New Orleans Talking to Frank Vogl on Wade’s World he began by making sure I understood that “no offense” was meant, when he said to me, “Suppose you were Vladimir Putin and you had gotten several $100 million from Gazprom, the biggest gas producer in the world, and you wanted to move it out of Russia and invest in real estate in Manhattan?” Actually, offense was taken, not personally of course, since there’s no mistaking me for Putin, but collectively for the damage such wheeling and dealing would do the Russian people and consumers who would be paying indirectly for that gratuity to the Russian leader. And, as Vogl argues in his new book, The Enablers: How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption – Endangering Our Democracy,” aiding and abetting such corruption undermines all governments and any pretense of democracy in the United States or elsewhere.
Vogl is now a professor at Georgetown University in the so-named Washington, D.C. suburb, but he has been in a position to “follow-the-money” in this way throughout his career. First, he was a well-placed journalist and then communications director for big banks and global banking organizations, but, perhaps more importantly, he was one of the co-founders of Transparency International in 1993 with several others. The nonprofit now has chapters in one-hundred different countries, where a variety of staff, volunteers, journalists, and others, many of them at great risk, have tried to both monitor and campaign to stop corruption in their countries.
These ill-gotten gains are not just a billion here and a billion there, but as the joke goes, real money. The estimate Vogl shared was that $600 billion in such stolen wealth from kleptocrats and other criminals are coming into the USA alone, annually. Much of it finds its way into real estate. In this depressing story, Vogl is heartened by the passage of the Corporate Transparency Act by Congress a year ago. The regulations expected from the Treasury Department should require owners of real estate to be revealed on all new corporate or LLC filings and within several years force ownership to be revealed across the board. The lobbyists are no doubt at work trying to create loopholes now!
In a list of scofflaws, banks seem to be the worst. Many have been fined millions for money laundering dirty money. What’s needed in Vogl’s view is personal accountability not just from the banks “ticking the boxes,” as he says, but from the CEOs and boards of directors. If there were such laws, the next hurdle would be enforcement. He notes that there was great progress in closing secret accounts in Switzerland, but that was only for US citizens, and others have tried to fill the gap.
Stealing is illegal, but at this level it’s scandalous, as we found out from the Panama Papers and other revelations. There ought to be more laws and more police on this job. Vogl believes, and it’s impossible to disagree, that we all need to be involved in this campaign, if we want to protect democracy. Amen!