Tag Archives: offshore shell company registration

OPL 245: an Affair to Remember and Sanction

Nigeria has long ignited interest from oil firms, but it can be a dangerously combustible environment when it comes to the risk of corruption. Two firms caught up in scandals are Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, Italy’s state-backed energy group.

The case centres on the purchase of a big offshore oil field known as OPL 245, and touches the top ranks of both firms. In the dock will be, among others, Eni’s current CEO, Claudio Descalzi, and Shell’s former exploration chief, Malcolm Brinded. Also on trial are the firms themselves, charged with failing to prevent bribery. The individuals face jail if convicted; the companies face fines. All deny wrongdoing.

In 2011 Shell and Eni jointly paid the Nigerian government $1.3bn for OPL 245. Prosecutors allege they knew the government would pass $1.1bn of the funds to a shell company called Malabu, controlled by Dan Etete, a former oil minister. They claim the companies had reason to believe Mr Etete would use much of what he received to pay off officials, including Nigeria’s president at the time, Goodluck Jonathan. They also suspect that more than $50m may have gone to Shell and Eni executives as kickbacks. Mr Jonathan has denied involvement. Mr Etete faces charges in Nigeria; his whereabouts are unknown…

International investors are particularly vexed about the alleged involvement of Shell, a blue-chip oil major. In 2017, after e-mails were leaked, it admitted that executives had known that much of the purchase price would go to Mr Etete, a convicted money-launderer. In the e-mails, they speculated that funds might flow on to Mr Etete’s political friends. One investor says that Shell, by emphasising for so long who the contract was with, not where the money was going, honoured the letter but not the spirit of good governance—“and that’s not good enough anymore”.

Excerpts from The OPL 245 Affair: Drillers in the Dock, Economist, Mar. 3, 2018

It’s the Democracy, Stupid

Cambridge Analytica, the UK political consultancy at the centre of Facebook’s election manipulation scandal, ran the campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections, according to video secretly recorded and broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 News.

The news channel said it mounted a “sting operation” in which it said had secretly recorded top Cambridge Analytica executives saying they could use bribes, former spies and Ukrainian sex workers to entrap politicians around the world.  The New York Times and the British Observer newspaper reported on Saturday that Cambridge Analytica had acquired private data harvested from more than 50 million Facebook users to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign. Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told Channel 4’s undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns to run the East African nation…

Turnbull of Cambridge Analytica said: “We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s political party, known as the National Alliance until 2016, and subsequently as the Jubilee Party…

At a prior meeting, Turnbull of Cambridge Analytica told the reporters: “Our job is to really drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else to understand what are these really deep-seated fears, concerns. “It is no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it is all about emotion.”  Cambridge Analytica officials were recorded saying they have used a web of shell companies to disguise their activities in elections in Mexico, Malaysia and Brazil, among various countries where they have worked to sway election outcomes.

Excerpts from Cambridge Analytica stage-managed Kenyan president’s campaigns – UK TV, Reuters, Mar. 19, 2018

How and Where to Get a Secret Account in the USA

South Dakota, quarter---2006, image from wikipedia

After years of lambasting other countries for helping rich Americans hide their money offshore, the U.S. is emerging as a leading tax and secrecy haven for rich foreigners. By resisting new global disclosure standards, the U.S. is creating a hot new market, becoming the go-to place to stash foreign wealth. Everyone from London lawyers to Swiss trust companies is getting in on the act, helping the world’s rich move accounts from places like the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands to Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

Rothschild, the centuries-old European financial institution, has opened a trust company in Reno, Nevada a few blocks from the Harrah’s and Eldorado casinos. It is now moving the fortunes of wealthy foreign clients out of offshore havens such as Bermuda, subject to the new international disclosure requirements, and into Rothschild-run trusts in Nevada, which are exempt.  Others are also jumping in: Geneva-based Cisa Trust Co. SA, which advises wealthy Latin Americans, is applying to open in Pierre, S.D., to “serve the needs of our foreign clients,” said John J. Ryan Jr., Cisa’s president.  Trident Trust Co., one of the world’s biggest providers of offshore trusts, moved dozens of accounts out of Switzerland, Grand Cayman, and other locales and into Sioux Falls, S.D., in December, ahead of a Jan. 1 disclosure deadline….

No one expects offshore havens to disappear anytime soon. Swiss banks still hold about $1.9 trillion in assets not reported by account holders in their home countries, … Still, the U.S. is one of the few places left where advisers are actively promoting accounts that will remain secret from overseas authorities….The offices of Rothschild Trust North America LLC aren’t easy to find. They’re on the 12th floor of Porsche’s former North American headquarters building, a few blocks from the casinos. (The U.S. attorney’s office is on the sixth floor.) Yet the lobby directory does not list Rothschild. Instead, visitors must go to the 10th floor, the offices of McDonald Carano Wilson LLP, a politically connected law firm. Several former high-ranking Nevada state officials work there, as well as the owner of some of Reno’s biggest casinos and numerous registered lobbyists. One of the firm’s tax lobbyists is Robert Armstrong, viewed as the state’s top trusts and estates attorney, and a manager of Rothschild Trust North America.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to do it,” said Cripps. “This added layer of privacy is kicking them over the hurdle” to move their assets into the U.S. For wealthy overseas clients, “privacy is huge, especially in countries where there is corruption.”….

Rothschild’s Penney wrote that the U.S. “is effectively the biggest tax haven in the world.” The U.S., he added in language later excised from his prepared remarks, lacks “the resources to enforce foreign tax laws and has little appetite to do so.”….The U.S. failure to sign onto the OECD information-sharing standard is “proving to be a strong driver of growth for our business,” …

In a section originally titled “U.S. Trusts to Preserve Privacy,” he included the hypothetical example of an Internet investor named “Wang, a Hong Kong resident,” originally from the People’s Republic of China, concerned that information about his wealth could be shared with Chinese authorities.  Putting his assets into a Nevada LLC, in turn owned by a Nevada trust, would generate no U.S. tax returns, Penney wrote. Any forms the IRS would receive would result in “no meaningful information to exchange under” agreements between Hong Kong and the U.S., according to Penney’s PowerPoint presentation reviewed by Bloomberg.
Penney offered a disclaimer: At least one government, the U.K., intends to make it a criminal offense for any U.K. firm to facilitate tax evasion.

Excerpt from Jesse Drucker, The World’s Favorite New Tax Haven Is the United States, Bloombert, Jan. 27, 2016

A Ready-Made Vehicle for Dirty Money: Trade

Money-laundering. image from wikipedia

A few years ago American customs investigators uncovered a scheme in which a Colombian cartel used proceeds from drug sales to buy stuffed animals in Los Angeles. By exporting them to Colombia, it was able to bring its ill-gotten gains home, convert them to pesos and get them into the banking system.This is an example of “trade-based money laundering”, the misuse of commerce to get money across borders. Sometimes the aim is to evade taxes, duties or capital controls; often it is to get dirty money into the banking system. International efforts to stamp out money laundering have targeted banks and money-transmitters, and the smuggling of bulk cash.

But as the front door closes, the back door has been left open. Trade is “the next frontier in international money-laundering enforcement,” says John Cassara, who used to work for America’s Treasury department. Adepts include traffickers, terrorists and the tax-evading rich. Some “transfer pricing”—multinationals’ shuffling of revenues to cut their tax bills—probably counts, too. Firms insist that tax arbitrage is legal, and that the fault, if any, lies with disjointed international tax rules. Campaigners counter that many ruses would be banned if governments were less afraid of scaring off mobile capital. Trade is “a ready-made vehicle” for dirty money, says Balesh Kumar of the Enforcement Directorate, an Indian agency that fights economic crime. A 2012 report he helped write for the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, a regional crime-fighting body, is packed with examples of criminals combining the mispricing of goods with the misuse of trade-finance techniques. Using trade data, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), an NGO, estimates that $950 billion flowed illicitly out of poor countries in 2011, excluding trade in services and fraudulent transfer pricing. Four-fifths was trade-based laundering linked to arms smuggling, drug trafficking, terrorism or public corruption.

The basic technique is misinvoicing. To slip money into a country, undervalue imports or overvalue exports; do the reverse to get it out. A front company for a Mexican cartel might sell $1m-worth of oranges to an American importer while creating paperwork for $3m-worth, giving it cover to send a dirty $2m back home. One group of launderers was reportedly caught exporting plastic buckets that cost $970 each from the Czech Republic to America. To lessen the risk of discovery the deal may be sent via a shell company in a tax haven with strict secrecy rules. This may mean using a specialist “re-invoicing” firm to “buy” the oranges at an inflated price with an invoice to match and charge the importer the true price. The point is to get paperwork to justify an inflated transfer to the seller. Re-invoicers are used by multinationals to shift profits around, which gives them a veneer of respectability, says Brian LeBlanc of GFI—but they also “feed a giant black market in the offshore manipulation of paperwork”…

American authorities have ratcheted up penalties for banks that assist money-launderers, knowingly or not. In 2012 they reached a $1.9 billion settlement with HSBC after concluding that Latin American drug gangs had taken advantage of lax controls at its Mexican subsidiary. And last year they imposed a $102m forfeiture order on a Lebanese bank implicated in a complex scheme involving the export of used cars to West Africa with the proceeds funnelled to Hizbullah, an Islamist group. Alternative remittance systems and currency exchanges, such as the trust-based hawala networks in Asia and the Middle East, and Latin America’s Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE), offer another route to launder money through trade. ..A recently leaked Turkish prosecutor’s report describes an alleged conspiracy involving Turkish front companies and banks, an Iranian bank and money-exchangers in Dubai. By marking up invoices for food and medicine allowed into Iran—to as much as $240 for a pound of sugar—the scheme gave Iranian banks access to hard currency from Iran’s oil sales that was locked in escrow accounts overseas, to be transferred only for approved transactions…

In the meantime, launderers who curb their greed and invoice goods worth $10 for $9, or $11, will probably continue to get away with it. A dodgy deal is almost impossible to spot if the pricing is only slightly out and you see just one end, says one American investigator. “You can study the slips all day long, and all you see is stuff being imported and exported.”

Excerpts from Trade and money laundering: Uncontained, Economist, May 3, 2014, at 54

Offshore Havens: who is the next largest mass incorporator

Gambia_Export_Treemap. Image from wikipedia

After Guernsey, the Gambia? The smallest country in mainland Africa, a sliver on the west coast with a population of 1.8m, is trying to turn itself into an offshore financial centre. Central to the strategy is a state-of-the-art online corporate registry, offering quick and cheap incorporation of the types of secretive companies and trusts that drive financial investigators to distraction.

It is a counter-intuitive move at a time when offshore hubs are under fire from big economies that accuse them of aiding tax evasion or worse. But the idea of becoming a tax haven “will always loom large” for small states with few other options for economic development, says Jason Sharman of Griffith University in Australia. The Gambia’s economy is fairly open but still heavily dependent on tourism and peanuts.

With Britain cranking up pressure on its dependencies in the Caribbean and the English Channel, some of their customers will seek new homes offshore. And the overall market is proving resilient: after dipping in 2007-08, demand for offshore vehicles is back near pre-crisis levels in many jurisdictions, according to Appleby, a law firm.

The Gambia is not the only African country to take an interest. An attempt led by Barclays to develop Ghana into an offshore banking hub foundered in 2011 when the government, spooked by a warning from the OECD, declined to pass the required regulations. Tiny Anjouan, an island in the Indian Ocean, dabbled briefly with shell banks. Kenya is working with TheCityUK, which helps London’s financial district forge alliances, to set up an “International Financial Centre” (offshore centres’ preferred label for their activities) in Nairobi. TheCityUK is also in talks with Dubai, Istanbul and Moscow. Liberia is a successful shipping flag of convenience, although its registry is run from Virginia.

The Gambian registry already has “several hundred” companies, says Charlotte Pawar, a manager. But it will need many thousands to be considered a success, a tall order in a bitterly competitive market. Although it is easy to copy other places’ laws and product offerings (the Gambia’s resemble those of Mauritius), gaining traction is a struggle without the right network of tax treaties and the backing of the big corporate-service providers that buy offshore firms in bulk from favoured jurisdictions, for resale to law firms and individuals.

These sponsors are hard to impress. Only four of the many jurisdictions that have tried to enter the market since the late 1980s have proved really successful: Mauritius, the Seychelles, Belize and Samoa. The largest mass incorporator, Hong Kong-based Offshore Incorporations Limited, apparently has no plans to start selling Gambian vehicles. It could be a while before financial shells displace those around the country’s peanuts as a source of economic value

Offshore finance: Trawling for business, Economist, Aug. 24, at 65

Geological Scandal: Guinea and the UK Offshore Guernsey

Iron_Ore_Pellets

As he lay on his death bed in 2008, the former president of Guinea Lansana Conté agreed to hand over a licence worth billions of pounds to mine a share of Simandou, one of the world’s richest undeveloped mineral deposits.  The rights to extract half of the iron ore at Simandou, situated in a mountainous region of Guinea’s south-east, were unceremoniously stripped from Rio Tinto, and awarded to BSG Resources, a mining company based in the offshore haven of Guernsey, a British Crown dependency, whose owner (through a family trust) is Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz.  Having pledged to invest just $165m to develop a mine at Simandou to secure the rights, BSGR sold a 51 per cent stake in it to Brazilian company Vale for $2.5bn, according to Forbes.BSGR had pulled off the deal of the century, in one observer’s words.

In January this year, the FBI began to investigate the deal. Wire-tapping and a sting led to allegations that Mamadie Touré, Mr Conté’s wife, had received payments into US-held bank accounts, from Frederic Cilins, an agent for BSGR in Guinea.FBI agents also allegedly found that the Frenchman, Mr Cilins, had put pressure on Touré to destroy evidence showing that the rights to the Simandou mine had been won after millions of dollars were paid in bribes to Guinea government officials. Touré is now co-operating with the investigation in the hope of obtaining immunity for her own potential criminal conduct, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in New York in April.

In May, after Mr Cilins was charged with obstructing the federal grand jury investigation, BSGR released a statement acknowledging that it had once had a business relationship with the Frenchman, but adding: “Allegations that there was anything improper about the manner in which BSGR obtained its mining rights in Guinea are entirely baseless and motivated by a campaign to seize the assets of BSGR.”

Alpha Condé, the current President of Guinea, who came to power in 2010 after half a century in opposition, now wants the Simandou licence back in Guinea. He hopes the US criminal case will help his effort to retrieve it.“I have to wait for the findings of investigations by both the US judicial system and the Guinea system, before I can act or have an informed opinion,” President Condé told The Independent. “The evidence suggests there is a strong case. The US [is] saying that the evidence of corruption is strong.”  President Condé, who is attending the G8 summit as a guest of David Cameron, argues that the British authorities have a role to play in raising the pressure on Mr Steinmetz to return the licence. Transactions went through the UK as well as US banking systems, and he is understood to be pushing for the Serious Fraud Office to start an investigation. Mr Condé – who is being advised by Tony Blair and George Soros on how to curb corruption, build the country’s economy, and enact a “national transformation” – believes that the Simandou scandal has its roots in Western countries, and they must play a key role in holding guilty parties to account.  “Cooperation from the US has already brought a lot of evidence forward,” said Mr Condé. “But England is central because a lot of the transactions will be initiated there. So getting the UK government to provide us with information will accelerate the current investigation.”  Mr Condé says greater exchange of information about offshore assets and companies between Western and African countries will boost the fight against Guinean corruption.  “We are trying to address a problem that has its source in Western countries,” Mr Condé says. “We need to deal with places where the problem arises. Most of the countries involved in the corruption in Guinea and more widely in Africa are of Western origin so the West has to be part of the solution. It is not that we are relying on Western countries to solve our problem, it is that we want Western countries to be part of the solution.”  Offshore companies need to be better monitored and controlled, he says. “We don’t have the technology to identify the problems but this is the very way that corruption is perpetrated….

In 2010, Mr Condé, who is 75, was declared winner of Guinea’s first democratic election since the country gained independence from France in 1958, taking over from a military junta which had seized power in 2008 after Mr Conté’s death. Having endured jail time and exile during his years in opposition, supporters of his Rally of Guinean People party saw the win as a triumph, but in less than a year he faced a coup from which he narrowly escaped with his life.

Critics have claimed Mr Condé has attempted to rig subsequent elections, including a legislative election which had been scheduled for 30 June, but was postponed. Elements of the military deeply opposed to Mr Condé are said to be fomenting unrest in the capital of Conakry – fuelled by deep ethnic divisions. More than 50 people have been killed during protests in the past three months.  “The President wants these elections to be credible, so he has a problem if the opposition behave in this way,” says Scott Horton, a legal adviser to the Government of Guinea.

Fundamentalist Islamic groups have also been infiltrating Guinea from neighbouring Mali, where French forces intervened to combat such groups in January. Organised gangs, arms traders and drug dealers have fed on the country’s instability…Meanwhile, Mr Condé continues to drive the project to begin iron ore production at the part of the Simandou mine Rio Tinto retained. Despite scepticism from many analysts, he insists the $20bn project will begin in 2015.

The corruption deal of the century: How Guinea lost billions of pounds in Simandou mining licensing, The Independent, June 18, 2013

Tax Havens Under Attack

Tortola BVI

[In] the Cayman Islands,  corruption would have been high on the list of election issues in a society where “everybody expects that you are going into politics to make your money”, as a former auditor-general recently put it. But there is plenty more to worry Caymanians and the inhabitants of Britain’s other remaining scraps of empire in the Caribbean: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Tourism and international finance have brought prosperity but the “twin pillars” are showing cracks. Fiscal fumbling has compounded the problem and has strained relations with Britain, which has long provided an economic backstop. The region’s two big tax havens, Cayman and the BVI, are under attack as never before.

The world economic slowdown hit these small, open economies hard…. In some cases Britain has pushed for income taxes to supplement the fees and indirect taxes that the territories rely on. But these do not go down well with footloose offshore types. Under pressure from the Foreign Office, Cayman’s government last year proposed a 10% levy for foreigners, who make up half the 38,000 workforce. This was scrapped when businesses squealed. Wary of scaring away business, the BVI has not raised the $350 fee for incorporation since 2004.

Avoiding fee rises is seen as important at a time when tax havens are under bombardment, especially from Europe. The five territories, Bermuda and others have been arm-twisted into backing a multilateral scheme for the automatic exchange of tax information. A longer-term threat is the growing international call for public registration of the “beneficial” (ie real) owners of companies and trusts. Standards must be applied evenly, says Orlando Smith, premier of the BVI, “otherwise, businesses will simply go to other jurisdictions.”

Offshore optimists note that China and Russia, whose citizens are big users of Caribbean havens, have not signed up to the information-sharing pact. But remaining attractive to clients while complying with ever more stringent international rules is “an increasingly difficult needle to thread”, says Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama. No wonder the territories are trying to diversify away from finance, which in the BVI’s case accounts for 60% of government revenues. Anguilla is looking at fishing, Cayman toying with medical tourism. But hip replacements will not be as lucrative as hedge funds.

Britain is gently encouraging these efforts, while recognising that, as an official puts it, “There isn’t a long list of options.” It is trying to improve governance, too. After it threatened to veto a Cayman port project which had been awarded to a Chinese company without an open tender, bidding was restarted. Britain retains the power to block laws, suspend constitutions and dismiss governments. The Turks and Caicos constitution has been suspended twice, most recently in 2009 after an inquiry found “a high probability of systemic corruption”. This led to three years of direct rule by the British-appointed governor.

Putting your man in charge is one thing, putting money on the table quite another. To avoid it, Britain will have to play its hand carefully. It has to be seen to join the likes of France and Germany in taking a firm stand against offshore financial shenanigans, especially now that the prime minister, David Cameron, has made tax and transparency themes of this year’s G8 agenda. On May 20th he told Britain’s dependencies to “get [their] houses in order”. But if the havens lose their cash cow, they might have to go cap-in-hand to London. “Taxpayers Bail Out Tax Havens” is the last headline Mr Cameron wants to see.

The Caribbean: Treasure islands in trouble, Economist, May25, 2013, at 35