Near the end of “The Laundromat,” Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded retelling of the exposure of offshore banking documents in 2016 that toppled prime ministers from Iceland to Pakistan, Gary Oldman, playing one of the exposed schemers, faces the camera to post a simple question:
“So if we’re the losers, who are the winners?” he asks. And answers his own question: “The United States. The biggest tax haven in the world. Delaware. Nevada. Wyoming. How much due diligence is happening there?”
The answer, according to those tracing America’s transformation into what may be the world’s greatest offshore haven, is simple: almost none. When it comes to things like anonymous shell companies, and the means to clean and store hundreds of millions of dollars, the U.S. remains a kleptocrat’s best friend.
But that may change—and soon.
On Tuesday, for the first time in American history, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would effectively eliminate anonymous shell companies. The Corporate Transparency Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation, pledges to create a registry of beneficial owners, or those behind the anonymous shell companies spreading like fungus across the country.
The requirements are straightforward. Those behind anonymous American limited liability companies will need to submit ownership data to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The registry wouldn’t be public, at least for the foreseeable future. But law enforcement agencies—the ones trying to track and trace the corrupt networks worming their way through U.S. financial systems—will have access, as will banks.
All of which means that at least one chamber of Congress has finally recognized the remarkable damage America’s anonymous shell company industry has done to global finance, and global stability, and American interests writ large.
The bill’s passage was “historic,” said Global Witness in a statement. “The legislation marks an unprecedented step forward in global efforts to combat corruption and crime facilitated by companies with hidden owners and the U.S. financial system as well.”
The bill’s passage is long overdue—but couldn’t seem more timely.
Just take a look through some of the recent revelations, and convictions, surrounding those utilizing anonymous shell companies to their own ends. Viktor Bout, a Russian national who also happens to be the greatest arms trafficker of the post-Cold War era? He used anonymous American shell companies. Corrupt Venezuelan politicians looting their country dry? They also used American shell companies. Crooked Iranian officials who secretly purchased a Manhattan skyscraper, making millions of dollars in rent while simultaneously skirting sanctions? They used American shell companies, too.
In America, for decades, it’s been easier to set up an anonymous shell company than it is to get a library card. And it’s not hard to see why. Company formation remains overseen by states, rather than Washington. Which means that there are 50 different levels of requirements when you set up a company—and every incentive for a “race to the bottom” as states try to decrease any requirements for identification to attract more of the fees that come with setting up a company.
Delaware, of course, led the way. A century ago, the state began “letting corporate managers effectively write their own corporate governance rules,” as Nicholas Shaxson put it in his book Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. With the world’s dirty money pouring in, it didn’t take long for company formation to become a bulwark of the state’s economy. Today, the state remains at the forefront of international tax havenry, and its corporate laws have served as direct inspiration for offshore bastions like Nevis and the British Virgin Islands. It shouldn’t have been surprising, after all, that the post-Soviet bagmen recently arrested after helping Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump’s conspiracies in Ukraine funneled suspect money through Delaware companies—or that Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort both appeared to have relied exclusively on Delaware shell companies.
But it’s not just Delaware. Nevada began marketing itself as the “Delaware of the West” a quarter-century ago, blossoming into one of the world’s leaders in anonymous shell company formation. And Wyoming not only invented the LLC just over 40 years ago, but offers anonymous shell companies for pennies on the dollar—offers that people like Pavlo Lazarenko, one of the most corrupt Ukrainian officials in the post-Soviet period, couldn’t turn down, funneling tens of millions of dollars stolen from Ukrainians through the Cowboy State.
While the House acted first, the ILLICIT CASH Act in the Senate has built a deep bench of bipartisan support, with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) among its cosponsors. The White House even came out earlier this week in support of ending anonymous shell companies in the U.S.
The fact that we’ve gotten this far—and under a president like Donald Trump, no less—is a testament to legislators’ new concern with the U.S.’s longstanding role as a global offshore haven. Ending anonymous shell companies won’t be the end of that role; just look at South Dakota’s anonymous perpetual trust industry if you want a peek at the next front in combating modern kleptocracy. But real reform, at least when it comes to anonymous shell companies, is in sight.