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NGO Helps Illuminate Opaque World Of Global Finance


When diplomacy fails, governments can turn to sanctions. That's what the U.S. did this week, issuing sanctions against Russian officials. It charges with, quote, contributing to the crisis in Ukraine.

But one thing that prevents sanctions from working is how easy it is for people to hide their assets. They can use shell companies, which have an anonymous owners, or they can use companies hidden in other company - much like Russian nesting dolls.

CHARMIAN GOOCH: You can do this layer upon layer. You can use one company being the owner of another company being the owner of another company. And you can create webs of ownership that makes it very difficult to find out who is ultimately benefiting from those companies.

GREENE: That's Charmian Gooch. She's director and co-founder of Global Witness, a non-governmental organization that seeks to expose, as they call it, the global architecture of corruption. She spoke to us from Vancouver, Canada, where last night she was awarded the $1 million TED Prize for her work illuminating the complex and opaque world of global finance.

Good morning and congratulation.

GOOCH: Well, thank you so much.

GREENE: And when we're talking about sanctions, I suppose this is a big problem. If you're trying to target people you can't really do it if you can't find the money.

GOOCH: It's so amazingly timely, these sanctions have been imposed by the European Union and America on the Russian and Ukrainian officials. Because there are no laws in place to collect and publish this information, it's going to be really difficult to properly enforce these sanctions. And these targets will have used anonymous companies to hide their assets - which means that for authorities to get the full picture of what they actually own and where it is - even with sanctions in place, it's going to be very difficult.

GREENE: You actually helped a journalist in Ukraine uncover the fact that Viktor Yanukovych owned a mansion, because that ownership was actually stashed somewhere else. Explain to me where the people were who allegedly owned that house and how this journalist figured that out.

GOOCH: Well, a Ukrainian campaign group called the Anti-corruption Action Center and a Ukrainian investigative journalist first found the story last year. And we just worked with him this year just to sort of get it out there a bit more into the public. And what they found and what we help them to put together with that there were these anonymous companies set up in the U.K. and Austria that basically owned the presidential compound and the ultimate beneficiary was the president himself. But because of the company structures, it's very, very difficult to untangle that.

GREENE: And I was struck because the companies that were set up to own that house and separate Viktor Yanukovych's name were in Britain and also in Austria.

GOOCH: That's right. I mean that's, see that's what's so shocking about this. People often think that corruption is something that happens over there. But the shocking thing is and the awful thing is that two of the countries which are the leading countries for anonymous companies are in fact my own home country, the U.K., and America. And that's why, you know, we're looking for leadership from both countries to really lead on this issue and help create public registries globally. The U.K. government is already onboard. We just, now it's just America that has to come on board.

GREENE: You know, speaking of the campaign in the United States, Charmiam, Democratic Senator Karl Levin and Charles Grassley, a Republican senator, they've been fighting for this kind of transparency. They issued a statement in support of your work. Senator Levin said today: money launderers, arms dealers, drug lords, terrorists and tax evaders are too often able to conceal their misconduct behind a wall of corporate secrecy.

But I wonder, I mean if high-profile people like them are onboard, why hasn't the system changed yet?

GOOCH: Well, it's early days. I mean what you're seeing here is momentum on this issue moving forward. It's absolutely fantastic that Senators Grassley and Levin are onboard and are supporting this and have introduced a bipartisan bill. We all need to build support for that and work on that.

GREENE: And you're using the money that you're getting from the TED Prize to begin untangling some of this. What's the key to doing that?

GOOCH: Well, the TED Prize money, we're going to be using it to launch a global campaign asking everybody to come on board. It's about creating laws globally to create public registries which list the true owners of companies which can be accessed by everybody.

GREENE: Charmian Gooch, congratulations began, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

GOOCH: Thank you so much.

GREENE: She is the director and co-founder of Global Witness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.