In so doing, Manafort joined others who have used U.S.-based shell companies, like Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, who presided over assets allegedly running into the hundreds of millions of dollars — and including Michael Jackson’s crystal-studded glove — while the vast majority of his country’s populace remain among the poorest in Africa. Another member of the club: Viktor Bout, the so-called Russian Merchant of Death, whose arms transports reportedly buried an untold number of bodies in Angola and Liberia. Then there’s former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who, at one point, earned a spot on Transparency International’s list of top-10 wealthiest corrupt officials internationally. All three have been known to use U.S. shell companies to store funds or purchase real estate.
A few years ago, people in the market for financial opacity would have set up shop in more traditional secrecy havens, from Switzerland to Belize. Places that had little oversight and promised to pose fewer questions, and that prioritized security over self-identification. Places that the United States has now challenged — or surpassed — when it comes to financial secrecy.
Led by state legislatures in places like Delaware, Wyoming, Nevada and South Dakota, the United States has joined in an international race to the bottom when it comes to financial secrecy, either in the form of shell companies or trusts as opaque as they are expansive. And that has drawn the attention of corrupt leaders from around the world, who are always in search of new places to squirrel away their wealth from prying eyes (and their own impoverished citizens).
Indeed, the United States’ recent anti-kleptocracy drives — campaigns that have captured or frozen billions in stolen monies — have been undercut, and in certain respects undone, by America’s transformation into a global financial secrecy center. The United State provides the perfect combination of security and anonymity. It boasts an independent court system, local authorities willing to turn a blind eye to one’s business — and an executive branch whose head has profited handsomely from the cloak of secrecy surrounding the real estate sector.
U.S. shell company providers are notably unwilling to collect the most basic information about those setting up American shell companies. According to a 2014 study, U.S. company service providers turned out to be worse than any other country surveyed when it came to transparency compliance. Small wonder that Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm that helped clients set up shell companies — many of which were later exposed in the Panama Papers — specifically hawked Wyoming and Nevada to its clients.
Elsewhere, traditional offshore jurisdictions like Jersey and the Cayman Islands are besting the United States in terms of transparency efforts, implementing their own forms of registries that would aid authorities in tracing and tracking those trying to set up shell companies. Yet the United States has floundered in the face of lobbying from Delaware legislators, real estate agents, and all the others who have an interest in preserving the anonymity from which they profit.
It should be noted that these shell companies and trusts are all perfectly legal, and often entirely above board. But the longer the United States goes without any kind of registry to identify those pitching their shell companies in Dover, in Birmingham, in St. Louis, the more Washington will see international democratization efforts falter.
The strongmen, oligarchs, and criminals who are abusing America’s financial secrecy tools are, after all, the same ones who are bent on rolling back the democratic gains of the past few decades, all for the sake of personal gain. They’re the ones behind the domestic unrest and political volatility that fuel extremist networks, that result in horrid human rights abuses, and that destabilize the networks and alliances on which American leadership rests. It is surely no coincidence that Manafort has made a lucrative career out of advising corrupt autocrats around the world.
So while entities like the Justice and Treasury departments have helped open a new chapter in tracking down ill-gotten loot in places like Uzbekistan and Malaysia, other Americans have been doing what they can to abet Washington’s enemies and aid democracy’s foes. In this respect, as in so many others, the United States would be well-advised to start cleaning up its own act if it wants to speak as a credible advocate of freedom and the rule of law elsewhere.