The Panama Papers disclosures this weekend are giving the world a wider window into a world that is not new to the people who have been fighting against the schemes wealthy people and corporations use to shelter their money from taxes.
These papers were leaked from the files of Mossack Fonesca, a Panama-based law firm that is a leader in the creation of secretive shell companies that companies or individuals can then use to keep their wealth out of the sight of governments.
A good deal of this wealth, in addition to being the proceeds of tax evasion, ends up being used in a host of illicit activities. But politically, what's criminal about the Panama Papers is what people can do legally.
Mossack Fonesca is one of several firms that for as little as $1,000 will sell individuals what amounts to a shell corporation starter kit, including a post office box in a low-tax, low-regulation company. For additional money, you can accessorize the shell corporation with a Potemkin board and other accoutrements. Then, if you are, say, a Silicon Valley tech company or a pharmaceutical giant, you could do something like transfer your patents to the shell company, and as a result all the profits you make from those patents are no longer taxable in the United States. Or you could simply ask someone who wants to give you money to give the money to the shell instead of directly to you. The shell could then spend the money on your behalf so those transactions aren't traceable back to you.
According to the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition, you don't even need to seek out an exotic locale to create a semi-secret corporate entity. Here in the U.S., "almost every state collects less information from the individuals forming these entities than from people applying for a driver’s license or registering to vote," according to a FACT document calling for passage of legislation to address the problem, the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act.
The legislation (the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and the House version by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.) would simply require states to collect information about the beneficial owners of a corporation – in other words, the actual people who stand to gain from the corporation's existence. The people forming a corporation would have to provide the same level of identification many states are now requiring of people before they can cast a ballot, such as a state-issued identification card or a passport. That information would be shared with government agencies and the public.
The FACT Coalition had already scheduled for next week a lobbying push for the legislation, with supporters from 25 statutes planning to meet their members of Congress, before the Panama Papers news broke. Now the coalition is stepping up its call for organizations to endorse the transparency legislation by signing this endorsement letter, and individuals to sign this petition by SumofUs.org.
"We can curb a lot of the corruption associated by shell companies (those formed in the U.S.) simply by requiring people to disclose their ownership when they first create them. It's a simple as that," wrote Mark Hays, senior advisor to Global Witness, a muckraking organization that focuses on corporate and environmental abuses, in an email to OurFuture.org. "As a matter or compelling public interest, we sometimes ask people to register their cars, to fill out library cards, using limited personal information. It's a balancing act, but we think this is common sense, and a really easy step - a new line on a form, a commitment to transparency as a normal part of doing business."
Hays points out that the ability to legally incorporate a business is a privilege that should come with basic obligations. "You don't have to incorporate a company to run a business, but if you want privileges from the state or commonwealth (such as limited liability) you should assume certain obligations or responsibilities as well. Limited liability shouldn't mean unlimited anonymity."
The silver lining in the Panama Papers scandal is that the world's attention is being focused on a global problem in which the wealthy and powerful act beyond the reach of law, playing by a different set of rules from the rest of us. The United States does not have to go it alone in addressing this problem. But our elected officials, and the people running to be our next president, should lead. Supporting legislation that supports more transparency would be a start.