Trump should expand Freedom of Information Act
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The election of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' MORE and the naming of several billionaires to his cabinet have raised concerns about conflicts of interests. Many Americans believe that the United States has outstanding transparency and far more than any other countries, but neither is true. The U.S. demands for the reporting of officials’ wealth is quite rudimentary. Far more public openness and scrutiny is needed.

During the election campaign, Trump said he would release his tax returns after an audit was completed. But without a full revelation of his many business connections with foreign countries and nationals, we cannot accurately assess his conflicts of interests. That can only be done if he publishes his finances in full, which should be a legal requirement for a presidential candidate.

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This is also the view of the U.S voters.  A recent opinion poll in the swing state of North Carolina showed that 60 percent think he needs to release his returns, compared to only 32 percent who don't think it's necessary for him to do so. Similarly, 59 percent of those polled wanted to see him fully divest himself from his business interests, compared with only 32 percent who did not think it's necessary for him to take that step.

 

Late in the day in 1966, the United States finally adopted a Freedom of Information Act, but it is unfortunately lax and full of loopholes. It does not even require exact information about assets and incomes but allows lofty reports of vast intervals of assets.

In the Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden - by contrast, all asset registers and tax returns are available to anybody in the public. As a consequence, these four countries regularly top the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, though the United States is still decently ranked as no. 16.

Sweden pioneered with radical transparency in 1766. The party of the commoners had just gained power from the aristocratic party in parliament, and they wanted to expose the bribes the aristocrats had received from Russia and France. Five years later Denmark adopted a similar law, which also aimed at exposing corrupt aristocrats. The introduction of this far-reaching transparency stuck, and it has survived in all the four Nordic countries. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire conquered Finland from Sweden, which remained under czarist rule for a century, but even so its impressive transparency persisted.

In 2016, even Ukraine overtook the United States in transparency by demanding that all the most senior 100,000 officials and parliamentarians revealed their assets and incomes online exactly and in detail. To general surprise, they did so overwhelmingly. Transparency can be enforced even in pervasively corrupt societies so it should be all the easier in the United States.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, an additional concern is the widespread practice of anonymous ownership through trusts or offshore companies. Delaware has become the favored offshore haven of anonymous ownership for oligarchs from all over the world. In 2012, The New York Times reported that in one single building in Wilmington, Delaware, no less than 285,000 legal entities were registered, but nothing has been done to rein in this dubious practice.

Given the current preoccupation with financing of international terrorism and money laundering, the United States needs legislation requiring information about the ultimate beneficiaries of all property registered in the country. Most European countries have such requirements.

U.S. banks have become strictly regulated to stop money laundering, but recently the Wall Street Journal has revealed that “tens of billions of dollars every year move through opaque law-firm bank accounts that create a gap in U.S. money-laundering defenses.” These funds can be channeled to anonymous companies in the United States without any inspection. The legal excuse is the attorney-client privilege, which is supposed to keep communication between an attorney and his or her client secret, but the United States has extended this secrecy also to unlimited money flows. This appears to be a practice peculiar to the Untied States.

With the current U.S. rules, a dubious wealthy individual can buy substantial real estate In the United States through an anonymous offshore company registered in the United States, receiving its funding anonymously through a renowned law firm. There are simply no official controls of any step of such a transaction.

The United States would need to adopt a far more rigorous Freedom of Information Act to sort out its conflicts of interest problem. It needs also to prohibit the presence of anonymous companies on U.S. soil, and to subject U.S. law firms to the same regulations for international monetary flows as commercial banks.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.