Last December, pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, President Trump issued Executive Order 13818, which declared that “the prevalence and severity of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States … threaten the stability of international political and economic systems,” and authorized the Treasury Secretary to impose sanctions against (among other possible targets) a current or former government official “who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in: (1) corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery; or (2) the transfer or the facilitation of the transfer of the proceeds of corruption.” Pursuant to this Executive Order, the Treasury Department imposed powerful economic sanctions against 37 entities and 15 individuals, including Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, and Artem Chaika, the son of Russia’s Prosecutor General.
This was big news, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, Trump doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a “human rights guy,” let alone a Russia hawk. Given that the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (unlike its predecessor, the 2009 Magnitsky Act) enables but does not require the imposition of sanctions, it was far from inevitable that the Trump Administration would make use of it. Perhaps just as newsworthy was where the specific names on the list came from: nearly half of those names were provided to the Administration by civil society organizations (CSOs) or by Congress (and in the latter case, it was likely CSO efforts that brought individual names to the attention of Congressional staffers).
The Global Magnitsky Act and EO 13818, then, seem to create promising opportunities for anticorruption CSOs to impose consequences on kleptocrats and their cronies. Because the process is so new, it’s not yet clear how it will develop, yet it is nevertheless useful to draw lessons from the first round of Global Magnitsky sanctions for how CSOs can be maximally effective in using this new tool. The Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission) hosted a workshop in early March 2018 to discuss this issue. I was fortunate enough to attend this gathering, and in this post I’ve attempted to distill a handful of key lessons that the participants’ discussion identified. I’ve framed the lessons as a “how-to” guide addressed to members of a hypothetical anticorruption CSO: that would like to take advantage of this powerful tool.
Last Thursday, two United States cabinet departments – the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice – issued separate but thematically related announcements (see here and here) regarding new initiatives to combat corruption, money laundering, and related malfeasance:
Treasury announced the finalization of a new Customer Due Diligence (CDD) rule (discussed previously on this blog), which would require that financial institutions collect and verify the personal information of the beneficial owners of accounts held at those institutions. Treasury also announced a proposal for new regulations that would require certain foreign-owned entities (single-member limited liability companies (LLC)) to obtain a tax ID number and report comply with the associated reporting requirements—a move that would close a loophole that currently allows these entities to shield the foreign owners of non-U.S. assets.
Treasury also announced that it plans to send draft legislation to Congress (the text of which does not yet seem to be publicly available) that would require companies to know and report accurate beneficial ownership information at the time of a company’s creation, and to file this information with the Treasury Department.
Justice also submitted proposed legislation to Congress that would give the Department new investigative powers (including the use of administrative subpoenas, rather than slower and less flexible grand jury subpoenas, for money laundering investigations, enhanced authority to access foreign bank and business records, and the ability to restrain property based on a request from a foreign country for 90 rather than 30 days). The draft legislation would also creating a mechanism to use and protect classified information in civil asset recovery cases, and would expand the scope of the money laundering offense to include, as a sufficient predicate offense, any violation of foreign law that would be a violation of U.S. law if committed in the United States.
I have not yet had time to review the final CCD rule or the proposed LLC rule, and as I noted above, I don’t think the full text of the legislative proposals is yet available. So I’m not yet in a position to comment on the substance, but at least on the surface, all this seems encouraging. It’s possible to take the cynical view that most of this doesn’t mean very much or represent genuine progress. And I’ll admit part of me is inclined to embrace the cynical view. But on the whole, I do think that last week’s announcements are genuinely encouraging, and signal the possibility of building greater political momentum for real progress.
As many readers of this blog are likely aware, Transparency International–the leading worldwide anticorruption NGO–has made the corporate secrecy problem a centerpiece of its “Unmask the Corrupt” campaign. TI is focusing in particular on the problem of shell companies whose true (or “beneficial”) owners are unknown, and which can be used by corrupt officials and businesspeople to shelter and launder stolen public funds. The TI Secretariat, along with several of TI’s national chapters, have been pushing for action at both the national and international level, especially for reforms that would make transparent the beneficial owners of these companies. I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to call attention to two of TI’s recent efforts in this area, which might be of interest to GAB readers:
First, the TI Secretariat wants to use the G20 leaders’ summit this weekend in Brisbane, Australia as an opportunity to raise awareness of the issue and to put pressure on the G20 leaders to commit to take action on this issue. To this end, TI organized an open letter, signed by a number of prominent civil society activists and other public figures (including John Githongo, Desmond Tutu, and Richard Goldstone), calling on the G20 leaders to outlaw secret company ownership and mandate public registries of the true beneficial owners of all legal entities.
Second, as I noted last month, the US government is currently in the midst of a rulemaking process to strengthen due diligence and disclosure requirements on beneficial ownership. TI-USA submitted a set of supportive but critical comments on the rule, urging the US Treasury Department to expand the definition of “beneficial owner” to include individuals who control the entities through means other than a formal management position, to apply the new rules apply to existing accounts as well as new accounts, and to require financial institutions not only to verify the identity of the (alleged) beneficial owner, but to independently verify that the person listed as the beneficial owner is in fact the true beneficial owner.
TI’s efforts in this direction are most welcome, and I hope they have some impact on the G20 summit and the development of new rules in the US (and elsewhere). I’m happy to take this this opportunity to publicize TI’s efforts, and I hope some of our readers out there might be able to contribute to the push that TI and other organizations are making on this issue.
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the U.S. Treasury Department is seeking public comments on a proposed rule that is intended to make it harder to hade the proceeds of corruption (or other criminal activities, like drug trafficking) in the U.S. financial system. The full text of the proposed rule is here. That proposed rule is fairly lengthy and complicated (taking up close to 20 pages in the Federal Register, in 3-column small print), but the basic gist of the rule is that it would impose new “know-your-customer” obligations on U.S. financial institutions, and in particular would require banks to identify the “beneficial owner” — the actual person (human person, not corporate person) who benefits from an account owned by an artificial legal entity.
I’m not an expert in this area, but this strikes me as a very good idea. Some supporters, though, have argued that the rule does not go far enough. Global Witness, in a useful post summarizing and discussing the proposed rule, points out some of the deficiencies of the proposed rule, including the fact that although the rule requires financial institutions verify the identify the beneficial owner of an account — that is, to attach the account to a real live human being — the rule does not require banks to independently verify that the listed beneficial owner is in fact the real beneficial owner.
The Treasury Department, following standard procedures under U.S. Administrative law, is seeking pubic comments on the rule. Comments can be submitted in hardcopy, but can also be submitted online. Just go to the regulations.gov site, and in the “search” field type FINCEN-2014-0001. That should take you to the docket, where you can view the rule, read the comments that have already been submitted online (very few so far), and submit any comments of your own. (A direct link to the docket is here, but I included the above instructions because the direct links to dockets sometimes stop working.) The notice of the proposed rule also lists specific questions and issues that the FinCEN would like commenters to address. Among other things, FinCEN seeks comments on:
The proposed definitions of “beneficial owner” and “legal entity customer,” as well as the proposed exemptions (and possible additional exemptions);
Whether the rule should apply retroactively to existing accounts, or only to accounts established after the new rule goes into effect;
Whether the proposed processes for verification of beneficial owners, updating of beneficial ownership information, and ongoing monitoring of suspicious transactions are sufficiently clear and appropriate.