North Korean cash flowing through U.S. banks, the complex schemes of Russian money launderers, adult film actors seeing their savings disappear in an offshore banking scandal — these are just a few of the revelations made by North American partners on the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists FinCEN Files investigation published last week.
The investigation examined how major U.S. banks move tainted money around the globe and landed with immediate impact, with prominent U.S. senators and major advocacy groups now calling for banking reforms. The investigation was based on more than 2,100 secret bank reports BuzzFeed News obtained from the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. The office, known in shorthand as FinCEN, is an intelligence unit that plays a crucial role in fighting money laundering within banks using U.S. dollars. ICIJ and 108 media partners spent 16 months investigating the documents.
Here are some FinCEN Files highlights from our partners in North America.
Suspect funds from North Korea and disappearing dollars in Belize
NBC News reported that North Korea “carried out an elaborate money laundering scheme for years using a string of shell companies and help from Chinese companies” that moved money through major U.S. banks. These North Korea-linked transfers amounted to more than $100 million dollars over several years, amounting to what one former U.S. Treasury official told NBC News “looks like a concerted attack by the North Koreans to access the U.S. financial system.”
FinCEN Files also led NBC reporters on a complex trail to track the savings of numerous customers of a U.S.-based startup called Payoneer, which had apparently entered into a troubled partnership with a bank serving foreigners in Belize, a well-known offshore haven. Payoneer customers, some of whom were in the adult film industry, were shocked to learn that their money was trapped in the small Central American bank, NBC reported, while they thought they had entrusted it with Payoneer. When the Belize bank collapsed, much of the money then disappeared, resulting in a years-long effort to recover the lost funds, NBC reported.
Chasing a ‘ghost’ company after a deadly fishing accident
The CBC News/Radio-Canada focused on a family’s vexing quest for answers after Oleg Niculescu, a father of two, died as the fishing trawler he worked on sank in the summer of 2019. The company that employed him on the boat is registered in the Canadian city of Calgary, Alberta, CBC News reports, and the company’s website says it processes and sells fish from Mauritania. Yet it “has no footprint in Calgary, and Alberta corporate records leave no trace of the true beneficiaries of the company — only nominee directors in the Seychelles, a known tax haven.”
The story of the Niculescu family is one of dead ends and scarce corporate accountability. It reveals the cost of the Canadian government’s low standards of corporate transparency, which advocates say lags behind a global push to improve what citizens and law enforcement can learn about the workings of businesses.
“If you’re a white-collar criminal and wanting to hide money, Canada is the place to go,” Ontario member of Parliament Charlie Angus, who has studied the issue for years, told CBC News.
Miami’s central role in global laundering
The Miami Herald and McClatchy took a close look at the key role that the city of Miami continues to play in major money laundering scandals. Herald reporters dug deep into the case of Martin Lustgarten, a businessman formerly locked up in a U.S. federal detention center for money laundering charges and now lives in a $1 million condo overlooking Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Lustgarten’s case was dismissed, the report said, because “federal prosecutors mishandled it and couldn’t even take him to trial.”
In 2015, Lustgarten began helping authorities dig into a sprawling money laundering investigation of a former Swiss banker, a handful of connected Venezuelan businessmen and high-ranking government officials “suspected of paying hefty bribes while enriching themselves off the regimes of President Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez,” the Herald reported, citing law enforcement sources. The Herald’s reporting looks more broadly at how rich Venezuelan expatriates cashed in as the country spiraled into poverty.
Detective work in Singapore and Russian “mirror trades”
The FinCEN Files quest to shed light on the world’s darkest money extended to a separate operation based in Singapore, to a company called ASK Trading. The company moved more than $600 million in transactions while being “a mirage” of a firm, according to BuzzFeed News. A BuzzFeed reporter traveled to the walk-up apartment of the company’s apparent founder in Singapore, only to be turned away. “Shell companies like Ask Trading keep a low profile, but they play an outsize role in the dark economy, the trillions of dollars of dirty money that course through Western banks in full view of government regulators,” the BuzzFeed report said.
Among those that ASK did business with were companies that appeared to be involved in “an epic Russian money laundering scheme,” known as the Russian mirror trades. BuzzFeed News also examined massive mirror trading transactions conducted through Deutsche Bank. The story reported that knowledge of the bank’s susceptibility to financial crime appears to fall higher up the bank’s chain of command than previously understood. Top executives at Deutsche Bank, BuzzFeed News reported, “had direct knowledge for years of serious failings that left the bank vulnerable to money launderers.”
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Analyzing the Case for Election Fraud
Despite the overwhelming pressure, if you can’t help but feel that tingling sense of knowing that is telling you there’s more to the story, you are not alone. In fact, according to a new Rassmussen poll, nearly 50% of voters believe the election had issues. A quick look at the data blatantly shows that indeed, shenanigans abound (how can a state have 1+ million more mail-in ballots tallied than they sent out?). But was it fraud or masterful gamesmanship?
The world, or at least the global media, has spoken: Biden won the 2020 Election.
UPDATED FREQUENTLY WITH NEW INFORMATION – Last update 12/21/2020
A quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of reports of why the Trump team’s assertions of vote fraud and election fraud and vote flipping are flat out fallacies. YouTube has announced a ban on any videos questioning the election results. And now on Monday all 538 electors have voted, formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win. And while there is still Congress to get through, and the inauguration, based on social media and television news and practically every other point of information bombarding society today, Biden is now the President-elect.
But why now, after Government officials confirmed during Senate testimony that a foreign adversary, Russia, attempted to interfere in the 2016 United States Presidential Election via “a multi-faceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” According to U.S. intelligence official reports, Russia targeted voter registration databases in at least 21 states and sought to infiltrate the networks of voting equipment vendors, political parties, and at least one local election board. And if their purpose was not so much to “hack” the election but create chaos and sow seeds of uncertainty around our election process, I would say they have won. But what if this cycle, it was Russia who somehow manipulated extra ballots and placed the blame on the Democrats? What if…?
Russian Experience With Voter Fraud
The 2004 presidential election in Ukraine saw suspiciously high turnout rates that “even Stalinist North Korea would envy,” the State Department declared!
Back then, the U.S. government decried as corrupt an earlier election where special voting boxes were created to help citizens vote from home, election observers were expelled from vote counts, pre-election polls were wildly off, and voter turnout in certain communities exceeded 90%.
But the story of that Ukrainian election as recounted by then-Ambassador John Tefft to a Senate committee in December 2004 raises a tantalizing question for voters distrustful of the Nov. 3 elections results in our own 2020 Presidential Election: If tactics and outcomes in the Ukrainian election back then were enough to cry foul, why can’t Americans debate similar concerns here?
Tefft’s testimony raises an important question: Should America, the greatest democracy in the world, share any of the fraudulent attributes of a Ukrainian election? The answer for most Americans is hopefully resounding “No.”
And despite continued and repeated headlines that there was no fraud, according to the Harvard Kenney School report on Election Integrity this cycle, expert assessments indicate that compared with 2016, the performance of this contest displays several warning flags, namely worsening confidence in the integrity of American elections and falling public trust, challenges to legitimacy arising from threats of campaign violence,legal disputes about the process and results, and public protests about the outcome, as well as growing attempts at voter suppression.
Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory
Landmark laws to thwart the use of U.S. shell companies by terrorists, human traffickers, arms dealers and kleptocrats are set to be enacted after more than a decade of lobbying and politicking with rare bipartisan support.
The sweeping anti-money laundering reforms hitched a lift in the annual defense spending bill that passed the Senate 84-13 today, and was approved by the House 355-78 earlier this week.
The Corporate Transparency Act requires U.S. companies to report their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN — largely ending anonymous shell companies in the country.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has repeatedly documented how the rich, the powerful and the criminal have used anonymous entities to hide their wealth, including in the 2016 Panama Papers and the 2020 FinCEN Files investigations.
Welcoming the clampdown, Transparency International’s U.S. director Gary Kalman said, “It is rare for such a simple measure to promise such an enormous impact.” Kalman added that the long sought anti-corruption reforms would “move us into a new era of enforcement.”
The new legislation will allow law enforcement agencies and financial institutions to request company ownership information from FinCEN. The data will not be publicly available.
FinCEN Files was based on a trove of suspicious activity reports filed by banks and other financial institutions to FinCEN. BuzzFeed News obtained the secret documents and shared them with ICIJ and more than 100 other media organizations.
The global investigation exposed how a broken U.S.-led enforcement system allows banks to continue to profit from moving dirty money tied to drug cartels, trafficking rings fueling the opioid crisis, fraud, organized crime, sanctions evasion, ruinous real estate schemes, and terrorism.
“Too many times, people … think money laundering is a federal, victimless crime. It is certainly not that,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate banking committee, told reporters on a call organized by the advocacy group the FACT Coalition. “Sinaloa cartel actors, fentanyl traffickers have been destroying thousands of families in my state and across the country.”
Earlier this year, Brown credited FinCEN Files for revealing the lack of forceful enforcement against banks that repeatedly violate the law. Advocates said a number of proposed bipartisan bills, including one co-sponsored by Brown, were instrumental in generating the support needed to attach the reforms to the spending bill.
“This is a really big deal to get this passed,” Brown said Thursday. “No more hiding these abuses in anonymous shell companies. It also cracks down on bank officials who look the other way or actively aid money laundering.”
A long time coming
ICIJ has shown how offshore shell companies have been used for dubious financial dealings and tax avoidance through a series of global exposés, including the Secrecy for Sale investigation, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. U.S. lawmakers have repeatedly cited the investigations in proposing reforms over the years.
“When the Panama Papers leaked, there was a huge flurry of interest because there’s all of a sudden this recognition that it was kleptocrats, money launderers, corrupt officials the world over, as well as criminals, were all using a very common structure to help evade law enforcement, which was setting up an anonymous company,” Lakshmi Kumar, policy director of Global Financial Integrity, said.
The phenomenon is not limited to the exotic offshore tax havens of popular imagination. U.S. jurisdictions like Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada are among the world’s top locations to set up anonymous companies. Legislation to require corporations to disclose their true owners was first proposed in the U.S. over a decade ago, co-sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama, and similar bills have been introduced over the years.
Advocates credit years of lobbying a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had previously been a leading opponent, in getting the reforms across the finish line this year.
“What’s changed now is a growing understanding among various constituencies about the harms that anonymous companies pose, and the threats that they pose for our financial system, to our businesses,” Clark Gascoigne, senior policy advisor at FACT Coalition, said.
But it’s not a done deal quite yet.
Although the anti-money laundering proposals have had the support of the administration, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act over provisions unrelated to financial secrecy.
I hope House Republicans will vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO. Must include a termination of Section 230 (for National Security purposes), preserve our National Monuments, & allow for 5G & troop reductions in foreign lands!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2020
Both the House and the Senate votes surpassed the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a veto, although some Republicans have indicated that they would not support what would be the first veto override of the Trump presidency.
But the NDAA has been reliably passed by Congress every year for six decades and advocates are confident that the time has come for the landmark financial transparency measure that’s included in the omnibus bill.
“It’s one of the few areas where the outgoing Trump administration agrees with the incoming Biden administration,” Gascoigne said. “It may be the first bill in the history of Congress that has the support of both Dow Chemical and Friends of the Earth. Heck, the state of Delaware even supports reform.”
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Muslim Brotherhood suspect and Saudi billionaire linked to same offshore companies, Austrian report says
One of 30 people in Austria suspected to be members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Muslim Brotherhood was the director of offshore companies linked to a Saudi billionaire, according to an investigation by Austrian media outlets profil and Ö1.
The man, described as a 37-year-old Viennese entrepreneur with Iraqi roots, is suspected of “participating in a terrorist, subversive and criminal organization” and was a target of the police investigation into the group and the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas, the report said
The inquiry, which led 930 officers to raid 60 apartments, shops and clubs in four federal states last month, had no connection to the Vienna terror attack that killed four and injured 23 on November 2, according to officials cited by Deutsche Welle.
The Austrian report ー based on police records ー does not name the suspect, nor the Saudi businessman, for fear of hampering the ongoing probe into possible terror financing.
The pair’s link to shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore financial centers was revealed for the first time after the reporters’ examination of Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017.
The 13.4 million files include incorporation documents, emails, contracts and other records from two offshore service providers and the company registries of some of the world’s most secretive countries.
The Austrian man was listed as the director of several companies in the BVI, Malta and the Bahamas, the media report said. His address on the documents referred to an apartment in Vienna that belongs to the wife of one of the main suspects in the police investigation, according to a review of Austria’s land registry records.
By cross-checking the confidential files with property records, the reporters also found that the shell companies owned properties in the U.K., including two office buildings, a commercial property and a retail park, worth about $73 million in total.
The documents show that a Liechtenstein trust owned by the Saudi businessman was behind those companies. The man is also known as a philanthropist who has financed Islamic studies at various European universities in recent years, including in Austria, the report added.
The complex offshore structure identified by the journalists is legal, the report said, but “can be used to disguise the flow of money and the identity of the true economic beneficiaries.”
Profil and Ö1, two ICIJ media partners in Austria, asked the Viennese suspect about the purpose of the offshore company network and his link with the Saudi billionaire. A lawyer representing him declined to comment.
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