Kleptocracy Is on the Rise in America

During the Cold War, the KGB had developed an expert understanding of the banking byways of the West, and spymasters had become adept at dispensing cash to agents abroad. That proficiency facilitated the amassing of new fortunes. In the dying days of the U.S.S.R., Palmer had watched as his old adversaries in Soviet intelligence shoveled billions from the state treasury into private accounts across Europe and the U.S. It was one of history’s greatest heists.

…Eighteen years before Special Counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation into foreign interference in a U.S. election, Palmer warned Congress about Russian “political donations to U.S. politicians and political parties to obtain influence.” What was at stake could well be systemic contagion: Russian values might infect and then weaken the moral defense systems of American politics and business.

…Newspaper articles in the fall of 1999 showed how billions in Russian money, some of it seemingly tied to an alleged crime boss, had landed in the Bank of New York. These sums startled Bill Clinton’s administration, which readied tough new anti-money-laundering bills, designed to stiffen banking regulations. 

…For all the new fastidiousness of the financial system, foreigners could still buy penthouse apartments or mansions anonymously and with ease, by hiding behind shell companies set up in states such as Delaware and Nevada. Those states, along with a few others, had turned the registration of shell companies into a hugely lucrative racket—and it was stunningly simple to arrange such a Potemkin front on behalf of a dictator, a drug dealer, or an oligarch. …Procuring a library card requires more identification in many states than does creating an anonymous shell company.

…Birkenfeld described how he had ensconced himself in the gilded heart of the American plutocracy, attending yacht regattas and patronizing art galleries. He would mingle with the wealthy and strike up conversation. “What I can do for you is zero,” he would say, and then pause before the punch line: “Actually, it’s three zeroes. Zero income tax, zero capital-gains tax, and zero inheritance tax.” Birkenfeld’s unsubtle approach succeeded wildly, as did his bank. As part of an agreement with the Justice Department, UBS admitted to hiding assets totaling some $20 billion in American money.

…The defining document of our era is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. The ruling didn’t just legalize anonymous expenditures on political campaigns. It redefined our very idea of what constitutes corruption, limiting it to its most blatant forms: the bribe and the explicit quid pro quo. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion crystallized an ever more prevalent ethos of indifference—the collective shrug in response to tax avoidance by the rich and by large corporations, the yawn that now greets the millions in dark money spent by invisible billionaires to influence elections.

…In 2017, Reuters examined the sale of Trump Organization properties in Florida. It found that 77 of 2,044 units in the developments were owned by Russians. But that was likely an incomplete portrait. More than one-third of the units had been sold to corporate vehicles, which can readily hide the identity of the true owner. As Oliver Bullough remarks, “They might have belonged to Vladimir Putin, for all anyone else could know.”

Kleptocracy Is on the Rise in America – The Atlantic

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