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

The Case for Governments Maintaining PEP Registries

Financial institutions are obliged to apply enhanced client due diligence to politically exposed persons (PEPs) in order to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) and other regulations. Yet there are no official, government-sponsored or government-endorsed sources for identifying PEPs. As a result, financial institutions typically rely on private firms to identify PEPs across the globe. But this reliance is problematic. With barely any independent oversight into how these firms compile their lists, there is no way to ensure the lists are accurate, and there’s at least some evidence that they aren’t: Many of the vendors on which financial institutions rely were found to have “incomplete and unreliable PEP lists” in the past and these commercial databases also produce thousands of false positives due to people with identical names. Given these problems, very few AML officers rely solely on those external databases; they are forced to supplement the private vendor lists with ad hoc internet searches on Google, Linkedin, and other sources, often relying on Google-translations of foreign media articles. This does not seem very reliable. Some civil society groups have sought to contribute to the identification of PEPs by creating online registries, drawing on publicly accessible data on the international level and the national level. But none of these attempts has been comprehensive enough for AML purposes, and civil society organizations probably would not have the resources to compile PEP lists that would be suitable for financial institutions to use for screening clients on a sustainable, ongoing basis.

It is time to change how we approach the task of identifying PEPs for AML and related purposes. A couple of years ago, Professor Stephenson asked on this blog whether there should be a public registry of PEPs, sponsored and maintained by national governments or by an inter-governmental body such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Such an idea is not entirely revolutionary. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) hints at something along these lines in Article 52(b)(2), which instructs each state party “in accordance with its domestic law … [and] where appropriate, [to] notify financial institutions within its jurisdiction … of the identity of particular natural or legal persons to whose accounts such institutions will be expected to apply enhanced scrutiny,” though the “where appropriate” and “in accordance with domestic law” qualifiers mean that there’s no concrete obligation here. Some countries, such as Australia, have undertaken to circulate lists of PEPs to financial institutions. And the European Union, in its Fifth AML Directive, required Member States to compile a list of government positions that are considered “politically exposed,” though the Directive does not require governments to name the actual persons holding those positions at any given time.

Yet these measures all fall well short of the possibility that Professor Stephenson raised in his post: official PEP lists compiled and maintained by governments. Professor Stephenson framed his post as merely posing the question whether this would be a good idea. I want to argue for what I believe is the correct answer to that question: Not only should governments maintain PEP registries, but the international community, through bodies such as the FATF and the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, ought to require governments to create and maintain such registries, using an internationally-standardized set of functional criteria to identify which public positions should be considered to be politically exposed.  Continue reading