Scott Shane and Eric Lipton, Panama Papers Source Offers to Aid Inquiries if Exempt From Punishment (New York Times 5/6/16), here.
The anonymous source behind the huge leak of documents known as the Panama Papers has offered to aid law enforcement officials in prosecutions related to offshore money laundering and tax evasion, but only if assured of protection from punishment.
“Legitimate whistle-blowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution,” the source, who has still not revealed a name or nationality, said in a statement issued Thursday night.
The documents, which list the true owners of thousands of companies created to hide the people behind them, expose the holdings of current and former world leaders and other prominent figures. The source, who uses the pseudonym John Doe but whose gender is not known, said that the papers could spur thousands of prosecutions, “if only law enforcement could access and evaluate the actual documents.”
John Doe noted that journalists who have viewed the papers have said they will not turn over the full archive of 11.5 million documents. “I, however, would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement to the extent that I am able,” the source wrote.Tonya Somander, President Obama's Efforts on Financial Transparency and Anti-Corruption: What You Need to Know (White House Blog 5/6/16), here
The statement, which was issued Thursday night under the condition that it not be reported until Friday morning, gave some hints about John Doe’s political views and concerns. They include income inequality, the American campaign finance system and the “revolving door” of United States officials who take jobs at banks or other companies they once regulated.
What do today’s actions do to help address this kind of financial abuse?
Today, the Treasury Department took several steps to increase transparency and disclosure requirements.
First, the Treasury Department finalized its “customer due diligence” rule, which requires financial institutions – such as banks , mutual funds, and other financial institutions – to find out and verify who actually owns and profits from the companies that make use of their services, i.e, the “beneficial owner.” Under this rule, if an entity (like a shell company) opens an account at a financial institution, that institution will be required to identify and verify the real people actually behind that entity. And law enforcement can then seek out that information from those institutions.
By requiring disclosure of beneficial ownership information, we will increase financial transparency and give financial institutions and law enforcement the ability to identify the assets and accounts of criminals and national security threats.
Now, while the beneficial owners of shell companies often exploit weak rules in offshore tax havens, gaps also exist in U.S. tax rules that foreigners can currently exploit to set up and hide their assets or financial activity in an anonymous shell company in the United States.
So the second step Treasury took today is to propose a rule that would plug this gap by requiring certain foreign-owned companies to obtain a tax identification number from the IRS, thereby requiring these entities to report ownership and transaction information to the IRS.
Taken together, these steps go a long way in helping to combat money laundering and tax evasion, but additional tools are needed to promote transparency and strengthen law enforcement. And only Congress can help on that front.
What role does Congress have to play to combat illegal financial activity?
The truth is that bad actors will continue to seek new ways to exploit the financial system for illicit purposes – be it financing terrorism, laundering proceeds from illegal activity such as corruption, evading international sanctions, or evading taxes – and the Administration cannot address these actions through executive steps alone.
That is why President Obama is calling on Congress to take four critical actions to strengthen what the U.S. can do:
1. Pass legislation to require “beneficial ownership” transparency: On behalf of the Administration, the U.S. Department of the Treasury is sending a new legislative proposal to Congress that would require all companies formed in the U.S. report information about their beneficial owners to the Department of the Treasury. That step would make information about beneficial owners readily available to law enforcement.
2. Pass legislation to give law enforcement better anti-corruption tools: We are also seeking legislation to advance our ability to fight corruption both here in the United States and abroad. The new legislative proposals would enhance the ability of our law enforcement officials to obtain information from domestic and foreign banks so they can investigate and prosecute money laundering. This will also allow the Justice Department to prosecute money laundering linked to a broader set of crimes, including ones that involve corrupt public officials.
3. Approve eight tax treaties: Eight tax treaties have been awaiting Senate approval for several years. Without those treaties, U.S. officials don’t have a complete set of tools to fully investigate and crack down on tax evasion by Americans with offshore accounts, including secret Swiss bank accounts.
4. Strengthen existing law to improve reciprocal transparency: In 2010, President Obama signed legislation that established the global standard for financial reporting by requiring foreign financial institutions to automatically report to the IRS information about financial accounts held by U.S. persons. But right now, the U.S. doesn’t provide the same information to its partners under this law that they provide to the United States. Congress can strengthen this law by requiring U.S. financial institutions to provide that information to our partners.