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

Lacey Act Corruption-Based Risks Should Prompt Wood Importers to Branch Out

The Lacey Act, a century-old U.S. statute, provides a unified set of penalties for possession of illegally procured animals or plants from the U.S. and, after amendments five years ago, those procured in violation of foreign laws as well. The Act was envisioned as a conservation statute, not an anticorruption statute; big cats (Siberian tigers) rather than big cronies were named as the motivation behind a recent prosecution under the new amendments. Yet in finalizing that case—involving retailer Lumber Liquidators’ purchase and import of illegally sourced wood—the Department of Justice (DOJ) seemed to suggest that companies could be held to a higher standard of diligence where they source natural goods from countries with high levels of corruption. In announcing Lumber Liquidators’ agreement to plead guilty to various Lacey Act charges for importing timber procured in violation of foreign logging laws, the DOJ emphasized the company’s failure to address red flags that the imports were illegally acquired. Those flags included that the imported wood came from a region known “to carry a high risk of [timber] being illegally sourced due to corruption and illegal harvesting.” Furthermore, the case suggests heightened scrutiny when natural resource products travel through intermediary agents whose countries also suffer from corruption or lack of robust enforcement of laws against illegal logging and the like. (In the Lumber Liquidators case, Russia was the source of the stock in question, and China was the intermediary seller’s base.)

The fate of Lumber Liquidators should put companies sourcing wood from regions with entrenched corruption on alert. The DOJ’s statement, if it is carried forward, foreshadows positive results. The Lacey’s Act’s potential in the fight against corruption is significant, straightforward, and good for everyone. A Bloomberg analysis notes that enforcement of foreign laws benefits U.S. producers as well as combatting foreign corruption. The Sierra Club emphasizes the role that corruption plays in global illegal logging and the Lacey Act’s role in “leading the fight” against it. The Natural Resources Defense Council blog also advocated the role of the Act in helping “countries establish rule of law and crackdown on corruption.” Such commentary highlights a second takeaway from the DOJ order: to reach the corruption-combatting potential of the statute, wood sourcing companies need to allow the Lacey Act threat to improve compliance in their source nations, rather than leaving for greener pastures. Indeed, using the Lacey Act to incentivize companies to “engage their supply chain” to avoid forestry corruption is both achievable and worthwhile:

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Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Land Reform: Can an “Incorruptible” Technology Cure Corruption?

Since its inception in 2009, Bitcoin—a digital currency secured by encryption—has attracted attention, interest, and controversy. Less attention (at least until recently) has been paid to other applications of the underlying technology, “blockchain,” that makes Bitcoin possible. And while the anonymity associated with Bitcoin is, if anything, often associated with illicit transactions in the “dark web,” other applications of the blockchain technology might be used to enhance transparency and promote integrity. Some of the early proposals along these lines are indeed encouraging; at the same time, blockchain is not a technological panacea, and recognizing its limitations can identify areas that may require particular attention in anticorruption efforts.

First, a bit more (non-technical) information on the technology. Blockchain functions as an online, public digital ledger. In the Bitcoin context, the technology makes it possible to track and record Bitcoin transactions in the ledger and distribute that information in real-time to all computers connected to the Bitcoin network. Because of this distribution, the ledger is updated independent of any central authority. Moreover, because each chronological “block” in the chain contains both unique information about each transaction and also a unique identifier of the previous block, which is then distributed to all computers on the network, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to tamper with or alter the transaction records.

While the blockchain technology made Bitcoin possible, its public and tamper-proof data storage function could assist with efforts to promote transparency and fight corruption. For example, in the context of land reform, Austin-based start-up Factom has reached an agreement with the Honduran government to transfer its land registry onto a blockchain-enforced digital database. The objective is to create a reliable land title-keeping system in a country where, as USAID notes, “only 14% of Hondurans legally occupy properties and, of the properties held legally, only 30% are registered.” In addition to a lack of registration, government officials currently can alter titles to those properties that are registered, allocating properties to themselves (or to others in exchange for bribes). Moreover, citizens often lack access to records, which may provide conflicting information, and are thus unable to defend themselves against infringement of property, use, or mineral rights. By recording land title in an immutable public registry (relying, according to reports, on the Bitcoin blockchain’s data-embedding function), the partnership between Factom and the Honduran government seeks to secure for the public a clear, trustworthy record of ownership in order to improve protection of land rights, and to incentivize registration.

This seems like a worthwhile initiative, and one that transparency and anticorruption advocates should watch closely. At the same time, it’s worth noting several reasons we should be careful not to lose sight of important corruption challenges amidst the excitement surrounding the digitized ledger: Continue reading

Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging

Illegal logging is one of the gravest threats to the environment, and to the people (and countries) that depend on forest resources. Global Witness’s 2013 Annual Review describes industrial logging as a force that “drives land grabs, promotes corruption, contributes to climate change, fuels conflict and human rights abuses, and threatens over one billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods and well-being.” The problem has been documented with surprising depth. Prominent examples include investigative work done by Global Witness (including two short films, Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, which shows undercover interviews with members of then-Chief Minister of Sarawak Taib Mahmud’s family and legal team advising a “foreign investor” how to use bribery and fraud to illegally clear land for a palm oil plantation, and Rubber Barons, which documents land grabbing by a Vietnamese rubber firm), as well as other groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently recounted how army officials protect Chinese loggers’ passage into Myanmar, despite new laws entirely banning foreign exports of logs. In the popular media, NPR’s All Things Considered and The New Yorker looked at illegal logging in Russia and allegations of its yield being sold by major U.S. retailers, while The Economist called out HSBC’s involvement with dirty loggers. The issue is not confined to developing economies—a World Bank paper enumerated the breadth and variety of possible illegal acts surrounding the logging industry and its products worldwide, noting that practically all involve corruption. The problem, then, appears well-known and reported but remains widespread, possibly getting worse.

Illegal logging remains persistent largely because of pervasive corruption. A number of proposals have already laid out systems to address forestry corruption. Possibilities include land tenure arrangements that give management to local or indigenous groups, certification schemes for wood products, and a variety of monitoring and transparency mechanisms. A 2009 World Bank report provided a “comprehensive framework” involving five principal parts, each with a number of sub-components. Scholars, NGOs, and international organizations have noted the need for technology to increase monitoring capabilities. Technological developments may offer the key to progress in the fight against illegal logging—allowing circumvention of (or greater pressure on) the corrupt government officials who ignore, or sometimes participate in or profit from, the unlawful destruction of forests.

A previous post discussed one such technology, isotope provenancing, used to identify the origin of wood. This technology, however, has its limits. (For example, it does not help when forests are razed not to harvest the timber, but to clear the land for other uses, such as palm oil and rubber plantations.) Other new technologies can help show how corruption in the logging industry happens, working forward from the site of the problem instead of tracing back from imported products. One of the most promising tools—satellite imaging—is in fact already available, and could be very effective if deployed more appropriately and aggressively.

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