ABC

Papua New Guinea: How good AML is pushing placement back to the gatekeepers

Effective anti-money laundering programmes in banks are moving the gateposts for placing dirty cash into the financial system back a few steps, into the offices of lawyers, accountants and other professional service providers.  Undercover reporters working with Global Witness have video-recorded two prominent lawyers in Papua New Guinea explaining exactly how to channel a large bribe to a government minister.

Corruption reaches “right to the top” in Papua New Guinea, a representative of the national anti-corruption task force states in the video posted above. Being a government minister is the fastest way to becoming a millionaire, one of the lawyers claims.

Papua New Guinea shares a resource rich island of New Guinea with the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. As noted by Global Witness,  despite its resource wealth, much of the money made from them fails to reach the majority of the population. Plagued by corruption, the people on the lowest rungs of the economy suffer while those at the top line their pockets.

Right to the top

While bribery may be a well-established norm in PNG, the method of channelling funds to corrupt politicians has evolved, largely due to more stringent anti-money laundering rules and closer transaction monitoring.

The days of  “banging a million bucks into a private account in Singapore” are over, one of the lawyers explained to the undercover reporter.

AML in banks is largely effective – huge investment in compliance expertise and monitoring software has pushed the threshold for placing dirty money into the system away from the banker and towards other professional services providers. Today’s enablers are lawyers, accountants, estate agents and others, employed to help disguise the funds before they reach the financial system.

Australia, according to Global Witness researchers, is providing an open door for anyone to place dirty cash in the country’s financial system. The Australian Federal Police have estimated that more than AUS200m (USD147m) laundered from PNG into Australia annually.

During a conversation with a prominent lawyer in Port Moresby, bribes are referred to as “ministerial improvements” and “mobilisation fees”. Paying bribes in large sums is ill-advised, as it attracts too much attention. “Small dribs and drabs”  – what some of us might call structuring – is recommended as an alternative method of getting the cash to the minister unnoticed.

False accounting – using inflated invoices for legal services – are touted as a method for sending bribe money to the intended recipient’s Australian bank account. The false invoicing method is well used to launder money, but this is the first time we’ve heard a law firm offer its own books to move the cash.

Alarmingly, this once again underscores how significant ‘gatekeepers’ – lawyers, estate agents, accountants – are in enabling financial crime. Both lawyers in this film quicky hid behind a veil of hypotheses once questioned by Global Witness after the recordings. They know how to do this, but for how long can they keep getting away with it? Lawyers and law firms for estate agents exposed in the ‘From Russia with Cash’ film know how to use the  law to protect their clients. But there is something more powerful going on here – an absence of ethics or simply the will to do anything for filthy lucre.

Being a politician provides the quickest route to becoming a property millionaire, one lawyer tells the Global Witness reporter. Well. you’ve got to stash the bribe money somewhere eh?