Will 2019 Be the Year the US Finally Passes Anonymous Company Reform? Not If the ABA Gets Its Way

It’s a new year, a new US Congress, and a new opportunity for the United States to take action to close some of the most glaring loopholes in its anticorruption and anti-money laundering (AML) framework. So far, Washington has been consumed with the government shutdown fight, along with early chatter about who might seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020, such that there hasn’t yet been much coverage of what new legislation we might see emerging from this new Congress over the next two years. And to the extent there has been such discussion, it has tended to focus on initiatives—such as the Democrat-sponsored “anticorruption” bills that focus on lobbying, voting rights, and conflict-of-interest law reform—that, whatever their usefulness in shaping the debate and setting an agenda for the future, have virtually no chance of passing in the current Congress, given Republican control of the Senate and the White House. Indeed, many commenters assume that on a wide range of issues, political gridlock and polarization means that the new Congress is unlikely to accomplish much in the way of new legislation.

That may be true as a general matter, but there are a few areas—including some of particular interest to the anticorruption community—where the opportunity for genuine legislative reform may be quite high. Perhaps the most promising such opportunity is so-called anonymous company reform. Anonymous companies are corporations and other legal entities whose true “beneficial owners” are unknown and often hard to trace. (The registered owner is often another anonymous legal entity registered in another jurisdiction.) It’s no secret that anonymous companies are used to funnel bribes to public officials, to hide stolen assets, and to facilitate a whole range of other crimes, including tax evasion, fraud, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. And although in the popular imagination shady anonymous shell companies are associated (with some justification) with “offshore” jurisdictions, in fact the United States has one of the most lax regulatory regimes in this area, making it ridiculously easy for kleptocrats and others to use anonymous companies registered in the US to shield their assets and their activities from scrutiny.

Of course it’s possible for law enforcement agencies, armed with subpoena power and with the assistance—one hopes—with cooperative foreign partners and sympathetic courts can eventually figure out who really owns a company involved in illicit activity, doing so is arduous, time-consuming, and sometimes simply impossible. It would be much better if there were a central register of beneficial ownership information, with verification of the information the responsibility of those registering the companies and stiff penalties for filing inaccurate information. Indeed, one of the striking things about the debate over anonymous company reform is how little disagreement there seems to be among experts about the benefits of a centralized company ownership register. There’s still significant controversy over whether these ownership registers should be public (see, for example, the extended exchange on this blog here, here, here, here, and here). But even those who object to public registers of the sort the UK has created acknowledge, indeed emphasize, the importance of creating a confidential register that’s accessible to law enforcement agencies and financial institutions conducting due diligence. But the US doesn’t even have that.

There’s a chance this might finally change. Continue reading

Guest Post: To Be Effective, Public Company Ownership Registries Must Be Linked

Today’s guest post is from Louise Russell-Prywata, Program Manager at OpenOwnership, a global non-governmental organization that promotes greater corporate transparency by making it easier to publish and access data on company ownership.

Danske Bank’s Estonian branch appears to have enabled international money laundering on an enormous scale, with Danske Bank currently investigating  about $236 billion in suspicious transactions (including, but not limited to, the notorious “Azerbaijani Laundromat” in operation from 2012-2014). Yet while money laundering on this scale may be unusual, the mechanisms that allowed funds to flow undetected from countries such as Russia, through Danske Bank Estonia, and into jurisdictions including the UK, are quite familiar. One of the most important of these techniques is the use (and abuse) of anonymously-owned companies.

If we want to stem the tide of money laundering through corporate vehicles, then public registers of the every company’s “ultimate beneficial owners” (UBOs) are an important part of the solution. Publicly available information would decrease reliance on whistleblower allegations to uncover money laundering, and companies themselves would benefit by reducing the costs of due diligence. There has been significant progress to implement public UBO registers in some countries, including the UK and Ukraine, and several other countries have committed to adopting UBO registers in future. There is already some evidence that these registers can make a difference. For example, following the requirement for UBO disclosure for Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs), the number of new incorporations fell dramatically; this is encouraging, as SLPs have featured prominently in several grand corruption cases. However, the Danske Bank revelations highlight that the power of national registers in isolation is limited.

To effectively deter and detect corruption and money laundering, public UBO data from different countries needs to be linked in a manner that is useful for law enforcement, investigative journalists, and others. The data from different registers must be compatible, so that it would be possible, for example, to ascertain whether the Ms. Doe owning Doe Holdings Ltd. registered in the UK, is the same Ms. Doe owning Doe’s Ltd. in Cayman Islands. This is important because a money-laundering trail rarely leads neatly from source jurisdiction straight to a company whose UBO is listed in a public register. Criminals and their associates tend to create a complex chain of legal entities to hide the illicit origin of their funds. This was the case in the Azerbaijani Laundromat, for example. Linking together UBO information from different jurisdictions would make it far easier to “follow the money” in grand corruption and money laundering cases. While law enforcement in some cases have powers to do this now, in practice the process can be complex and expensive, and it is not easily possible to link information at scale. Continue reading

Unexplained Wealth Orders and London Property Bargain Hunters: Part II

Last week I dangled before readers hunting for a home in an upscale London neighborhood the possibility that prices might take a sudden nose dive. Britain’s recently enacted law on Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO) authorizes law enforcement agencies to seize a property if the owner cannot show it was bought with monies honestly come by. Given estimates some 40,000 U.K. properties can’t pass this test, I suggested it was possible the London real estate market could soon be flooded with properties for sale at bargain basement prices as those fearing an UWO try to dump them before law enforcers confiscate them.

But to the great disappointment of GAB readers looking for bargains on London properties, I explained that another new law makes this scenario highly unlikely.  Those trying to offload a property purchased with criminally obtained money are, under U.K. law, committing the crime of laundering money, and thanks to the recent tightening of the U.K. money laundering rules, British real estate agents must alert authorities to any transaction where they suspect money laundering.  With enactment of the UWO law, selling a property of questionable provenance now at less than full market price would scream money laundering. So loudly that no real estate agent no matter how hard of hearing could ignore it.

While the post dampened the hopes of readers thinking the UWO law might shave a couple of million pounds off a place in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, or other neighborhood where many anticorruption activists now dwell (okay, or more likely wish they dwelled), it did serve my real purpose: to prompt reader reactions.    And so it did. Continue reading

Unexplained Wealth Orders: Godsend for London Property Bargain Hunters?

Those looking for bargains in London real estate may want to follow developments in National Crime Agency v Mrs A [2018] EWHC 2534 closely. The case is the first to rule on Unexplained Wealth Orders, Britain’s new tool for halting the purchase of British properties with money derived from corruption, human trafficking, and other wrongdoing perpetrated on a massive scale.  In its October 3 decision, the court held that Zamira Hajiyeva, owner of a tony Knightsbridge townhome, must tell authorities how she could afford the place when her only means of support is a husband now serving 15 years for defrauding the Azerbaijan state-owned bank he ran. If she cannot show the house was bought with money from legitimate sources, the U.K. National Crime Agency will seize the property, now worth an estimated £15 million.

The Hajiyeva case could prompt a run on London real estate.  Owners of other properties with a questionable provenance may decide to dump them on the market at fire sale prices rather than wait for the NCA to confiscate them.  If so, there could indeed be many bargains on offer.  Transparency International U.K. estimates £4.2billion (US$5.4 billion) worth of U.K. properties are held by those at risk of receiving an UWO.

But both bargain hunters and dodgy real estate owners might best hold off ringing an estate agent until considering another recent directive aimed at curbing criminal money flows into real estate markets. The Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 is likely to crimp quick sale plans.  It is also very likely to ensure that any quick sale effort produces instead even quicker service of an UWO. Continue reading

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

How We Did It: the U.S. Congress’ Exposure of the Grand Scale of Global Corruption

 Over the past two decades the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has laid bare how Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang, and a gaggle of friends and relatives of the leaders of Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria, Angola, Saudi Arabia, and other countries conspired with large, prestigious banks to hide the enormous sums they stole from their nation’s citizens.  Financial Exposure, the new book by subcommittee investigator and later staff director Elise Bean, recounts how Democrats and Republicans united not only to document egregious cases of grand corruption but to enact legislation making banks’ complicity in future cases a crime.

Americans depressed by the rancorous polarization now gripping Congress will find her book a welcome reminder that Democrats and Republicans can work together to advance the public interest.  Scandals involving money laundering by banks in other nations, most recently Denmark’s Danske Bank and Latvian bank ABLV, should prompt non-Americans to send their parliamentarians a copy of Ms Bean’s book.  Below Ms. Bean offers a few morsels from the book to whet readers’ appetites.    

There isn’t room here to recount all the subcommittee’s anti-corruption investigations, but a few examples will illustrate what they showed and what results they produced.

Citibank Private Bank.  Corruption was the subject of a key investigation by the subcommittee in 1999, which was led by then subcommittee chair Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Rumors were flying then that the United States had become the preferred banker for corrupt foreign officials around the world. Working with Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan (my boss), the subcommittee elected to zero in on so-called “private banks,” banking units that opened accounts only for wealthy individuals with at least $1 million in deposits.

The inquiry ended up detailing four accountholders at Citibank Private Bank: Raul Salinas, brother to the then president of Mexico; Omar Bongo, then president of Gabon; Asif Ali Zardari, then known for his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan; and the sons of Sani Abacha, recently deceased president of Nigeria.  Senate hearings exposed how Citibank had not only accepted tens of millions of suspect dollars from the accountholders, but also created offshore shell companies to hide their identities, helped them secretly move millions of dollars around the globe, and continued servicing them even after learning of corruption allegations. Continue reading

How to Crack Down on Cryptocurrencies

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are electronic currencies that rely on a technological innovation called a “blockchain”—essentially, a complete transaction record, or “ledger,” stored across a network of computers rather than on a single site. Because of the transparency and alleged incorruptibility of the blockchain ledger, many anticorruption advocates have welcomed the possibility that blockchain technology might be an effective technology to combat corruption in a variety of ways, from ensuring transparency and accuracy in land records to helping to fight money laundering. Whether that optimism is justified remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the most popular application of blockchain to date—Bitcoin—is proving to be a major problem for the fight against corruption, money laundering, and a whole range of other black-market transactions.

Bitcoin is an unregulated currency and is fundamentally difficult to track. Bitcoin allows for the transmission of large amounts of money without the need to go through the traditional, and heavily regulated, financial service providers. Unlike cash, which is also difficult to trace, bitcoins are easy to hide, as the information necessary to stash hundreds of millions of dollars can be kept on a small USB thumb drive. And despite the vaunted transparency and incorruptibility of the Bitcoin “ledger,” which does indeed record all Bitcoin transactions, there is no easy way to establish the real-world identities of Bitcoin users. Nor is there any easy way to generate a record of individuals’ bitcoin holdings, which would have to be reconstructed from hundreds of thousands of transactions. Laundering money with bitcoins is further facilitated through the use “mixing” technologies that pool bitcoins and forward them onward to other accounts, thwarting the transparent blockchain.

Government efforts to address these problems have so far fallen short. China has begun to crack down on domestic Bitcoin exchanges, and some countries such as Bolivia have outright outlawed the use of Bitcoin. But these efforts have largely failed because the storage and exchange of bitcoins requires so little information; you can send bitcoins using protocols as simple as email or text message. Many governments have financial disclosure laws that require public officials to declare all their assets, including bitcoins. And sometimes officials do: three Ukrainian ministers recently disclosed, pursuant to Ukraine’s new asset declaration law, holdings of a combined US$45 million worth of bitcoins. But if corrupt government officials chose to violate the law by failing to disclose their Bitcoin holdings, it would be all too easy for them to do so without getting caught. Governments could also crack down on the services that make bitcoins easier to use—the digital exchanges and apps—but all this would likely do is cause the providers of those electronic services to shift their operations to other jurisdictions, as has happened with digital torrenting sites (which facilitate the pirating of digital content) after the US cracked down.

There is, however, an alternative regulatory strategy that holds more promise:  Continue reading