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TED winner Charmian Gooch to use award against corporate anonymity

Charmian Gooch, co-founder of Global Witness and the 2014 TED Prize winner, wants to take away the cover of anonymity for companies operating against the public good.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The winner of the TED Prize plans to use the $1-million award to launch a global campaign to put an end to the practice of companies operating anonymously.

Charmian Gooch says corporate anonymity is frequently used to funnel cash into criminal and corrupt endeavours – and has played a role in everything from the explosive political situation in Ukraine to the horse-meat scandal in Europe. Her goal is to create a global movement to put an end to the practice.

"It's a sort of scandal that's hidden in plain sight," said Ms. Gooch, director and co-founder of Global Witness.

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"It's an enormous scandal. People know parts of it, but nobody's really put it together," she said.

To increase corporate transparency, she is calling for changes to laws globally that will see governments create public registries listing the true owners of companies. "My wish is for us to know who owns and controls companies so they can no longer be used anonymously against the public good," she said.

Each year since 2005, TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design – has awarded the prize, which carries the prestige and profile that comes with engaging the high-powered TED community. Winners announce their "wish" – how they will apply the million-dollar prize – at the conference, as Ms. Gooch did Tuesday evening in Vancouver.

"She's coming to TED with a really powerful idea – a really powerful call to action," said TED curator Chris Anderson.

Global Witness, a non-profit organization headquartered in London and Washington, was established in 1993 to investigate the economic networks behind conflict, corruption and environmental destruction. It may be best known for its work exposing the issue of blood diamonds. Repeatedly in its work, the NGO has found a link between anonymous companies and corruption, malfeasance and the funding of conflict.

"Any kind of financial crime that you come across there's always anonymous companies behind it – whether it is corruption, tax evasion, terrorism, sanctions," said Robert Palmer, who leads the anonymous companies campaign at Global Witness.

Said Ms. Gooch: "They are a driver for conflict and corruption and keeping millions of the world's poor stuck in poverty. I think there couldn't be a more timely example of why we need to change the law around basically listing and making publicly accessible information about company ownership than the Ukraine. So the sanctions have just been imposed, but it's going to be incredibly difficult for the authorities to track down the assets and find the money of these officials because they will have hidden them away in anonymous companies and there is currently no requirement to publicly list that."

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Ms. Gooch called her plan "ambitious but doable" with momentum from the United Kingdom and the European Union. "America is really the next big target. It has to come on board," she said.

On Tuesday, Democrat and Republican sponsors of a U.S. Senate bill to combat corporate secrecy issued a statement applauding the TED wish.

"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," read a statement by Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who has introduced similar legislation in the past three congresses. "Our legislation already has the strong support of the law enforcement community, and Global Witness' plan to use its $1-million TED Prize to fight for corporate transparency will add momentum to the calls by police agencies, anti-corruption groups, human rights organizers, business groups and labour organizations to pass our bill."

Mr. Palmer says his NGO held conversations with the Canadian government around the G8 last year, but received no commitments. "There's still some way to go to persuade the government in Canada this is the right option. I think the government is currently consulting on what it wants to do about hidden company ownership."

Mr. Palmer says he believes the Australian government wants to put the issue on the agenda at the G20 later this year. He said he understands this is "kind of a techy wonky issue" – but it's also fundamental. "We are trying to create a global movement," Mr. Palmer said. "We've got a very long way to go. We're starting from a position where no country does this."

Follow me on Twitter: @marshalederman

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