Bipartisan bills that proponents say would “help stop the corrupt and other criminals from hiding behind anonymously owned companies created in the U.S.,” were introduced on June 28 in the Senate and House of Representatives.
The True Incorporation Transparency for Law Enforcement (TITLE) Act, introduced by Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and the Corporate Transparency Act, introduced by Representatives Peter King (R-N.Y.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), would require companies formed in the US to disclose their ultimate owners (known as beneficial ownership) when they are set up, and keep this information up to date.
“This would make it much harder for terrorists, money launderers, and other criminals [from human traffickers to international terror networks] to hide their identities behind webs of shadowy companies to stash their ill-gotten gains in banks,” a joint statement says.
This will be Maloney’s fifth attempt at passing such a law. The last bill, in 2016, was on the table as revelations in the so-called Panama Papers revealed how secretive offshore companies enable a global web of corruption. Neither the House nor the Senate versions of the bill made it out of committee hearings, despite having bipartisan support.
“[They] failed because of opposition from trade organizations that at least in part support the participants in the dark economy that we’re trying to bring a little sunlight into,” says Whitehouse, co-sponsor of the latest Senate bill.
This has left America trailing its allies in Europe, whose five largest economies are taking unprecedented measures to share information on obscured corporate ownership, proponents say. “The last time the U.S. bills were introduced, Britain, Norway, and Denmark had already been working for a couple of years to make a completely public register of the beneficial owners of every company,” their statement says.
“We’re the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t require disclosure of beneficial ownership, and quite frankly I find that embarrassing,” Maloney adds. “Somebody asked, ‘How come there are no Americans in the Panama Papers?’ I said, ‘Because we don’t have to go to Panama—we can hide it right here in U.S.’ It’s outrageous.”
Maloney argues that terrorist organizations can get money into the United States by buying up properties through shell companies, and then sell them to finance attacks. “How irresponsible do you have to be to not know who owns your properties?” she asks. “We had a bomb go off in my district on 23rd street [in Manhattan] maybe four months ago, and you wonder where they got the money from… The longer we wait to fix the problem the more we put our country at risk.”
“We are an embarrassing laggard in an area where we should be leaders if we are to be a ‘city on a hill.’ You can’t be a ‘city on a hill’ when you’re in the gutter with the criminals and the kleptocrats,” Whitehouse added.
Whitehouse also points to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to highlight how shell companies “are a means to hide both the corruption and the election interference that are the dark arts of Putin’s strategy.” He cites reports like “The Kremlin Playbook” by U.S. think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which claims Moscow interfered in Central and Eastern European countries by taking over crucial sections of the economy through shell companies.
Proponents make the case that, this time around, the bills may be able to count on the backing of financial institutions, which have been hit with hefty fines in recent years for not doing enough research on their customers. The Clearing House Association, which represents the largest U.S .Banks, and the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), have both expressed support for legislation to end anonymous companies in the U.S.
A controversial, potential hurdle to the bills’ passage: the White House. A recent analysis by USA Today found that 70 percent of buyers of Trump properties in the last year were shell companies, the statement by proponents points out. Also, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin “failed to disclose $100 million worth of assets held in a Cayman Islands shell company.”
While transparency advocates are very much in favor of the effort, they say tightening laws around shell companies still leaves large gaps in America’s defenses against money laundering.
“The U.S. is getting on the train in the right direction but there’s more work still to do,” says Shruti Shah, vice president of the Coalition for Integrity, formerly the U.S. branch of Transparency International. “We need an entire anti-money laundering system that requires multiple checks and balances; you can’t just have one control because that’s too easy to circumvent.”
She points to two particular weaknesses: the lack of due diligence that law firms have to do on their clients, and that real-estate agents don’t have to find out who they’re ultimately selling to or whether those clients’ funds were legally gained.
Alexandra Wrage, president of anti-corruption organization TRACE, says the ideal for this bill would be to make a public registry of companies’ beneficial owners, as some European countries have done. The lawmakers behind the bill say they agree but “have do what’s politically feasible.”
Most major financial crimes and cases of grand corruption are facilitated through anonymous companies, with the U.S. being one of the easiest places in the world to set one up, warned Global Witness, an international NGO.
“From multi-million dollar healthcare fraud to terrorist financing, anonymously-owned companies act as getaway cars for all sorts of criminals,” said Stefanie Ostfeld, deputy head of Global Witness’ U.S. office.
“Time and again we see how secret companies registered in the US or in offshore jurisdictions are used by the world’s criminal and corrupt to move suspect money through the international financial system,” she added. “This makes it easy for unscrupulous people to steal state funds, launder money and cover up payments they don’t want the public to know about. It undermines democracy and poses a threat to US national interests. With this legislation, we can help put a stop to these practices.”