Growing global scrutiny is focused on Isabel de Santos, the wealthiest woman in Africa, who is accused of using her position to extract hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars in wealth for personal gain.
Dos Santos, daughter of Angola's autocratic leader from 1979 until 2017, allegedly used her public role as head of Sonangol, Angola's state oil company, and other state enterprises, to enrich herself and family members. Dos Santos denies any wrong-doing.
Thanks to the Luanda Leaks, a disclosure by a Portuguese whistleblower of 715,000 pages of documents, scrutiny has fallen on the unseemly mechanisms that wealthy elites around the world steal and hide wealth. You can read more background on the story here.
Angola is a country of diamonds, oil and extreme inequality. The plundering of its wealth has a long colonial legacy. The mass hiding of wealth through shell companies is an updated form of colonial kleptocracy.
But the story that exposes the systematic roots of this problem is the visible role of the "wealth defense industry"—the tax lawyers, accountants, consultants, and wealth managers that facilitate and enable this looting process.
These are private companies, often headquartered in the UK and the United States, play an essential role in global plundering apparatus. They are, as sociologist Brooke Harrington has described them, the "agents of inequality."
While global banks such as Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Citigroup refused to do business with Isabel Dos Santos, a number of the world's professional service firms were happy to oblige. Dos Santos' wealth extraction would not have been possible without the aid of the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, and accounting giant PwC (formerly known as PriceWaterhouseCooper).
PwC acted as Dos Santos' consultant, tax advisor and accountant—assisting with at least 20 companies controlled by she and her husband.
McKinsey and Boston Consulting were hired by Dos Santos to restructure the state oil company Sonangol. But these consulting firms were paid by shell companies based in Malta controlled by Dos Santos, not through official state channels, an obvious red flag for those monitoring money laundering.
"Paying huge and dubious consulting fees to anonymous companies in secrecy jurisdictions is a standard trick that should sound all alarm bells," said Christoph Trautvetter to the New York Times, a forensic accountant based in Berlin.
PwC claims it has terminated all work for companies controlled by the Dos Santos family, and begun an investigation. PwC chairman Bob Moritz, told the Guardian heads could roll at his company. "We'll wait for the investigation, I don't want to rush,," he said last week. "But we need to move with speed to take action to regain confidence."
The U.S. and the European Union requires banks and financial firms to report suspicious activities and transactions. But unlike the European Union, the U.S. does not impose the same requirements on accounting, legal and consulting firms. The Luanda Leaks provides a clear rationale for expanded oversight of the wealth defense industry.
As Tom Keatinge, the director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the UK-based Royal United Services Center, writes in the Guardian:
As banks build their defenses, an equally committed army of accountants, lawyers, consultants and advisors works to subvert those defenses. They use every tool of financial engineering to hide ownership and obfuscate payments, ensuring that deniability is plausible and that if the trail followed by any investigator will be fiendishly complex.
There remain other obstacles to overcoming: shortcomings in national and international regulations, governments' woeful underinvestment in their response to illicit finance, and a lack of transparency concerning company ownership. This means that, until there is a revolution in how we tackle illicit finance, the sharp minds that enable the theft of national wealth will remain one step ahead.
The human cost of allowing the current system of professional enablers to continue is too high. The ability of nations to build their economies, tax citizens, and make public investments is being compromised at a dizzying pace. Researchers estimate that some 10 to 12 percent of the world's wealth—trillions of dollars—is now hidden through a combination of tax haven secrecy jurisdictions, shell companies, opaque trusts and other mechanisms.
The professional wealth managers and consulting groups are not capable of policing themselves, though they should take a deep look at the culture and norms of their professions. Ultimately, lawmakers must set the rules of the road—requiring corporate transparency, disclosure of beneficial ownership, and timely country-by-country reporting on tax payments. And professional enablers should be held personally responsible for these crimes.
We need to turn these professional wealth escape artists into "compliance officers." Only when their orientation shifts from tax dodging to tax compliance can we be more assured that world's wealthy are not hiding the treasure of their neighbors.