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The kleptocrats

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Fascinating piece by Frank Foer on how the US banking and real estate systems have facilitated the rise of a global kleptocracy:

But nestled in the Patriot Act lay the handiwork of another industry’s lobbyists. Every House district in the country has real estate, and lobbyists for that business had pleaded for relief from the Patriot Act’s monitoring of dubious foreign transactions. They all but conjured up images of suburban moms staking for sale signs on lawns, ill-equipped to vet every buyer. And they persuaded Congress to grant the industry a temporary exemption from having to enforce the new law.

The exemption was a gaping loophole—and an extraordinary growth opportunity for high-end real estate. 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. According to Global Witness, a London-based anti-corruption NGO founded in 1993, procuring a library card requires more identification in many states than does creating an anonymous shell company.

Much of the money that might have snuck into banks before the Patriot Act became law was now used to purchase property. The New York Times described the phenomenon in a series of exposés, published in 2015, called “Towers of Secrecy.” Reporters discovered that condos in the ultra-luxe Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in Manhattan were owned by a constellation of kleptocrats. One condo belonged to the family of a former Russian senator whose suspected ties to organized crime precluded him from legally entering Canada for a few years. A condo down the hall belonged to a Greek businessman who had recently been arrested in an anti-government-corruption sweep. The family of a former Colombian governor, imprisoned for self-enrichment while in office, owned a unit he could no longer visit.

These denizens, all of whom denied wrongdoing, made their high-priced purchases in what has become a common way. Nationwide, nearly half of homes worth at least $5 million, the Times found, were bought using shell companies. The proportion was even greater in Los Angeles and Manhattan (where more than 80 percent of Time Warner Center sales fit that description). As the Treasury Department put it in 2017, nearly one in three high-end real-estate purchases that it monitors involves an individual whom the government has been tracking as “suspicious.” Yet somehow the presence of so many shady buyers has never especially troubled the real-estate industry or, for that matter, politicians. In 2013, New York City’s then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?”

The warm welcome has created a strange dissonance in American policy. Take the case of the aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a character who has made recurring cameos in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The State Department, concerned about Deripaska’s connections to Russian organized crime (which he has denied), has restricted his travel to the United States for years. Such fears have not stood in the way of his acquiring a $42.5 million mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and another estate near Washington’s Embassy Row.

The whole piece is very much worth reading, especially since I don’t want to go nuts here, but what Foer is outlining just might have some relationship to the fact that a sleazy NYC real estate developer is now president of the United States.

 

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