Your friendly local banker may be a money launderer

Wednesday, 19 March 2014 13:28 GMT

A worker looks at his phone at the Canary Wharf business and financial district in London February 26, 2014, REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

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Global Witness’s Gooch will use prize money to target shell companies, facilitated by an international banking system that helps launder stolen public money.

It’s easy to think of corruption as something carried out by a bunch of greedy despots over there in oil-rich countries, helped by their shady friends in a criminal underworld.  

But Charmain Gooch, a co-founder of Global Witness, points out that it doesn’t just happen over there.  In her two decades investigating exploitation, environmental and human rights abuses in natural resource-rich countries, from logging to blood diamonds and oil, she has found a common link in all these cases of corruption: the money launderers.  And they might just be your local banker telling you perfectly legal ways to hide your assets.

“Corruption is made possible by the actions of global facilitators,” Gooch said at TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh last year.  

“The reality is that the engine of corruption is driven by our international banking system, the problem of anonymous shell companies, and the secrecy we afford to big oil, gas and mining operations.” she said.

Gooch on Tuesday accepted the TED Prize 2014, given to an extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change.  At the awards ceremony in Vancouver, she announced that she will invest the $1 million prize money in promoting the global campaign against this system of corporate secrecy.

Anonymous companies are the primary tool used by corrupt officials the world over to steal gigantic sums of money from countries and hide from public view those who are enriching themselves.

The World Bank, in a 2011 report, reviewed 200 cases of corruption and found more than 70 percent used shell companies to hide $56 billion, she said. These   weren’t only in offshore tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, they included companies registered in the United States and the United Kingdom.  The World Bank report Puppet Masters estimates that corruption is a $40 billion a year industry.

The Group of Eight leading industrial nations have called for countries to identify the real owner of a company to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. The United Kingdom is moving ahead with a public registry, and the European Parliament has just voted for public disclosure of the true beneficiary of a company. But legislation in the U.S. Congress has been stalled for many years. 

Gooch and Global Witness plan to ramp up the campaign by holding a meeting in New York of companies large and small to discuss ways to move forward the transparency and end corporate secrecy.  They are winning some big-name support, including Mo Ibrahim, head of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation which promotes leadership and governance in Africa, and Jeff Skoll, the former president of eBay. 

Skoll in a news release called ending corporate secrecy the “right move at the right time”.  The Skoll Foundation also has just awarded Global Witness $1.25 million to support its drive against corruption and abuse that bleeds resource-rich countries of money.  

“I know this devastating problem is fixable if we work together,” Gooch said in accepting the TED award.    

Stealing public money is an economic crime, and it should not be aided and abetted by global financiers.

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