recent reports (here, here), Russian oligarchs’ yachts harbored in the Maldives are by no means safe from confiscation. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), the Maldives has made bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering crimes under its domestic law (here).  Pursuant to article 46, it pledges “to afford [other UNCAC parties] the widest measure of legal assistance in investigations, prosecutions and judicial proceedings” to enforce their laws against bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering.

These provisions put the oligarchs’ yachts at risk of confiscation in two ways. 

One, Maldivian authorities could initiate an action under the domestic antimoney laundering law. Given the evidence on the public record, there is certainly reason (what American law terms “probable cause”) to believe that the yachts were acquired with the proceeds of a crime, likely embezzlement from the Russian state. (Remember, there need not be a conviction for embezzlement in Russia or elsewhere to launch the related prosecution for money laundering.) The yachts’ presence in the Maldives appears to be more than sufficient grounds for its courts to assert jurisdiction under article 13 of the penal code and therefore to issue a “freeze” order which would prevent the yachts from pulling anchor until a final decision on a seizure action issued.

Alternatively, Maldivian courts have the power under UNCAC and domestic law to issue a freeze order at the request of another UNCAC party.  A country where one was built, for example, could open a case to see whether the shipbuilder was paid with the proceeds of a crime, a money laundering offense, and request that the Maldives prevent the yacht from leaving until its case were concluded. 

Some say will say that whatever the law, the Maldives is a small island nation without the guts to stand up to Russia.  Not so. During the UN General Assembly debate on the resolution denouncing Russian aggression, the government not only backed the resolution but its ambassador left no doubts where its stood: “The Maldives has always taken a principled stand on violations of the territorial integrity of a sovereign country, [a] position based on a bedrock belief in the equality of all States and unconditional respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

Others will be claim that confiscating the oligarchs’ yachts is not possible legally for ownership is obscured by layer upon layer of shell of corporations headquartered in countries.  But those layers can be stripped away by the determined efforts of police and prosecutors, a determination surely stiffened by magnitudes given the yacht owners’ complicity in the appalling events daily unfolding in Ukraine.

Guest Post: The Ukraine Crisis Demonstrates (Again) that the U.S. Must Crack Down on Illicit Finance

GAB is pleased to welcome back Shruti Shah, the President of the Coalition for Integrity, to contribute today’s guest post:

Like so many of us, I am shocked and horrified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and unforgivable attacks on civilian targets. At the same time, I have been encouraged by the resistance to Russia’s unprovoked aggression—most obviously and importantly by the brave Ukrainians defending their homeland, but also by the response of the international community. The United States, the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other nations have announced coordinated sanctions against Russia, including cutting off major Russian banks from the SWIFT system and preventing Russia’s central bank from drawing on foreign currency reserves held abroad. In addition to sanctions targeted at Russia’s financial system, Western nations have also sought to use targeted sanctions aimed at oligarchs close to President Putin. The Biden Administration also announced a transatlantic task force to ensure the effective implementation of financial sanctions by identifying and freezing the assets of sanctioned individuals and companies and an interagency law enforcement group called KleptoCapture.

This renewed focus on the corruption of the Russian political and economic elite is welcome. Russia’s deep-rooted corruption is one of the reasons that Putin has been free to engage in such outrageous acts. He relies on the security services and corrupt oligarchs to protect him. Oligarchs also serve as his personal wallet. Yet for far too long, these corrupt oligarchs have lived lives of luxury off of ill-gotten wealth, which they have used to purchase luxury property in places like New York and London. Yet while some oligarchs and Russian political figures were already the subject of targeted sanctions prior to the recent attack on Ukraine. Overall the West had been far too complacent. The Ukraine tragedy seems to have prompted Western governments to pay more attention to this problem. Indeed, the new sanctions are significant in both scope and size, and they welcomed by the Coalition for Integrity and most other anticorruption activists around the world.

But there’s more work to be done. It’s time for Western governments to ask some hard questions about how these corrupt elites were able to use their ill-gotten gains to buy luxury property and assets and enjoy their wealth in places like New York and in London for so long, and about the role of Western “enablers” in hiding the sources of their wealth and shielding questionable transactions from scrutiny. And, to turn to more specific priorities for policy reform in the United States, there are three specific things that the U.S. government should do to crack down further on illicit finance and thereby advance the agenda laid out in the White House’s Strategy On Countering Corruption: Continue reading

Why Didn’t the Disclosure of the Beneficial Owners of Real Estate Make a Difference?

Anticorruption advocates have long thought that real estate and money laundering go together like a horse and carriage. At least in the United States. With a little help from a friendly lawyer, a corrupt official or other big time criminal has until recently been able to use an anonymous shell company to hide their money by buying a luxury mansion or pricey condominium. Because the real estate registry listed the company, not the crook, as the owner, the real owner’s identify was hidden. From law enforcement, the media, and civil society.

In 2016 the U.S. government made a start on ending this abuse. It began to require the disclosure of the beneficial owner of any corporation which paid cash for properties in cities where real estate purchases were likely used to hide stolen money.  Initially, and as expected, the new rule seemed to have the desired effect: all cash purchases of real estate appeared to drop significantly — indicating a gaping loophole in the antimoney laundering laws had been plugged.

But the first paper published by the Anticorruption Data Collective finds to the contrary.  Authors Matt Collin of the World Bank and Brookings Institution, Florian M. Hollenbach of the Copenhagen Business School, and David Szakonyi of George Washington University report the rule had no impact “on the number of, the total price volume, or the share of corporate all-cash purchases in targeted counties.”  Indeed, they could find “little difference in the patterns of corporate all-cash purchases versus a ‘placebo’ outcome that should not be affected by the policy.”

Beneficial ownership disclosure is a favorite reform of anticorruption advocates. One that would seem to have an obvious, immediate salutary effect. Why didn’t it here?

The authors offer two reasons, and suggest there could be others. Their paper demands careful attention. One because of the implications for beneficial ownership disclosure rules, and second, and more importantly, because it shows how important it is to carefully assay anticorruption reforms. Their paper is here and comments are welcomed.  And GAB looks forward to more work by the Anticorruption Data Collective.

All Nations Should Outlaw Tumbling or Mixing Cryptocurrencies

The prosecutions of currency exchanges Helix (here) and Bitcoin Fog (here) show the dark side of virtual currency. As providers of what the Financial Action Task Force terms money or value transfer services, the two accepted a customer’s funds and returned a corresponding sum or product to the customer or third party for a fee.

Helix and Bitcoin both specialized in bitcoin transactions. A customer would buy something on the web and rather than sending the merchant bitcoins directly, the customer sent them through Helix or Bitcoin Fog. That way, the customer did not have to worry about contacting the seller directly, and moreover, if the seller did not accept bitcoins, Helix or Bitcoin Fog would convert the bitcoins into whatever currency the seller accepted.

What caught the U.S. Department of Justice’s eye is that the two exchanges “tumbled” or “mixed” the customer’s bitcoins as part of their service.

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