News & Politics

Despite Condo Blowups, ‘Dark Money’ Bill Still Crawls

A mortgage default at a $51 million apartment at One57 could be a wake-up call on opaque LLCs

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One57 in New York, a gleaming beacon for the world's wealth
One57 in New York, a gleaming beacon for the world's wealth

Next month, New York’s mega-priced apartment buyers will get a chance to bid on what’s probably the biggest luxury apartment foreclosure in the city, as a Nigerian energy mogul’s $51 million apartment goes on the block.

As Bloomberg and the New York Post have reported, Kolawole “Kola” Aluko defaulted on a $35 million mortgage. It’s the second giant foreclosure at One57, the 57th Street tower finished in 2014. The building itself was funded partly by a subsidiary of an Abu Dhabi company linked to a global money-laundering investigation.

Aluko’s full-floor apartment was held by a shell company, as are many of New York’s highest-priced condos. The eight-figure properties are held by LLCs with opaque names — until, as in this case, things blow up and the owner’s New York real estate gets entangled with his off-shore legal problems (a Nigerian court has recently ordered Aluko’s assets frozen).

Thanks to permissive laws on shell companies, the United States — and New York in particular — has quietly become one of the world’s money-shielding havens. New York representative Carolyn Maloney has introduced bills to change this five times, according to Quartz.

The latest version, sponsored by Democrat Maloney — whose district covers much of the East Side and 57th Street, including One57 — and Peter King, a Republican, was introduced in the House today. If passed, the bill would mean major changes for the top end of New York’s condo market.

“There are no requirements for anyone involved in real estate, apart from banks, to actually do any anti-money laundering controls or background checks,” says Heather Lowe, the legal counsel and director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit that tracks and studies the illicit flow of money around the world. (Right before this interview, Lowe had finished a 17-page testimony she planned to present at today’s congressional testimony.) She called the available real estate in places like Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row “a simple way to launder a lot of money at once.”

The practice of buyers disguising themselves under LLCs and shell companies, and pouring money of unknown origins into New York real estate, led to an investigation by the New York Times in 2015. At the Time Warner condos over Columbus Circle, the Times uncovered sixteen wealthy foreigners who bought real estate within the tower and were also the subjects of government inquiries ranging from environmental violations to financial fraud.

The federal government has slowly acted on concerns of illicit money flows and nonexistent background checks on billionaire buyers since 2016. That’s when the Treasury Department announced rules requiring title companies to expose the actual buyers on all cash purchases in Manhattan over $3 million. Lowe hesitated to call the move a crackdown; she said it was more like “the feds were testing the water.” So far, according to Lowe, the efforts revealed that 30 percent of owners identified for high-end purchases in both Manhattan and Miami had already been reported by banks over suspicious activity.

But it looks unlikely that this latest bill will come to pass in the current administration — it couldn’t even pass under Obama’s presidential run. The last time Maloney tried was right after the 2016 release of the Panama Papers. That bill, too, had bipartisan support, but it didn’t make it out of committee hearings. Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, co-sponsor of this year’s bill, told Quartz that it “failed because of opposition from trade organizations that at least in part support the participants in the dark economy that we’re trying to bring a little sunlight into.”

Then there’s the matter of the president, who would have to sign the bill into law. Seventy percent of buyers at Trump properties in the last year were shell companies, according to a report by USA Today. Lowe said this administration is “difficult to read on these issues.” She explained, “On one hand, we know the administration wants to be tough on terrorism finance, and this stuff is all wrapped together.” She added that the Trump administration allowed an extension of the Treasury Department’s probe into the identity of luxury real estate buyers. “But of course, our president’s business is high-end real estate development,” she said. “These things obviously impact his personal business.”

Aluko himself seems to have made efforts to elude Nigeria’s courts. The collateral for his mortgage reportedly includes, in addition to the apartment, the yacht he once rented to Beyoncé and Jay Z for $900,000 a week. As his apartment heads to the foreclosure auction, the energy tycoon himself may well be on his 213-foot yacht, the Galactica Star, somewhere in the ocean — one of the few places a billionaire can make himself even more invisible than in an ultra-luxury skyscraper.

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