The threat from the misuse of anonymous shell companies is real, and routine. Criminals use them to scam consumers, defraud the government, and launder money.
They also use them to cheat small businesses.
For example, from 2004 to 2012 a large Virginia-based security firm used a shell company to fraudulently obtain $31 million in federal contracts – contracts that should have gone to minority-owned small businesses under the SBA’s section 8(a) set-aside program.
In a second case, a Maryland woman used multiple shell companies to win contracts to supply the government with paint and other goods. She got subcontractors to supply the goods, billed the government, and then walked away with $2.3 million in payments she owed the subs.
The first crime used one shell company; the second, more than a dozen, incorporated in six states.
Law enforcement is routinely stymied in its efforts to see and stop these crimes. That’s because the companies’ anonymity keeps them from knowing the real people who control and benefit from the shells, in legalese, the beneficial owners.
Anonymous companies are also used to poison our politics. Last year more than 200 limited liability companies (LLCs) donated $11 million to presidential candidates super PACs, according to the Wall Street Journal. The use of LLCs – whose owners can be hidden – defeats federal election rules that require super PACS to identify most of their contributors.
Anonymous companies are also used to fund terrorism. Last July, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. told a House terrorism hearing that identifying shell companies’ beneficial owners would vastly improve law enforcement’s efforts to stop terrorism funding.
All of this is possible because our states rank among the world’s easiest places to create anonymous shell companies. To protect our small businesses, defend our democracy and to ensure our security, that must change.
The solution is to require every corporation and LLC to disclose its beneficial owners, when it is formed. The states won’t do this alone, in part because states are afraid that if they act unilaterally, they will lose incorporation fees to states that do not act.
As a result, Congress must force them to do this by passing the bipartisan Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act (ITLEAA) -- which requires all states to identify the beneficial owners of the companies they create. Taking this action would create a level playing field for all states, and make it harder for criminal and corrupt actors to exploit company formation law to conduct business that no state truly wants within its borders.
Complying with the act would not burden small businesses. Rather it would help to level the playing field between them and large businesses – for example, by providing them with better information when they negotiate with larger partners.
Our presidential campaigns have been dominated by security concerns and yet no candidate has called on Congress to pass the ITLEAA. It’s a straightforward, low-cost way to stop the misuse of anonymous companies and the crimes they enable.
By passing this Act, Congress can take a common sense step to boost our security on multiple fronts – and our presidential candidates who care about small businesses, our democracy and our security, should call on Congress to do so.
Knapp is the co- chair of the American Sustainable Business Council and president & CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.