CRACKING DOWN ON CORPORATE CORRUPTION AND SHELL COMPANIES

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

There’s a piece of very good news in the battle against corporate corruption and the use of shell companies to engage in criminal and unsavory activity. You may recall the defense spending bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, that Congress passed last December and then, on New Year’s Day, overrode President Trump’s veto of it. (Trump vetoed it because it renames military bases currently named for Confederate generals and because it doesn’t repeal the liability protection for social media platforms when third parties post offensive or libelous material.) Given that it was one of a very few pieces of legislation actual passed by Congress, a number of unrelated items (called riders) were attached to it as the only way to get them passed.

One of the riders attached to the recent defense spending bill was the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which will significantly inhibit the use of shell companies for money laundering and other illegal or unsavory activities. A shell company is a legal entity established without any actual business operation or significant assets that is typically used to obscure ownership and hide financial transactions from law enforcement and/or the public. The CTA is the most significant financial industry reform addressing money laundering since the Patriot Act, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. [1]

The CTA will require a company to disclose the names of its owners, i.e., anyone with a 25% or greater ownership share or who exercises substantial control over the company. This information will be in a confidential registry maintained by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) at the U.S. Treasury Department. FinCEN captures and analyzes financial transactions in order to combat money laundering, terrorism financing, drug trafficking, and other illegal activity. Its data is available only to law enforcement and to financial institutions (that use it to scrutinize the entities involved in financial transactions). The CTA also increases penalties for money laundering, streamlines cooperation among banks and foreign law enforcement, and significantly expands the rewards for whistleblowers, allowing them to receive up to 30% of money seized by law enforcement. [2]

The CTA responded to a decade of disclosures of the abusive uses of shell companies led by the reporting of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ has repeatedly documented how criminals and the rich have used shell companies to hide their wealth and move their money. It investigated and reported on the use of shell companies based on the leaked Panama Papers in 2016, the 2017 Paradise Papers leak, and its Secrecy for Sale project, which began in 2012 and continues to today. ICIJ reporting has disclosed that Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada are favorite locations to set up shell companies, in addition to offshore tax havens. [3] Its analysis in 2020 of leaked FinCEN reports of suspicious financial transactions identified shell companies transferring money through U.S. banks for criminals in Russia, China, Iran, and Syria.

ICIJ’s reporting has made it clear that the U.S. has been the country of choice for criminals and wealthy individuals to set up anonymous shell companies that, in addition to tax evasion, have facilitated bribery and other illegal payoff schemes, as well as money laundering for terrorism, political corruption, and a variety of criminal enterprises including drug, arms, and human trafficking.

The U.S. political system is a swamp of money and increasingly the true sources of political contributions and campaign spending are hidden, a trend exacerbated by the use of shell companies. While it is illegal for foreign individuals or entities to contribute to U.S. campaigns, a shell company makes the true source of campaign spending anonymous. Therefore, it is highly likely that illegal foreign money has been going into U.S. political campaigns via shell companies.

The Trump campaign created a shell company, American Made Media Consultants, that spent more than $759 million of Trump’s campaign funds (over 50% of the campaign’s spending). This obscured the flow of money including who was paid when and how much. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least eight individuals who were paid by the Trump campaign were also paid in connection with the January 6, 2021, rally that led to the storming of the Capitol. [4] Previously, Trump had personally used shell companies, including to pay off Stormy Daniels, the pornography actress who says Trump had an affair with her. [5]

The Corporate Transparency Act is an important step forward in increasing the transparency of financial transactions. It will, among other things, reduce corporate and political corruption, inhibit criminal and terrorism finances, and reduce tax evasion. This is a good step but there’s lots more to do, such as strengthening prosecution of white-collar crime. More on that in a future post.

[1]      Talking Points, 1/11/20, “New law cracks down on shell companies to combat corruption,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/december-27-2020)

[3]      Mustufa, A., 12/11/20, “Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (https://www.icij.org/investigations/paradise-papers/advocates-celebrate-major-us-anti-money-laundering-victory/)

[4]      Massoglia, A., 1/22/21, “Shell companies and ‘dark money’ may hide details of Trump ties to DC protests,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/01/trump-tied-to-dc-protests-dark-money-and-shell-companies/)

[5]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, see above

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