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On International Anti-Corruption Day, the US Should Not Enable Corruption

Heather Lowe

This article was originally published by The Hill.

Equatorial Guinea is a tiny nation of just 700,000 people, but it is rich in oil and other natural resources. President Teodoro Obiang, Teodorin’s father, has ruled the country since 1979. During that time, he has amassed a massive fortune, including over $700 million that Fortune Magazine estimated Obiang and his government stashed in one U.S. bank as recently as 2006.

They are using the state’s natural resource wealth to enrich the regime and the Obiang family.  For example, the U.S. Government has alleged that in his position as Minister of Agriculture, Teodorin imposed a “revolutionary tax” on timber and insisted that the tax be paid in either cash or by check, made out to a company owned by Teodorin.

A country where 75 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day and 60 percent lack access to safe drinking water cannot bear to support this level of corruption. People are dying as a result of the poverty created by the Obiang regime every day. Worse yet, the United States has played a key role in enabling this horrible regime.

The United States should not be helping the worst autocrats in the world launder the proceeds of their corruption in our own banks. U.S. banks are not required to provide the IRS with information about bank accounts owned by foreigners, unlike those owned by U.S. citizens.

A recently proposed regulation to fix this problem has met stiff resistance from some members of Congress, including Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who are more concerned with keeping the proceeds of corruption and other crimes in our banks than cracking down on the use of U.S. banks for this kind of international financial crime.

The proposed regulation would allow the IRS to monitor the deposits of non-residents and could in the future be used to better prosecute money laundering and corruption.

Furthermore, corrupt regimes, as well as drug cartels, arms dealers and tax evaders use U.S. shell corporations to hide their stolen wealth abroad.
Teodorin Obiang himself allegedly used U.S. shell companies to do business in the United States without counterparts knowing with whom they were dealing. Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bipartisan bill, the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, this summer to eliminate shell corporations, and a companion bill was recently introduced in the House by Representatives Maloney (D-N.Y.), Frank (D-Mass.) and Lynch (D-Mass.).

We can help ensure that no corrupt public official, or any other criminal, can legally hide behind a U.S. corporate vehicle ever again by passing these bills.  U.S. anonymous corporate vehicles are especially valuable to money launderers because they garner fewer questions than similarly anonymous corporations based in exotic places like the Cayman Islands.

By not acting, the U.S. would be implicitly enabling not just Teodorin and Teodoro Obiang, but countless other corrupt public officials, organizations, and individuals throughout the world. We have a moral imperative to act and right this wrong. On International Anti-Corruption Day, we should declare that the United States will be part of the solution to the rampant corruption that plagues so much of the world, not part of the problem.

Lowe is Legal Counsel and Director of Government Affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization working to curtail the illicit flow of money.