Medicare fraud. Drug running. Human trafficking. Tax avoidance.

The common thread that runs through all of these crimes is the use of anonymous shell companies, phantom entities set up to hide the flow of money. We hear about these companies in the news, often in the context of stories about the ultra-rich and their efforts to avoid taxation. We think of the Cayman Islands and banking transactions made poolside. But anonymous shell companies have far more to do with average Americans than we think.

A recent study of more than 200 large-scale corruption cases showed that American shell companies were used more often than those from any other country to move dirty money. In fact, the U.S. is actually one of the easiest places in the world to set up an untraceable company. It is perfectly legal to incorporate a company without disclosing who actually owns and controls it. In many states, it is easier to form an anonymous company than it is to get a driver's license or register to vote.

Anonymous companies are used here at home to facilitate crime and hurt Americans. They have been used to scam Americans with poor credit, force vulnerable homeowners into foreclosure proceedings, steal from government programs, avoid taxes and launder money for drug cartels. Vermont and many other states around the country are being devastated by heroin and other drugs, and anonymous companies make it easier for drug traffickers to launder their profits.

Fortunately, there is a bill in Congress that would address these problems. The Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act currently sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and--as committee chair-- Vermont's own Senator Patrick Leahy has the power to put the bill on the path to becoming law by scheduling it for a hearing and a vote. This is an historic opportunity to put an end to the rampant abuse of anonymous companies and to help communities here in Vermont, across the country and around the world. This is a bi-partisan issue; the bill's co-sponsors are Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

For those of us with global concerns, this issue could not be more pressing. The poorest countries across the globe are spending on average five times as much paying off old debt than they are receiving in official aid. Countries that have received debt relief have invested the money in health, education and the fight against AIDS, and have seen much progress, including a decline in child mortality rates, changing the lives of women and children.

But ending the cycle of debt requires that countries be able to raise their own revenue so they aren't dependent on loans. And raising revenue is difficult when poor countries lose far more money to corporate tax avoidance, tax evasion and corruption--activities often facilitate by anonymous shell companies--than they receive in official aid.

So if we're serious about protecting vulnerable communities both here and abroad, if we're serious about stopping crime and aiding law enforcement, this is where it has to start. Anonymous shell companies are at the nexus of crime, poverty and our global financial system. They exacerbate inequality and decrease financial stability.

I am proud to call Vermont my home. As the first state to abolish slavery, Vermont has a long and rich tradition of taking a stand on moral issues. I call upon Senator Leahy to embrace a proud Vermont tradition of independent leadership by making our companies and our financial system more transparent, and therefore protecting hardworking Americans and vulnerable communities everywhere.

Beatrice Parwatikar is the co-chair of the Board of Directors of Jubilee USA Network, an anti-poverty coalition of more than 75 national organizations and 400 communities of faith. She is the former vice-chair of Pax Christi USA and is an active participant in the Addison County Farmworkers Coalition here in Vermont.


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