Bogus Corporations Hide Ownership by Scam Artists Peddling Stock Scams and Investment Fraud Operations
Corporate Owners Hide Assets and Identities
02/07 - Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY
Roughly four miles from the famed Las Vegas casino strip, ABC Equity's corporate office is registered in a modest business suite located off West Sahara Avenue.
Great Fortune 600 is registered in the same suite. So are DK Financial, Hill 99, Stock Savant, ZZYZX Holdings — and more than 1,000 other corporations.
They share something in common besides their business address. Each lists the same man as its sole corporate officer in Nevada incorporation records. He is William Reed, a businessman with a suspended law license and the target of a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit that alleges he and a convicted felon teamed in a business that promoted forming Nevada corporations to shield assets "from 'capricious federal judges and any government agency.' "
A USA TODAY computer-aided review shows that the two men and their business, Asset Protection Group, are part of a thriving mini-industry that has capitalized on real or perceived gaps in domestic incorporation laws and virtually non-existent government oversight to promote some U.S. states as secrecy rivals of offshore havens.
A multi-agency U.S. Money Laundering Threat Assessment issued in 2005 cited Nevada, Wyoming and Delaware as the states with laws most conducive to anonymous corporate ownership. USA TODAY's review, which examined databases of all Nevada and Wyoming incorporations but was unable to obtain comprehensive data for Delaware, found:
• A Florida man who served a federal prison term for an international currency trading scam used his secret ownership of a Nevada corporation to launch a similar fraud after he was released. More than 120 victims lost $8 million.
• Interpol or other international investigators probing suspected crimes overseas have contacted the Wyoming Secretary of State's office about corporations registered by a businessman whose Internet-based venture advertised using Wyoming firms to shield assets.
• The sole publicly listed officer for nearly 100 firms incorporated in Wyoming is a woman whose listed address is a postal box in the Republic of Seychelles, an Indian Ocean nation that has been the focus of corporate secrecy concerns.
USA TODAY's findings buttressed the money laundering report's warning that a "race to the bottom" among states vying to set minimal corporate information requirements has enabled companies to hide the identities of their owners, thereby making it harder for law enforcement agencies to track suspected tax evasion, money laundering and other crimes.
Law enforcement agency concerns
"The purpose of corporations originally was to provide limited liability, not anonymity," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which held a recent hearing on the issue. "Now they're providing both limited liability and anonymity, and the law enforcement folks … are very upset. They want to know who it is that's behind these corporations."
Concern about camouflaged corporate ownership prompted the IRS to list the tactic this week in its 2007 "Dirty Dozen" tax scams. The IRS said anonymous entities are facilitating "underreporting of income, non-filing of tax returns … money laundering, financial crimes and possibly terrorist financing."
Most states don't require companies to provide ownership information when they incorporate. And they exercise virtually no oversight on the corporations' internal operations. In part, that's because most corporations operate legally, generate new jobs and fuel economic expansion, plus registration fees.
Nevada and Wyoming officials said their laws encourage legitimate businesses with reasonable registration requirements. "The law isn't unscrupulous. It's the individuals that use it in an improper manner," said Tom Cowan, head of the securities division in the Wyoming Secretary of State's office.
But law enforcement officials say relaxed state requirements let the mini-industry facilitate formation of shell companies that have no employees, exist chiefly on paper, yet conduct financial transactions.
Nominees shield real owners
Most states require companies to list the names of their officers in incorporation filings. However, a 2006 Government Accountability Office report showed most states do not bar the use of nominee officers, who may be straw men who camouflage the identities and activities of the real owners.
Secrecy marketers in the mini-industry provide nominee officers for Nevada and Wyoming corporations for an annual fee. They also tout the use of so-called bearer shares, an ownership system in which controlling shares may be physically transferred from one person to another in secret.
Referring to corporations whose owners are shielded by nominee officers, bearer shares and other tactics, the money laundering report said "Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming are often cited as the most accommodating jurisdictions in the United States for the organization of these legal entities."
The Nevada Secretary of State's website even proclaims: "No IRS Information Sharing Agreement."
Secretary of State officials in Nevada and Wyoming said in interviews that while they cooperate with law enforcement agencies, current laws in most cases don't let them challenge or investigate incorporations. "We're a filing office, and we don't make the law," said Nevada Deputy Secretary of State Scott Anderson, head of the Commercial Recordings Division.
Nonetheless, the officials said their state legislatures are expected to respond to law enforcement concerns by enacting changes as early as this year to close real or perceived loopholes.
That's welcome news for John Colledge, head of the Reno office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He complained that corporate anonymity, a "large stumbling block," thwarted him in 2004 when he checked a bank's tip about a Swiss man who had formed two Nevada corporations.
The man had flown from Zurich to Reno and opened corporate accounts that received thousands of euros and quickly redirected the funds overseas, Colledge said. Although he suspected that the funds were being laundered, Colledge said he could not get enough information to determine for sure.
"To fly from Zurich to Reno for a long weekend is a very unusual sort of thing. I think most of us (in law enforcement) who have some experience in this international area historically would look at somebody flying from Reno to Switzerland to do something in reverse," said Colledge.
The operations of Asset Protection Group demonstrate the level of anonymous activity available under some states' incorporation laws. The firm attracted clients in part with a promotional video in which actor Robert Wagner warned that without asset protection, "You could lose everything you've worked so hard for, in a flash."
Wagner publicist Alan Nierob called the video "a one-shot deal," and said his client didn't endorse Asset Protection Group.
USA TODAY's analysis found that more than 1,000 Nevada corporations list William Reed, a 56-year-old executive identified in the Federal Trade Commission lawsuit as Asset Protection Group's operator, as the sole officer. Each corporation listed the firm's office address as its own.
A Colorado Supreme Court disciplinary panel suspended Reed's law license in 1997 for "dishonest" conduct in transferring purported ownership interests to employees of his former law firm, a court record shows. Reed did not seek reinstatement. Separately, under questioning in an October deposition for the Federal Trade Commission case, Reed said he was under IRS investigation.
Misleading claims alleged
Government lawyers in the case allege that Reed teamed with Richard Neiswonger, 55, who headed Asset Protection Group's marketing affiliate. Court records show Neiswonger was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in 1998 after pleading guilty to money laundering and wire fraud charges. The case involved misleading marketing claims in a previous business.
The Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleges Reed, Neiswonger and Asset Protection Group used misleading income projections to defraud scores of consultants who paid $9,800 each in hope of marketing the firm's privacy tactics.
Defense attorneys said Reed, Neiswonger and Asset Protection Group did nothing wrong. They have asked U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh to dismiss the lawsuit. Limbaugh named a receiver to administer Asset Protection Group pending the outcome of the case.
The receiver, Robb Evans & Associates, alleged in court filings that Asset Protection Group may have facilitated money laundering by a suspected crime ring thousands of miles away. Police in Fairfax County, Va., notified Asset Protection Group in May that suspects in a string of identity thefts had used the company "to set up multiple corporations and open bank accounts," the receiver reported in a court filing.
"I have reviewed bank statements for two of the corporations, and over $500,000 in apparently stolen funds (from the suspected Virginia identity thefts) was deposited in these accounts," M. Val Miller, an attorney working with the court receiver, wrote.
Fairfax police said no arrests had been made in the case. Miller said detectives told the receiver's office the suspects were believed to have fled the country.
Anderson, the Nevada deputy secretary of state, said the agency did not know about the federal allegations against Reed, Neiswonger and Asset Protection group.
Felon may have secretly run corporation
The Secretary of State's office became aware of another Nevada corporation, Par Three Financial, in 2005 after the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a federal court complaint that accused the firm and its secret owner of using a pyramid scheme to scam investors. In such a scheme, money from newly recruited investors is used to pay those who invested earlier.
Nevada records show Par Three was based in Las Vegas and at various times listed a Carson City businessman or a Nevada attorney as its sole publicly listed officer. But, the SEC lawsuit alleged, the company was secretly controlled by Melvin Ruth, a Florida felon who served nearly three years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in a scam involving stolen investments.
In November 2003, shortly after he was released from prison, Ruth allegedly used Par Three to mount a similar scam. The firm offered potential investors a monthly return of at least 2% on loans to check-cashing stores, company and court records show. Par Three raised at least $8 million from more than 120 investors who were unaware of Ruth's role, the SEC alleged.
In December 2005, the SEC got a court judgment that permanently restrained Ruth and anyone working with him from violating securities laws. The judgment ordered Ruth to pay a civil penalty and give up ill-gotten gains, with interest. Ruth died last year of cancer complications amid efforts to recover Par Three assets that could repay investors, said his lawyer, Carl Schoeppl.
USA TODAY's review of incorporations found that Wyoming, like Nevada, has multiple examples where a single person is the sole officer for a string of companies.
Guillermo Jalil, for instance, runs AssetProfile.com, which sells Wyoming corporations and provides nominee officers. State records list him as an officer of more than 100 corporations, from A+ Shadow Systems to Yokohama Technologies.
Investigators from Interpol, the international law enforcement agency, have contacted the Wyoming Secretary of State's office about several of the corporations registered by Jalil, said Cowan, the securities division chief. None of the inquiries directly involved Jalil, who operates legally and sells corporations that typically may be used outside the USA, Cowan said.
In a recent interview, Jalil said he had not been contacted by Interpol and knew nothing about the inquiries to the Secretary of State. He said he conducts background checks on anyone seeking nominee officers for a corporation.
Ownership transparency obstacles
Jalil contended that the IRS and law enforcement investigators can check on any company by examining bank records. Claiming that corporation secrecy laws can block investigators "doesn't sound like reality to me," Jalil said.
But the internal workings of some corporations prove particularly resistant to transparency. Wyoming incorporation records show that at least 90 companies created since 2002 list Stella Port-Louis as the sole listed officer. Many of the firms, such as Export Deutschland AG and Motorcomsa S.A., have foreign corporate names.
The only address for Port-Louis listed in the records is a postal box in the Republic of Seychelles. A USA TODAY interview request mailed in January to Port-Louis' postal box could not be delivered. Port-Louis did not respond to a message relayed via Registered Agency Services, the Cheyenne company that is the local agent for the corporations that list her as an officer.
JoLyn Jordan, an official of Registered Agency Services, a firm that files incorporations, said she believed Port-Louis was a nominee for owners outside the USA. "I don't know who she is, or if she's for real," said Jordan. Asked how to determine if they were shell firms created for crime, Jordan said, "You don't know."
Jack Blum, an international tax expert and former special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said money laundering investigations have historically focused on the Seychelles. While saying he had no information about the Port-Louis firms, he said the filings seemed designed to frustrate.
"Whoever's trying to research it will go batty," said Blum.
Contributing: Barbara Hansen