U.S. Corporate Transparency Act Deemed Unconstitutional

Adam McLaughlin, Global Head of Financial Crime Strategy & Marketing, AML
U.S. Corporate Transparency Act Deemed Unconstitutional

On March 1, 2024, an Alabama court made a significant decision, declaring the new U.S. Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) unconstitutional. The U.S. CTA, enacted in 2021 as part of the Anti-Money Laundering Act 2020, was designed to close potential loopholes used by criminals for tax evasion and money laundering within U.S.-based entities. CTA came into force on January 1, 2024, and is set to be groundbreaking in how beneficial ownership is recorded helping to tackle financial crime and abuses of corporate entities by criminals.

The U.S. CTA aligns with similar measures enacted globally. For instance, the European Union has been instrumental in tackling this historic issue of opaque ownership of corporate entities with the introduction of the 5th EU Money Laundering Directive, requiring reporting of beneficial ownership by incorporated companies, with the requirement that government-owned corporate registries are accessible for all and free to search. In a 2023 report, Europol revealed that “80% of criminal networks active in the EU exploit legal business structures for illicit activities”.

The pursuit of corporate transparency poses many multifaceted challenges. On one side, criminals continue to set up corporate structures that are used to launder illicit wealth. To combat this, laws and regulations must change or at least evolve to increase transparency and auditability. However, on the other side, individuals who want the confidentiality, protection, or secrecy that corporate ownership can bring are fighting to maintain their privacy and not have their ownership information accessible.

An example from November 2022 illustrates the challenge financial crime fighters face: A European businessman appealed to the European Court of Justice (EoJ) to have his information removed from the public register, claiming a threat to his safety and the right to privacy. He cited the EU Human Rights Act, primarily citing Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life). He claimed that public access to this information constituted “a serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for his private life and to the protection of his personal data”. He won this case sending shockwaves through the financial crime community. The ruling wound back the progress made towards corporate transparency as laid out in EU legislation.

This and the recent Alabama court ruling underscore the intricate balance between ensuring appropriate transparency to combat financial crimes and safeguarding individual rights to privacy. As this legal landscape evolves, it remains crucial to strike a delicate balance that upholds both transparency and privacy in the fight against illicit financial activities.

Challenges with the Beneficial Ownership Information Database

As stated previously, countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, South Africa, and more have been actively pursuing legislation to enhance corporate transparency. However, like the EU and U.S., many of these nations are encountering challenges in their implementation efforts.

Great strides have been made in the UK with the introduction of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023. This new legislation gives the UK company register, Companies House, more powers to enhance corporate transparency. Companies House now needs to verify the identity of all new and existing registered company directors, people with significant control, and those delivering documents to the Registrar. In addition, the legislation has promoted information sharing so information on the register can be cross-checked with other sources, and Companies House must be informed of discrepancies found by relevant private sector organizations.

The U.S. Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) introduced the Beneficial Ownership Information Database on January 1, 2024, mandating businesses to disclose ownership details to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to bolster anti-money laundering checks and monitoring. Despite its noble intentions, this new legislation encountered early hurdles during its rollout.

Concerns surfaced regarding the database’s logistical capabilities, data security protocols, and oversight mechanisms. Moreover, scammers swiftly exploited the nascent regulations, targeting individuals and entities subject to reporting under the U.S. CTA. These developments underscore the intricate nature and vulnerabilities inherent in implementing expansive regulatory frameworks aimed at combating financial crimes.

Judge Burke’s Ruling and Its Impact

In a recent development, Judge Burke of Alabama ruled that compelling small businesses to provide personal information like names, addresses, and identification documents was unconstitutional, despite the government’s anti-money laundering intentions.

The National Small Business Association (NSBA), representing approximately 65,000 companies, raised concerns about potential violations of constitutional rights, including the First Amendment (freedom of speech), Fourth Amendment (protection against unlawful searches and seizures), and Fifth Amendment (protections against self-incrimination). The court dismissed the government’s argument that failure to regulate corporate entities during formation would compromise anti-money laundering efforts.

Implications for Small Businesses

This ruling is a win for many small businesses in the USA, specifically exempting the NSBA members from the CTA’s enforcement. However, the ruling does not extend to the other 33 million U.S. companies outside the NSBA’s membership.

Affected companies must comply with the CTA’s requirements by the end of 2024, according to FinCEN. Moreover, FinCEN clarified that the exemption applies solely to pre-existing NSBA members, preventing new small businesses from joining the association to avoid compliance.

In essence, this ruling impacts only about 0.2% of small businesses in the U.S., highlighting the nuanced legal landscape surrounding anti-money laundering measures and their implications for business owners nationwide.

How the Ruling Affects AML Efforts

We have yet to see a formal public announcement, but we anticipate the government will appeal the decision. Should an appeal occur, the case would proceed to the Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court, and potentially onward to the U.S. Supreme Court, indicating a potentially lengthy legal process ahead.

Despite this ruling posing a minor setback in the legislation’s rollout, the government is expected to vigorously contest the decision. Most businesses are still required to comply underscores the importance of the CTA in combating financial crime. If effectively enforced, this legislation will substantially impede criminals from exploiting the historically opaque nature of corporate entities for illicit activities. Thus, the essence of the CTA remains crucial in the ongoing battle against financial misconduct.

The government should not stop here. Criminals are invariably going to identify loopholes or gaps in this legislation to ensure they remain hidden behind the corporate structure. Legislators must assess the effectiveness of this legislation, identify the gaps, and update the legislation to close gaps and loopholes. This is an exciting development for professionals seeking to fight financial crime and could be the start of a tougher stance by the government against individuals using legal structures to further their illicit enterprises.

For more information on NICE Actimize AML solutions that fight financial crime, go here.

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