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Groups Push for Laws to Fight Anonymous Shell Companies

Anti-corruption groups are pushing a proposal to require that shell companies list their true owners to law enforcement. (cohdra/morguefile)
Anti-corruption groups are pushing a proposal to require that shell companies list their true owners to law enforcement. (cohdra/morguefile)
February 1, 2017

PHOENIX – Anti-corruption advocates are pushing Congress to pass legislation to make it harder for criminals to launder money through shell companies in the United States.

Right now, human traffickers, terrorists, drug and weapons dealers and corrupt officials in poor countries can all use U.S. shell companies as a front, because states don't require these companies to list their true owners, only a contact person, such as an attorney.

And Andrew Hanauer, campaigns director at Jubilee USA, an anti-corruption watchdog group, says individual states are afraid to change their incorporation laws on their own.

"The most simple explanation is that each state has its own incorporation system," he said. "And any state that went off on its own to require any additional kind of paperwork would immediately lose business to every other state. So, there's really a need for a 50-state solution to this problem."

The issue came to a head with last year's leak of the so-called "Panama papers," which revealed millions of attorney-client connections. That's also when a bipartisan bill to require corporations to disclose their true owners to law enforcement was introduced in Congress, but it never got a hearing. Backers of the bill are expecting another try in the next few months, now that the election is over.

These companies have been used to defraud Medicaid and the military, and weapons traffickers have used their illicit proceeds to fund civil wars around the world. Hanauer says they're also known to own a lot of real estate in the U.S., including a dilapidated apartment complex in Arizona. He says President Trump, a former real estate developer, hasn't taken a position on this issue.

"Part of his message in the campaign was around stopping corruption, and this is certainly a great way to do that," he added. "He has not spoken about the issue itself in detail."

Hanauer blames corruption as a root cause of poverty around the world, and his group is calling on Arizona Senators Flake and McCain to support the forthcoming legislation.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - AZ