Shielding assets from the tax man or from overly inquisitive regulators is a time-honored strategy for the wealthy. Some turn to secretive financial havens like Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.
Or there’s always Fernley, Nevada. That’s right, Fernley, Nevada—a small community of about 20,000 residents located 30 miles outside Reno.
Drive down Wedge Lane, the winding road that gets its name because of the golf community it runs through (near the corner of Dog Leg Court and Divot Drive), and you will find the unassuming home of businessman Robert Harris, 65, who describes himself as a former bartender with an eighth grade education.
The house is also home to some 2,400 Nevada corporations, all registered to Harris’ address.
For as little as $174, Harris will set you up with your own Nevada corporation. And he promises he won’t ask too many questions.
“I don’t do any investigative work on the people,” he told CNBC Investigations Inc. in an interview in his small home office. “If they want to spend money, I take their business.”
Harris does say that if he learned a terrorist or a corrupt politician was laundering money through him, he would report them right away—“if I knew. That’s the thing. If I know.”
For a little extra money, Harris offers what he calls “Ultimate Asset Protection,” which includes a “virtual office with phone message and fax forwarding,” according to his web site. More important, Harris’ name and address appears on the official corporate documents instead of the owner’s.
“(T)here is no better way to cloak your assets from public view,” the web site says. “Moreover, it is far better than taking your assets out of the country.”
“It’s not everybody’s business what everybody owns,” Harris said.
Not only is Harris’ business perfectly legal, there are hundreds like it across the country. Known as “registered agents,” they help individuals, entrepreneurs and investors—or more frequently their attorneys or representatives—establish corporations. Their services include filing papers with the state, and sometimes even taking in their mail and answering their phones.
"There’s been research done by academics where they’ve gone round and they’ve tried to set up anonymous shell companies all around the world. And they found that the easiest place to do it was the United States."
Some states, like Nevada, have been particularly aggressive in courting businesses to incorporate there. Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller says the benefits go far beyond secrecy.
“We have very favorable business law statutes that many companies want to take advantage of, we’re a very efficient filing jurisdiction, and we’re a very low tax state,” he said in an interview. “So those three advantages combined make Nevada very attractive.”
Miller says with 320,000 corporations, Nevada is second per capita only to longtime corporate haven Delaware in the number of businesses based there.
But critics say the thriving registered agent business in the United States makes this country one of the best places in the world to launder money.
“In the United States, most states do not require companies to list who actually owns them—who actually controls them,” said Robert Palmer of the anti-corruption group Global Witness in London. “There’s been research done by academics where they’ve gone round and they’ve tried to set up anonymous shell companies all around the world. And they found that the easiest place to do it was the United States.”
Palmer says the United States is facilitating “corrupt money and dirty money flowing around the system.”
Federal authorities say arms dealer Viktor Bout—convicted last year in what authorities said was an elaborate scheme to aid terrorists and kill U.S. citizens and officials—financed the operation through at least a dozen shell companies formed in Texas, Delaware and Florida.
The Minister of Agriculture and Forestry in Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, has used at least five U.S. shell companies to amass a fortune that the Justice Department claims was obtained through bribery and corruption. Through his attorneys, Obiang maintains he obtained his assets legally.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says terrorists and foreign officials should not be allowed to hide behind anonymous shell companies when moving their money.
“We have, I think, some kind of moral responsibility there,” Levin told CNBC in an interview. "But it’s also a national security issue when corruption affects foreign regimes that can directly affect us and our security interests.”
Levin has introduced legislation that would require states to identify who is behind the companies they register.
“Our law enforcement community is pleading with us here in Washington to require states and their incorporation laws to list the beneficial owner, the real owner of the corporations, so that these are not shell corporations which can then evade our money laundering laws,” he said.
But the bill is stalled in committee, under intense opposition from business groups including the United States Chamber of Commerce. They argue there are legitimate reasons some business owners prefer to remain anonymous. And in the case of some complex business arrangements with multiple shareholders and creditors, determining the “beneficial owner” is easier said than done.
“We agree with the intent of the Levin bill that you need to combat money laundering,” said Vice President Tom Quaadman, who heads the chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness. “But what the Levin bill starts to do is it creates regulatory burdens on 28 million companies and businesses throughout the United States. It’s overly broad. And it also creates unfunded mandates upon the states.”
Nevada’s Ross Miller agrees.
“We currently don’t collect or maintain any of that information, nor are we in the business of licensing formation agents, which this legislation would require. We’re not in the business of continually collecting updated information.” Miller says it would cost millions for his state to comply with the law, and while the bill would provide some funding to the states, he says it is not nearly enough.
Opponents of the Levin bill say information about companies’ ownership is already available through the Internal Revenue Service, but Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, says IRS records are difficult to obtain.
“IRS records are very discreet, and they should be,” Breuer told CNBC.
Back in Nevada, Secretary of State Ross Miller says he is sensitive to the critics. He says he is working with law enforcement authorities to make certain Nevada’s registered agents are following the law, and are not promoting Nevada’s statutes inaccurately.
“The trick is going after those individuals and holding them accountable,” he said.
For his part, Robert Harris says he is not worried that Nevada will require businesses like his to collect more information their customers, “because incorporating is big business in Nevada, and they’re not going to put the trap on, you might say, to stop business if they don’t have to.”