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Biden Administration Unveils Plans to Fight Corruption

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 12/6/2021 Alex Leary
© andrew caballero-reynolds/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—The Biden administration on Monday unveiled steps to combat corruption globally, including assistance to foreign governments to increase financial transparency and new regulations on U.S. real-estate purchases to prevent money laundering.

The United States Strategy on Countering Corruption outlines steps for cracking down on criminal actors and their networks while improving cooperation between federal agencies—including the State Department, Treasury, Commerce and U.S. Agency for International Development—and law enforcement.

The 38-page plan was released Monday morning ahead of a virtual Summit for Democracy that the administration is hosting later in the week with more than 100 countries participating, officials said.

President Biden has put an emphasis on anticorruption efforts. His administration has said that corruption breaks down public trust, deepens economic and political inequality and degrades the business environment. The White House has cited estimates that acts of corruption cost between 2% and 5% of global gross domestic product though didn’t provide more details.

In June Mr. Biden issued a directive to help improve collaboration between government agencies on issues including kleptocracy and illicit finance. This week, in coordination with the democracy summit, the U.S. is expected to levy sanctions against foreign-government officials and people it accuses of corruption and human-rights abuses.

“Countering corruption is not a simple task,” the strategy document acknowledges. “Changing embedded cultures of corruption requires significant political will, and achieving sustained progress can take decades.”

In taking aim at a significant source of corruption, the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, announced a proposed regulation on real-estate purchases made in all cash. The initiative, subject to a public comment period, would seek to make nationwide current reporting requirements on transactions in 12 metropolitan areas with residential property selling for more than $300,000, officials said.


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“Increasing transparency in the real-estate sector will curb the ability of corrupt officials and criminals to launder the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains through the U.S. real-estate market,” said Himamauli Das, FinCEN’s acting director. “Addressing this risk will strengthen U.S. national security and help protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system.”

Details of the initiative still to be worked out include which types of real estate, including commercial property, would be included. The U.S. Treasury’s goal is to minimize the burden on the real-estate industry while offering up a fuller accounting of property sales that could be used by law enforcement or national-security agencies, according to officials.

Shell-company real-estate purchases, while legal, have been used by money launderers because the deal can be made anonymously. Experts say such deals have been used by foreign leaders who have stolen money from their countries, human traffickers and other criminals. Property has been seized across the U.S., from Manhattan apartments to California mansions, but the problem remains.

More than $2.3 billion was laundered through U.S. real estate between 2015 and 2020, according to an analysis cited by the Treasury.

The U.S. strategy document also calls for government agencies to work with Congress to develop new laws and use existing regulations to make it harder for so-called gatekeepers to the financial system—lawyers, accountants, trust and company-service providers—to evade scrutiny.

The administration will seek additional oversight and stiffer penalties for people who facilitate corruption and money laundering, according to the strategy document.

U.S. federal departments would be required to provide an annual progress report to the president.

The document also outlines steps to help foreign countries strengthen their own monitoring and regulation and for protecting investigative journalists who expose corruption.

Under the plan, the State Department would lead a Democracies Against Safe Havens initiative that would coordinate with other countries on law-enforcement actions, sanctions and visa restrictions as well as on kleptocracy and foreign bribery, according to the document.

“Those that abuse positions of power for private gain steal not just material wealth, but human dignity and welfare,” the administration said.

Write to Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com

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