On November 1, The New York Times published on op-ed written by John Cassara, formerly a special agent for the Treasury Department tasked with following money moved illegally across borders to evade taxes or to launder profits from criminal activities. The place where the money often disappeared, he explains, was the state of Delaware, which allows individuals to set up corporations without disclosing who owns them.
“I trained foreign police forces to “follow the money” and track the flow of capital across borders.
During these training sessions, I’d often hear this: “My agency has a financial crimes investigation. The money trail leads to the American state of Delaware. We can’t get any information and don’t know what to do. We are going to have to close our investigation. Can you help?”
The question embarrassed me. There was nothing I could do.
In the years I was assigned to Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or Fincen, I observed many formal requests for assistance having to do with companies associated with Delaware, Nevada or Wyoming. These states have a tawdry image: they have become nearly synonymous with underground financing, tax evasion and other bad deeds facilitated by anonymous shell companies — or by companies lacking information on their “beneficial owners,” the person or entity that actually controls the company, not the (often meaningless) name under which the company is registered.”
Americans might comfort themselves by thinking that all countries have this problem, but Cassara points out that it is particularly bad in the U.S. He explains that a “study by researchers at Brigham Young University, the University of Texas and Griffith University in Australia concluded that America was the second easiest country, after Kenya, in which to incorporate a shell company.”
This creates enormous problems for U.S. tax enforcement efforts. It’s more difficult to persuade foreign governments to help the IRS track down money hidden offshore when several U.S. states seem to be helping people from all over their world evade taxes owed to their governments. Another problem is that much of the money hidden in shell companies incorporated in Delaware or other U.S. states may be U.S. income that should be subject to U.S. taxes, and/or income generated by illegal activities in the U.S.
The good news is that legislation has been proposed to require states to collect information on the beneficial owners (i.e., whoever ultimately owns and controls a company) when a corporation or LLC is formed and make that information available when ordered by a court pursuant to a criminal investigation. The Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act has bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate (including Senators Levin, Feinstein, Grassley and Harkin) and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. This is an improvement over the last attempt to pass this legislation, in 2009, when it was referred to the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC), where it was memorably sabotaged by Delaware’s Senator Tom Carper. Last month, a similar bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Maloney.
Of course, enactment of this legislation would not solve all of the problems with our tax code. For example, it would not address the major problem of big, publicly traded corporations like Apple avoiding taxes by using offshore tax havens in ways that are (probably mostly) legal under the current rules. But, the incorporation transparency legislation would be huge progress in clamping down on tax evasion (the illegal hiding of income from the IRS) by individuals, including those engaged in other criminal activities like drug trafficking, smuggling, terrorist funding and money laundering.
In fact, as we have argued before, it is disappointing that the Obama administration has not put any real energy into advocating for this type of comprehensive legislation. This is not too much to ask for. The Conservative Prime Minister of the UK recently announced that his government would go even farther — not just recording names of owners of all UK corporations and making them available to enforcement authorities, but even automatically making those names public.