Anti-corruption activist Charmian Gooch launched a new global campaign on Tuesday night to unmask shell corporations and lobby for legislation requiring more transparency, using a newly awarded $1 million TED Prize.
The Global Witness co-founder won the prestigious award to expand on her organization’s work to unmask shell companies used by dictators, criminals and terrorists for money laundering and to hide assets around the world.
“My wish is for us to know who owns and controls companies, so that they can no longer be used anonymously against the public good,” Gooch said while accepting the award and unveiling her wish. “Together, let’s ignite world opinion, change the law, and together launch a new era of openness in business.”
“This isn’t just a dry policy issue,” Gooch added. “This is a human issue which affects us all. This is about being on the right side of history.”
Shell companies are widely used around the globe by people and entities that want to conceal financial transactions or the true ownership of corporations. Activists have argued that widespread use of shell corporations have made it easier for dictators and criminals to hide money, evade taxes, or illegally transfer assets.
The U.S. is among the top countries where it’s easy to incorporate a company without providing the owners’ names, according to the World Bank. In one study, the World Bank found that, of 213 corruption cases that happened globally between 1980 and 2010, 70 percent of them relied on shell corporations for sheltering or transferring money.
“In 10 minutes of online shopping, you can create yourself an online company. Not only is it really, really easy and cheap, it’s totally anonymous. And you can keep adding layers, companies owned by companies,” Gooch said.
Gooch and other activists want companies to be required to publicly disclose and regularly update the beneficial owners of companies, since they are the people who ultimately control the assets.
“Charmian is truly fearless, tackling the world’s most evil forces with her intelligence and her wits,” said Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, introducing the TED award, which coincides with one worth a million dollars from his Skoll Foundation.
This isn’t a new issue. In the U.S., a handful of lawmakers have been trying for years to change corporate reporting rules that would require more timely disclosure of beneficial owners.
In the U.S., the legislation has been focused more on giving law enforcement more tools to prevent money laundering by terrorism suspects.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and a handful of other senators have proposed legislation four times to address the issue, but it has languished amid resistance from business lobbyists. Similar legislation proposed in the House last year by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) received just four co-sponsors and was referred to the House Committee on Financial Services to die.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups have fought the legislation in the past, because legitimate companies also like to use shell companies for various reasons.
Some state governments have also previously opposed legislation, as Reuters noted a while ago, because local officials reap millions of dollars in incorporation fees.
As part of the TED wish, Gooch asked tech attendees to create a prototype of a public registry for collecting and publishing information about who owns a company. That could be used by countries that act to abolish anonymous company registries as a template for a new reporting system.
TED attendees and followers were also asked to follow developments on the campaign at the End Anonymous Companies Facebook page.
With reporting by Liz Gannes.
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