For Donald Trump, there was the purchase of the $12.6 million Scottish estate and the $79.7 million for golf courses in the United Kingdom, not to mention the $16.2 million for the Northern Virginia Winery. All in cash.
For Michael Cohen, it was the lucrative day in 2014 when he sold four Manhattan buildings for $32 million—three times what he’d paid for them less than three years before.
Recent days have been filled with a seeming tidal wave of fresh revelations from the spiraling investigation around Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, particularly around suspicious financial transactions involving Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who appears to have used the same shell company LLC to pay hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels, collect six- and seven-figure consulting deals from companies like AT&T and Novartis, and receive payments from a company with close ties to oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
The subtext of many of the recent tales—from Donald Trump’s massive cash-spending spree to Cohen’s $32 million flip of New York real estate—is that the atypical transactions are worthy of greater scrutiny. After all, why was the self-proclaimed “King of Debt” suddenly waist-deep in cash and on a spending spree in the midst of the global real estate crash? Where was Cohen’s money coming from—and where was it going?
It’s the old adage from the Watergate investigation: “Follow the money.”
The implication, particularly in the more fever-swampy portions of Twitter, is that there was money laundering afoot—probably Russian in origin. The “quid” perhaps, before the election and the “pro quo” afterward. But is that a real possibility—and if it was money laundering, by whom and how?
The payments appear to mirror suspicious activity that led to the earliest charges and investigative avenues of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, the money laundering and conspiracy charges leveled against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and aide Rick Gates. (Gates has since pleaded guilty; Manafort’s case continues to move forward toward trial later this year.)
But to Treasury officials and law enforcement who have long pursued money laundering and terrorist financing probes, it’s not what Donald Trump or Michael Cohen did in any single transaction that raises red flags—it’s how they conducted business day in and day out. The layers of shell companies, the contracts involving pseudonyms, the law firm cut-outs to make deals.
“Many of the activities, when viewed in aggregate, point to a deliberate attempt to create opacity,” says Amit Sharma, who used to work on countering terrorist financing after 9/11 at the Treasury Department. “When you take two steps back, you see a murkiness and level of complexity with which the Cohen and Trump companies have operated—what are they hiding? Why are secondary and tertiary entities signing under pseudonyms and ‘cover’ names? Truly legitimate, transparent companies don’t need to do that. Does this point to corruption and/or conspiracy? It certainly looks that way! Are all activities pointing to specific money laundering transactions? Not necessarily.”
The fundamental approach to Trump and Cohen’s empires should raise eyebrows—and evidently has with Mueller’s probe and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York—precisely because of the apparently great lengths they undertook to evade basic transparency. While not necessarily illegal—some of the tactics are, in fact, regular parts of complex businesses—the pattern of activity points to an attempt to evade one of the basic precepts of modern banking and anti-money-laundering efforts: Know your customer.
“What we call ‘covered institutions,’ that’s any financial institution overseen by US financial regulations, they have to have a comprehensive anti-money-laundering regime. It basically come down to one central question: Do you know your customer? Who’s behind the account, who has control over an entity or can facilitate transactions on its behalf, what are its sources of funds, and what is the normal, expected nature of its business or pattern of activity for that person or entity?” Sharma says. “Anytime a bank or financial institution spots activity that doesn’t match the regular pattern, they’re required to file suspicious activity reports with the Treasury Department.” (Those exact type of reports were triggered by odd withdrawals and payments by the Russian embassy around the time of the US election, and are the subject of part of Mueller’s probe, according to Buzzfeed.)
Yet while regulations—especially since 9/11—require in-depth documentation and identification for basic banking for individuals, it has been much easier—until literally today—for corporate entities to hide their identities behind lawyers and shell companies. “Financial institutions are mandated to collect all this data on its customers, but up until now, financial institutions have not had to do the same for companies,” Sharma says. “For companies, often it has simply been the business location and Tax ID number and we don’t know the underlying ownership. We don’t know whether it’s a Russian oligarch.” (In fact, new Treasury Department rules that require stronger due diligence on banks to understand who actually owns—or has a controlling interest in—a company only come into effect today, May 11, 2018.)
As Sharma says, “Trump and his companies have exercised this practice for many years—it seems that every new project, every product, every new building, he’s starting a new company or legal entity to manage it. This has been the case for overseas operations and activities as well. People do this to protect themselves from liability and to create protective measures that don’t roll directly up to them personally. In any given structure, he may own a portion of a parent company that owns a controlling interest in a holding company that may own a portion or receive economic benefits of the real estate.”
In 2016 The Wall Street Journal‘s Jean Eaglesham, Mark Maremont, and Lisa Schwartz outlined a specific example of just that sort of structure: “Donald Trump owns a helicopter in Scotland. To be more precise, he has a revocable trust that owns 99 percent of a Delaware limited liability company that owns 99 percent of another Delaware LLC that owns a Scottish limited company that owns another Scottish company that owns the 26-year-old Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, emblazoned with a red ‘TRUMP’ on the side of its fuselage.” All told, the Journal reported, 15 entities were used at that point to “own” Trump’s fleet of two airplanes and three helicopters.
Layer on layer of corporate structure makes it hard for investigators, tax officials, or prying lawyers to figure out who owns what, the underlying source of money for specific transactions, whether taxes are being appropriately paid in a given jurisdiction, or who might be partners in what enterprises.
That’s where “Section 311” comes in.
In 2001, as part of the USA Patriot Act, the Treasury Department was given a new tool against money laundering, known as “Section 311,” after the relevant section of the law, to designate foreign financial institutions, jurisdictions, or entities as “of primary money laundering concern.”
A Section 311 designation was meant to help authorities highlight suspicious patterns of activity without having to prove any single transaction was illegal—it’s the rough equivalent for money laundering of the criminal RICO statute, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, that allows prosecutors to take down entire mafia families, drug cartels, and street gangs without having to prove everyone involved knew about or participated in all the various individual crimes.
“We deliberately put these tools together to go after really bad people—organized crime, terrorists, dictators, Chinese Triads,” Sharma says. “You didn’t have to point to a single illegal transaction. The totality of the transactions should give you pause enough that we would want to be sure US institutions scaled back or ceased doing business with them.”
The designation, which effectively forces US financial institutions to sever ties with the entity, makes it all but impossible for an entity to participate in the global financial system. In the years since, the US Treasury Department has used Section 311 to go after the banks and front companies that help North Korea evade sanctions, to go after Iran’s nuclear program and terrorism financing, to isolate Syria, to punish banks that helped Saddam Hussein launder money, and to pressure off-shore havens, like the Pacific island of Nauru, that the US believes are complicit in money laundering.
Sharma says that if what we have seen with Michael Cohen’s business dealings existed anywhere overseas, where it intersected with an investigation or a politically exposed person or national security issue of import to the US, it would ring all sorts of alarm bells at Treasury. What seems to be continually revealed is a pattern of atypical financial transactions, and too much of it seems structured specifically to hide and evade critical information or people involved.
That desire for opacity, though, doesn’t necessarily point to money laundering. A specific charge of “money laundering” requires that the initial funds be traced to a so-called “predicate,” a recognized serious crime. “It could be fraud, smuggling, selling high technology, proceeds of child pornography. There are hundreds of predicate crimes in the United States; the global standard is ‘all serious crimes,’” explains former Treasury agent John Cassara. The complexity of tracing money all the way through the financial system, from a legitimate asset back to a crime, or vice versa, makes these cases some of the most challenging investigators undertake. “These are very, very difficult cases—it takes a lot for the investigators, the prosecutors, the US attorney to understand,” Cassara says.
Part of the reason the cases are so tough is that there are plenty of other, nonillegal reasons wealthy people create opacity, including to minimize taxes, to limit personal or corporate legal liability, or to shield assets in divorce proceedings.
The truth of the matter is that the global financial system is simply too large for officials to look at very closely.
Money laundering is a huge—literally physically huge—problem: Illicit drug sales in the United States alone are estimated at around $60 billion to $100 billion a year, which translates, Cassara says, into about 20 million physical pounds of currency, far too much to be moved easily or spent easily. “The bad guys have a logistics issue. They want to try to get into a bank or nonbank financial institution, so they can spend it,” he says.
Globally, the International Monetary Fund estimates that between 2 and 5 percent of the world’s gross domestic product is laundered money from illicit activity. “The number I normally use is the total is in the range of $4 trillion to $5 trillion, about the amount of the entire federal government budget,” says Cassara, who spent 26 years investigating such cases and has written multiple textbooks on anti-money-laundering efforts.
Given that scale, the hard work of thousands of investigators and tax officials the world over amounts to a drop in the proverbial bucket; authorities only seize or charge about 1 percent of suspected money laundering cases. “By any measurement, we do a terrible job of enforcing this,” Cassara says. “I have the utmost respect for my colleagues, but if you just compare the bottom line with the results, as [financial crime expert] Raymond Baker used to say, total failure is just a decimal point away.”
That shockingly low level of enforcement helps explain how Manafort’s scheme—which Mueller’s team says involved more than $18 million, funneled through entities that included oriental rug shops just a few miles from the Treasury Department itself—ran undetected and unprosecuted for so long.
Each year, the Treasury Department fields upward of 18 million pieces of financial intelligence, including more than 2 million suspicious activity reports from banks and financial institutions—far more than it can effectively process. Globally, there are 145 foreign financial reporting centers, like the Treasury Department’s so-called FINCEN, its intelligence and enforcement unit, which translates into tens of millions more reports and warnings. It’s relatively easy for even large-scale financial crimes to hide in that mountain of evidence. “Your inbox was always full,” Cassara says.
Today, Cassara says, money launderers have to be incredibly stupid or incredibly unlucky to be caught. “Since 9/11, the amount of financial intelligence has grown exponentially, so bad guys are taking steps to evade those efforts,” Cassara says.
But what’s the point of buying, say, $934,350 in oriental rugs (as Manafort is alleged to have done), or buying luxury condos in London (as Russian oligarchs are said to be fond of)? How exactly do money laundering schemes work?
While it’s easier to grasp how to hide cash at the street level—like in Breaking Bad, when Walter White purchases a cash-intensive car wash and simply cooks the book to show he’s washing more cars than he is—money laundering at the global level follows the same three-step process:
Step 1: Placement
The first challenge is simply getting the money somewhere into the global financial system, which is often easier said than done. Banks are required to file reports anytime someone deposits more than $10,000 in cash, so sneaking large amounts of cash into the financial system can pose a huge challenge. Breaking large transactions into smaller ones, say multiple deposits of $9,999, to evade the transaction reports is known as “structuring” or “smurfing,” and is illegal itself. Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert spent time in prison for “structuring,” as part of his effort to pay hush money to one of the men he sexually abused as a high school coach, rather than for the underlying abuse. “Placement is where criminals are most vulnerable, because the money is closest to the original crime,” Cassara says. “It’s much easier to catch them at the crime than to say ‘there’s a suspicious shopping center or golf course’ and work backwards.”
Tracing “laundered” money back to illicit proceeds is key to any investigation.
Step 2: Layering
The second challenge is hiding the origin of the illicit money. That’s where the layers of LLCs can be helpful. Every time money moves—from one entity’s account to another, from one bank to another, from one country to another—it helps hide the original source. “It’s confusing and makes it difficult for investigators, tax officials, or a former wife to follow that money trail. It’s using this labyrinth of LLCs and tax havens, in the US and overseas, to make it difficult and time-consuming to trace,” Cassara says. “It gets hard because of issues of [investigative] competence, venue, jurisdiction.”
Often, this “layering” step takes place with the help of lawyers and law firms; the revelations of the Panama Papers and the follow-on Paradise Papers laid out just how large a global business it is to help elites hide their assets. “Many of these folks have go-to structures and lawyers they use to go through the layering process,” Sharma says. “A lot of laundering happens through nonfinancial businesses and professions.…The Russians use a ton of folks in Turkey, UAE, and Cyprus. That fact pattern is well-known and long-standing.”
While the Panama and Paradise Papers revelations focused primarily on overseas entities and tax havens, the United States is actually one of the worst global offenders: The so-called “Delaware company” structure is notorious for its lax documentation and opacity, as NPR’s Planet Money found out when they set up shell companies in Belize and Delaware in 2012.
Step 3: Integration
Once the money is in the global financial system and its origins properly obfuscated, the final challenge is making the money accessible—that is, integrating it into the legitimate economy. At the high end of money laundering, this often means purchasing real estate.
“Real estate is a big issue for money laundering and has been for a long time,” Cassara says. “If you’ve got a condo or a shopping center or a golf course, the money has already been placed, it’s already been layered, it’s the final stage—integrated. The authorities aren’t going to look at that. Once you see property, in whatever form it is, it’s assumed that’s good, that’s a legitimate investment.”
Large-scale money laundering, like what corrupt regimes or oligarchs need, requires—like any good investment portfolio—a well-balanced portfolio. “If you’ve got that much money, you need diversification,” Cassara says. “You’re going to put so much into gold, so much into stocks, so much into golf courses. By that point, they’re many steps away from illicit proceeds.”
Real estate is particularly attractive for money laundering because of the large numbers involved—a single large transaction to purchase a golf course, a luxury condo, or shopping center is an easy way to make a whole lot of money look legitimate at once without raising any eyebrows with banks or regulators. It’s also a good way to evade so-called “capital controls,” which limit, for instance, the amount of money Chinese citizens can transfer out of the country.
The goal in such efforts isn’t necessarily to have access to immediate cash—sometimes the end goal is simply to own a physical asset. “Parking” illicit gains from corrupt regimes, including Russia or China, in luxury real estate in the West is a common pattern because it historically holds value and, if you’re the buyer, you only trigger taxes by selling, not with the initial transaction. “Real estate tends to hold its value, luxury real estate typically even goes up—it’s a great way to preserve it without losing it,” Sharma says.
Such absentee owners—more interested in parking their assets than actually occupying a residence—has led to the phenomenon of what locals call “lights out London,” entire luxury buildings or wealthy neighborhoods where hardly anyone is ever home. More than 85,000 offshore shell companies own British real estate, and one report last year found nearly $6 billion worth of properties owned by politicians and public officials with “suspicious wealth.”
Similar concerns have been raised about Libyan purchases in Dubai, Chinese purchases in Vancouver, and Russian purchases in Miami, among other cities. It’s such a problem in New York real estate that the Treasury Department is moving to end anonymous all-cash purchases.
And then there’s the oriental rugs. Perhaps the oddest part of the lengthy, detailed indictment of Paul Manafort is the nearly $1 million he evidently funneled through various antique rug shops. As Adam Davidson wrote at The New Yorker last fall, “It’s hard to imagine a person who spends $12 million over six years but only shops at a handful of stores, and nearly always happens to have a bill that ends in multiple zeroes: $107,000, then $20,000, then $250,000. At an unnamed men’s-clothing store in New York, Manafort spent $32,000, $15,000, $24,000, and other multiples of a thousand. For money-laundering experts, this fact alone would be cause for suspicion. It is extremely rare for even a single purchase to end in three zeroes.”
The rugs and clothing appear to be an example of what officials call “trade-based money laundering,” using physical goods to evade currency reporting limits. There are, after all, only three ways to move money around the globe: Through bank transfers, through cash, or through physical trade. “I argue that trade-based money laundering is actually the largest of the three money laundering ideologies but it’s the one we’ve done the least to enforce,” Cassara says. “When a buyer and a seller are working together, the price of an object can be whatever they want it to be—it could be pens, it could be gold, it could be carpets….The reason it’s so effective is that global merchant transactions is in the tens of millions of dollars [a day]. Try to find the suspect transaction in that sea.”
It’s relatively easy for a determined money launderer to falsify invoices, either inflating or deflating price, with the willing cooperation of a commercial partner—like an oriental rug store, where you purchase a rug that’s worth $5,000 for, say, $20,000 and the store owner returns the difference to you in cash. Or buy a rug worth $20,000, and buy it from Shop A for $5,000 and sell it to Shop B for the full price—the difference becomes all clean money. “I sold those rugs to another shop, that cash from Shop B, paid to me, is effectively washed,” Sharma explains.
That so many of the transactions and behaviors of the Trump business empire and Michael Cohen’s empire appear to hew so closely to the well-known patterns and stages of money laundering deeply troubles Sharma.
“It falls into fact patterns that we’ve seen in other areas of Russian and Eastern European organized crime,” he says. “We’re staring at a government—that goes right to the top—that engages in very way of doing business and the exact same fact patterns that we set these tools up to combat. That’s mind-boggling to me.”