Deep Throat said it to journos Bernstein and Woodward in the Watergate docu-drama All The King’s Men, but he didn’t say it in real life:
“Follow the money”.
Never has a truer word not really been spoken.
Researching financial transactions is the quickest and easiest route to uncovering political corruption.
And not just corruption. Al Capone, gangster king of Chicago, was jailed not for murder, robbery or extortion but for tax evasion.
There are money launderers and tax dodgers hiding their ill-gotten gains in front companies and property developments, turning new high-rises into empty sky-banks and forcing property prices through the ceiling.
The job of exposing corruption and laundering we traditionally leave to investigative journalists – but how many are there who are not owned by one oligarch or another? And the stalwarts of journalism, the local press, are expected to hammer out column inches as fast as they can type. They don’t have the time for much investigation and their bosses don’t have the money to finance it.
Dear reader, this is where you come in. Don’t leave it to someone else, when someone else isn’t there.
You can get started as a citizen investigator and do your own research, it isn’t rocket science and you could save the world.
Here’s a how-to…
Who or what do you investigate? People and organisations in public life from parish councillors to Lords, charities to lawyers. Anywhere that corruption and laundering crime can exist.
Or it may be that you have heard a rumour or just had a gut instinct about, say, a local property deal that tells you that something’s off.
Remember you can do this research without exposure, and you can report anything you find to the authorities anonymously.
Step number one as ever is to use Google or other search engines like Duck Duck Go. If you’re investigating something connected to an individual then search them both together, each in inverted commas.
It’s also worth re-googling anything that comes up in your research, like new addresses, families, company formation agents (who sell companies they’ve already set up) and lawyers.
Next depending on what you’re researching, the parliament website is a trove of data. There you’ll find financial info on the elected and unelected representatives of our democracy.
You can also try the House of Lords.
If you want to know who’s chatting up your lawmaker, Transparency International UK has set up a database that lists the meetings between MPs and lobbyists.
You can also find out how an MP or Lord voted on a particular issue.
,Next, councils, assemblies and devolved authorities. Again, there’s a register of interests on your authority’s website for all types of representative. Since 2011 even parish councillors have had to disclose their interests.
Councils are obliged to make a range of documents available to the public. You can also attend a number of meetings as observer or you might find them aired on YouTube.
The planning process is fertile ground for corruption (who knew), as detailed in Transparency International UK’s investigation Permission Accomplished a handy and free guide through the amoral maze.
You can find much in council planning portals if you have an address: what development was carried out and the names of the planning officer involved, agent, architect and lawyer.
The people servicing the property owner can give you some clues. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has uncovered illicit payments to architects, interior designers, educational institutions and law firms, professions that fall outside the current anti-money laundering rules.
Then there’s recently improved free information on charities courtesy of the Charity Commission. You can search for charities (you can even search by area) and trustees. The financial reports provide more detail than the company accounts submitted to Companies House.
Launched on 3rd September, the revamped website also flags up organisations that have been subject to regulatory action or are of ongoing concern, the number of staff paid £60,000 a year and over and their investment policy.
Charities are not allowed to be political, a regulation that may come as a surprise to anyone perusing the list of right-wing groups based at 55 Tufton Street.
For company information the go-to source is the free Companies House website. You can search for companies live and dissolved, director history and disqualified directors. All the company documents, like annual accounts, are available. However, the micro accounts of small companies often don’t give much away.
As well as directors, look for persons with significant or overall control – they are either the true owners, or if they are lawyers in, say, Switzerland they may be the front men.
Another red light is the business alternative to the Limited Company, the Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) or the Scottish Limited Partnership (SLP). These less regulated vehicles are ideal for plumbers, cafe owners and also launderers, according to campaigner Bill Browder.
The company’s address can be telling. Many firms use a legitimate mailbox service but a few of these addresses are used repeatedly by suspected launderers. For a list of suspect addresses see the report At Your Service by Transparency International UK.
The UK company you’re researching may turn out to be a subsidiary of a conglomerate. You’ll find more detail on the websites of larger companies and in trade journals covering their field of business.
For overseas companies, the Companies House site carries a list of equivalent foreign government registries.
The biggest free source of foreign company data is OpenCorporates.
The superhauls of secret offshore company information – the Panama and Paradise Papers – are available to the public on a database run by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Bloomberg‘s site has free company profiles.
Hoovers dnb carry some free company data, with a free trial.
Last year UK services and institutions allowed £325 billion of suspect transactions to flow through the UK financial system according to Transparency International UK’s report, At Your Service.
If you’re investigating the financial sector, registered companies and employees are listed on the Financial Conduct Authority website.
You can search for overseas financial sector databases too, such as this one on Dubai.
Finally, searching for property ownership, the home of laundering and tax evasion. Net House Prices will give you the value, size and date of sold homes.
192.com is a pay-for service but for free you can use their site to find out who has recently lived at an address.
The Land Registry is a huge government database of UK land and property ownership. You can discover the owner of an address for £7.
The Land Registry also has a database of foreign company property ownership – a godsend for researching anonymous owners.
Some of the government websites mentioned here are exclusively for England and Wales, but a quick search on the web will yield the Northern Irish and Scottish equivalents.
So there you have it: if you have ferret DNA, get digging. But once you discover what you suspected please don’t just sit on your findings.
You can report anonymously to the HMRC (0800 788 887), ActionFraud (0300 123 2040) and the Financial Conduct Authority (0800 111 6768).
You can complain direct to the Charity Commission by saying that you wish to remain anonymous, otherwise you have to complain the charity first.
The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has a secure anonymous whistleblower form on its website.
Or you can go public: spread the word on social media, write to your MP, complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or contact the press, including of course North East Bylines.