$100 bills stacked for a photograph in New York. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)
Rebecca Brocato is director of strategy and government affairs for National Security Action, a progressive foreign policy organization. Jake Sullivan is co-chair of National Security Action. He was national security adviser to vice president Joe Biden and director of policy planning at the State Department.
650 Fifth Avenue is a 36-story skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. It is home to a Nike flagship store and previously housed the corporate offices of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. It was also secretly owned by the Iranian government for almost 20 years. By running its ownership stake in the building through an anonymous front company, the Iranian regime took advantage of the fact that firms in the United States are not legally required to disclose who ultimately profits from and controls them.
The story of 650 Fifth Avenue is not anomalous. The United States has become one of the world’s leading destinations for hiding and legitimizing stolen wealth. Researchers have found that it is easier to set up secret corporate structures here than in the exotic locales we traditionally think of as havens for dirty money such as the Cayman Islands and the Seychelles.
In particular, the United States is one of a very few developed democracies that allows foreigners to anonymously set up limited liability companies (LLCs), with names as ridiculous as “75 Blah Blah Blah,” that bad actors can hide behind with impunity. The problem is especially acute in states with high rates of incorporation such as Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming. This creates obstacles for law enforcement, thwarts global efforts to combat corruption and corrodes the democratic norms at the core of our national strength.
Thanks to this loophole, foreign officials arrested for corruption or organized crime can own multimillion-dollar properties in Manhattan and the former president of Taiwan can buy millions of dollars worth of U.S. property with the proceeds of bribes.
The good news is that the fix is straightforward. Experts agree that enacting a simple provision requiring companies incorporated in the United States to disclose their true, or “beneficial,” owner would go a long way toward solving the problem, especially if accompanied by other anti-money-laundering measures. It would serve as a dam that stems the flow of dirty funds into the United States.
This summer, the House Financial Services Committee passed beneficial ownership legislation out of committee with strong support on both sides of the aisle and from the Treasury Department. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators has made public its plans for comprehensive anti-money-laundering legislation that includes a similar provision.
As Congress returns to session for the fall, members should invest the necessary time and legislative muscle to ensure that this fix becomes law by the end of this calendar year.
Skeptics of this effort, including groups such as FreedomWorks and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, are hoping that inertia — a powerful force on Capitol Hill — will kick in and the measure will stall out.
Their opposition is not rooted in any genuine practical or policy objections but rather in a generalized distaste for any new rules of any kind. Indeed, it’s hard to find a good reason to oppose the provision, which only asks companies to provide the government basic biographic information, less than one needs to open a bank account. Draft language in the Senate in particular has taken pains to mitigate burdens on legitimate firms.
Indeed, small businesses stand to gain from the reforms, since they will get the chance to flourish on a playing field that is level for the first time. It is no fun to compete against anonymous shell companies flush with dirty money.
Meanwhile, the costs of further delay are real. Illicit foreign money flows into the United States pose an ongoing national security threat. The Treasury Department estimates that more than $300 billion is laundered through the United States annually. Once ill-gotten wealth finds its way into the United States, we have no way to track how it moves inside our borders or who benefits, from drug cartels to adversarial foreign regimes.
Similarly, we have no idea who might be secretly financing political ads and special interest groups. According to the chair of the Federal Election Commission, “Foreign dark money represents a significant vulnerability for American democracy. We do not know the extent to which our political campaigns receive foreign dark money, but we do know that political money can be weaponized by well-funded hostile powers.”
In other words, flaws in our system are fueling the rise of the very criminals and authoritarians who are seeking to discredit or dismantle it.
Closing the beneficial ownership loophole will not just reduce our nation’s vulnerability to foreign corruption — it will also create a firmer foundation for the United States to lead anti-corruption efforts globally. It is difficult to mobilize partners when our own anti-money-laundering laws are not up to international standards.
Foreign corruption is a threat to our democracy, our security and our values, not to mention the populations who suffer repression financed through U.S. banks and property. There is a swift and sure way to expose and prevent corrupt networks — and no time to waste.