Questions over the financial dealings and client relationships of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort have once again highlighted the problems associated with anonymous company ownership. Debate has centered on whether Manafort’ associations to prominent pro-Russian Ukrainian political and economic figures may have potentially influenced U.S. policy and political campaigns.
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Numerous media reports have documented Manafort’s political consulting work for Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, who was removed from power after widespread allegations of corruption. Most recently, the New York Times reported on the discovery of ledger alleging millions of dollars in cash payments to Manafort for his work in the Ukraine, raising questions about the legality of such payments, as well as the work Paul Manafort was paid to do in the US for these same clients.
These media reports also shine a light on how frequently these same Ukrainian political and economic figures have used anonymous companies and other instruments of financial secrecy to engage in practices associated with corruption and criminal activity.
Yesterday’s announcement of Manafort’s new and arguably reduced role in Trump’s campaign underscores the public’s interest in company ownership transparency and whether or not global financial secrecy opens the door for undue influence of the US political system by foreign actors.
Paul Manafort Manafort has a long history of taking on a rogue’s gallery of clients (see below). This includes dictators and despots who have allegedly plundered their country’s natural resources, and used that wealth to stay in power while committing grave human rights violations. And, recent reports link Paul Manafort to pro-Russian Ukrainian political and economic leaders, several of whom appear in the Panama Papers database. These instances include a shell company set up in proximity to Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, an individual running an investment via a shell company that is now the subject of a major lawsuit, and several individuals that are suspected of involvement in organised crime.
International investigative and advocacy organization Global Witness has repeatedly shown how secret companies have been used as vehicles to cover up illicit activities such as corruption, terrorism and money-laundering. Global Witness has led international efforts to lift the lid on bringing this kind of company ownership into the open, to protect US interests at home and abroad.
“Time and again we see how secret companies registered in offshore jurisdictions are used by the world’s criminal and corrupt to move suspect money through the international financial system. That makes it easy for unscrupulous people to steal state funds, launder money and cover up payments they don’t want the public to know about. It undermines democracy and poses a threat to US national interest, as this story suggests,” says Mark Hays, Senior Adviser with Global Witness.
A Selection of Paul Manafort ‘s Past Rogue Clients
Jonas Savimbi – The now deceased long-time leader of UNITA, a prominent armed guerrilla group in Angola that fought a decades-long conflict between other armed groups and the Angolan government. As reported by The Daily Beast and elsewhere in the media, Manafort’s lobbying firm took on Savimbi as a client in the mid-1980s to cultivate Savimbi as a ‘freedom fighter’ worthy of support from various American political groups as a cold war proxy against Communism (despite Savimbi’s past as a Maoist). And, as profiled in Global Witness’ seminal 1998 report “A Rough Trade”, Savimbi was one of several rebel leaders as well as government officials that vied for control of Angola’s diamond trade as a way to finance themselves throughout the conflict. The report was the partial inspiration for the Leonardo DiCaprio film “Blood Diamond.”
Mobutu Sese Seko – The now deceased military dictator of Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – from the mid 1960’s until his exile and death from cancer in 1997. Sese Seko has often been portrayed as the epitome of a ‘kleptocratic’ ruler; during his reign it was widely reported he amassed a personal fortune both through patronage systems and the selling off of Zaire’s vast natural resource wealth. That legacy didn’t stop some U.S. politicians from building close relationships with Sese Seko, whom they saw as a bulwark against communism in Africa. In 1989 Sese Seko signed a $1 million a year contract with Paul Manafort’s lobbying firm to help burnish his reputation with Washington insiders. Sese Seko’s legacy in the DRC has been over two decades of devastating conflict over political power and natural resource wealth, with Western companies and governments looking to cash in despite the conflict. Global Witness’s advocacy and investigations in the DRC run the gamut, from landmark work on conflict minerals reporting, to undercover investigations exposing corrupt deals to drill for oil in Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, to the illegal timber trade.
Sani Abacha – Abacha was the military leader and de facto President of Nigeria starting in 1993, when he overthrew a transitional government and established military control. His rule, which lasted until his death in 1998, was known in part for widespread corruption tied in part to Nigeria’s vast oil wealth, and also for egregious human rights abuses; Abacha’s government oversaw the trial and execution of environmental and human rights activist and poet Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been protesting the government’s complicity in harms caused by oil giant Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta. Abacha was another client Paul Manafort and his firm took on – in 1998 Abacha hired Manafort to burnish his reputation against accusations of corruption and human rights abuses, by claiming he was the leader of a ‘progressive emerging democracy.’ Abacha was also widely known to have laundered his stolen millions through U.S. banks, which in part spurred one of thelargest civil asset forfeiture cases in U.S. history, whereupon the U.S. government seized roughly $480 million held by Abacha in the U.S. and announced its intent to return these assets to Nigerian authorities. Abacha’s reign was relatively short-lived, but his legacy lives on; Global Witness along with others has been investigating and reporting on a long-running case involving a massive Nigerian $1.1 billion oil block that oil giants Shell and Eni paid the Nigerian government to access – only to have most of that money siphoned off (with their alleged knowledge) via middlemen and anonymous shell companies into bank accounts controlled by former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete – a close associate of Abacha’s.