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On June 18, the leaders of the G-8 countries meeting in Northern Ireland released a declaration that included cracking down on the use of shell corporations for tax evasion and principles related to this goal, while the White House released a national action plan to implement these principles.

Shell Corporations Facilitate Tax Evasion, Money Laundering and Terrorism

Certain countries and certain U.S. states (Delaware most of all) allow individuals to form shell companies that carry out no real business but only serve to hide money and the owners of money from our government or a foreign government.

This is a problem for tax enforcement and other types of law enforcement, because the motivation for forming a shell company is often to evade income taxes owed to the U.S. government or a foreign government or to launder money generated by criminal activity or even to funnel money to terrorists. 

If you think that sounds far-fetched, think again. Viktor Bout, an indicted Russian arms dealer who was the inspiration for the book Merchants of Death (and the Nicholas Cage movie), used Florida, Texas and Delaware companies to carry out his activities, including moving millions in dirty money. In 2008 he was indicted for conspiracy to kill United States nationals, the acquisition and use of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to terrorists. As Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) explained in a 2009 hearing:

In July 2009, Romania filed a formal request with the United States for the names of [Bout’s] company’s owners and other information.  But it is unlikely that the United States can supply the names since, as this Committee has heard before, our 50 states are forming nearly 2 million companies each year and, in virtually all cases, doing so without obtaining the names of the people who will control or benefit from those companies. The end result is that a U.S. company may be associated with an alleged arms trafficker and supporter of terrorism, but we are stymied in finding out, in part because our States allow corporations with hidden owners.

Of course, it’s much more difficult to convince other governments to cooperate with our efforts to stop tax evasion, money laundering and terrorist funding when we allow their citizens to establish shell companies in the U.S. that are used for these very purposes.David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, which is currently the president of the G-8

In 2009, Senators Carl Levin (MI-D), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a bill that would 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.

Unfortunately, this legislation, the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, was stymied by Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, who introduced an alternative bill that would defeat the entire purpose of the reform. (Among other problems, Carper’s bill would allow the beneficial owner on record to be a shell company, rather than requiring it to be an actual human being.)

The White House action plan released during this week’s G-8 summit proposes to “advocate for comprehensive legislation” which “could” include several possible provisions, one of which would “define beneficial owner as a natural person…” In English, that means that states would have to record the actual human being who ultimately owns the company being formed. 

The bill previously promoted by Senator Levin and his allies in 2009 would accomplish this, and hopefully they will soon reintroduce their proposal with White House backing to implement the action plan. But, the organization Global Financial Integrity points out that the action plan is “essentially the same action plan the White House has had for two years under the Open Government Partnership, and the administration has yet to really ‘advocate for comprehensive legislation’” like Senator Levin’s proposal.

Some organizations addressing exploitation and impoverishment of developing countries, which suffer disproportionately from illegal outflows of capital into offshore tax havens, praised the move by the G-8 and the member countries that have released action plans.

Global Witness noted that part of the G-8’s success today can be attributed to the government of the United Kingdom, which has historically turned a blind eye to tax evasion in its territories but used its current presidency of the G-8 to push for reform. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he would prefer to go even farther than the reforms being discussed today and make the owners of all incorporated entities known to the public, rather than just to law enforcement officials, an idea supported by Global Financial Integrity.

Addressing Tax Avoidance by Companies Like Apple

The declaration issued from the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland also addressed other tax issues. While mysterious shell corporations are the tool of individuals seeking to illegally hide their income from governments, well-known, publicly traded corporations are involved in offshore tax practices that are probably not illegal, but ought to be. (Think of Apple’s recently uncovered tax avoidance practices using Ireland as a tax haven.)

The G-8’s declaration addresses this type of corporate tax avoidance, for example by stating, “Countries should change rules that let companies shift their profits across borders to avoid taxes, and multinationals should report to tax authorities what tax they pay where.”

Unimpressed, Global Financial Integrity says in its statement, “While we’re happy that the G8 acknowledges aggressive tax avoidance and profit shifting is a problem, they failed to agree to curtail it in any meaningful way. This is one area where coordination of changes to legal systems is essential to combat the problem, and public reporting by companies of revenues, profits, losses, taxes paid and number of employees in each country in which they operate is necessary in order to see whether those measures are having the desired effect.”

Ultimately, the White House must promote concrete legislative proposals rather than just vague principles. As we saw with the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, even a bill cracking down on money laundering and terrorist funding (the sort of bill the public would likely support) can be defeated by vested interests without advocacy from the President.