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Samoan accounting firm's overseas HQ fined for money laundering

A director of Samoan branch of an accounting firm declined to say whether it failed to comply with anti-money laundering and terrorism financing laws after its Singaporean headquarters was fined for “serious breaches”.

Asiaciti Singapore Pte Ltd was fined SGD$1.1 million ($2.1 million tala) by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (M.A.S.) for failing to comply with laws prohibiting money laundering.  

The accounting firm, established by an Australian Graeme Biggs,  has a number of offices across the Pacific, including Asiaciti Trust Group Holdings. 

The company’s Samoan branch has three directors, including Graeme Biggs and Carmel Moore.

The Samoan branch offers a range of services to international clients, including the establishment of Samoan bank accounts and incorporating companies in Samoa. 

One of the company’s directors, Carmel Moore did not respond to an email asking if the penalty imposed by Singaporean authorities would affect its local operations, or if the firm helped companies to avoid tax by incorporating in Samoa. 

The Singaporean headquarters issued a blanket denial saying the issues were isolated to its headquarters and were no longer a problem. 

Ms. Moore is a registered director of 22 separate companies in Samoa.

Incorporating companies offshore does not indicate illegal activity. Taxpayers can hold offshore accounts for a number of legitimate reasons, such as facilitating international business transactions. 

But Singaporean authorities found that Asiaciti had been guilty of “serious breaches” of the law.

Asiaciti did not adequately identify and monitor risks associated with high-profile, political clients, according to MAS. In one case, M.A.S. found Asiaciti ignored the origins of a client’s money and  “simply relied” on his claims without adequate corroboration. The M.A.S. did not name the client.

“Financial institutions must play their part in detecting and disrupting attempts to abuse our financial system for illicit purposes,” the M.A.S. said in a statement. 

“Trust companies are required to implement robust [anti-money-laundering and combatting the financing of terrorism] controls, with policies and processes that effectively mitigate risks

Asiaciti found itself at the centre of the Panama Papers, a massive leak of a tranche of tax evasion information/

In total 556,000 files from Asiaciti were released as part of the 13.4 million documents in total that revealed the offshore secrets of royalty, politicians and celebrities. 

Asiaciti's emails, trust application forms, faxes and bank statements were leaked en massed and revealed the firm’s reliance on countries in the Pacific such as the Cook Islands and Samoa.

Asiaciti specialised in establishing trusts, which are opaque corporate structures in Samoa and the Cook Islands.

Within 24 hours and for less than $US300, a client could buy "state of the art offshore products" to build and preserve wealth, according to an archived version of Asiaciti's website.

Asiaciti's clients included the family of Serik Burkitbayev, a former aide to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and head of Kazakhstan's state-owned oil and gas company.

Samoa remains on a European Union blacklist of countries earmarked for participating in money laundering and failing to take action against profit shifting.

In a statement, the company said that the issues raised were isolated to its Singapore office and were no longer ongoing.

“These isolated [anti money laundering and combatting the financing of terrorism] control and procedural issues have been fully addressed,” the company said. 

“Since 2018, the Singapore office’s new management team has enhanced internal compliance and governance systems to fully meet the requirements.

“We are pleased to have resolved this matter with the M.A.S. and look forward to continuing to provide the exceptional client service, responsiveness and independence that we have always been known for.

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