Charmian Gooch: How Do You Expose An Anonymous Company? Charmian Gooch's mission is to "out" corrupt companies. She details how global corruption trackers follow the money — to some surprisingly familiar places.

How Do You Expose An Anonymous Company?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So up to this point, we've been hearing about personal secrets, right? - secrets that we keep to protect ourselves or even the people we love. But what about secrets that can actually affect the lives of millions of people? - secrets that are worth billions of dollars.

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RAZ: This story begins about 25 years ago. Charmian Gooch was a young activist. And she and some friends wanted to stop human rights abuses in Cambodia. They suspected that the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in that country was funding itself by trading in illegal timber. So Charmian and the activists went to Cambodia with their own secret. They pretended they were timber buyers.

Did anybody ever suspect that you were not timber buyers?

CHARMIAN GOOCH: Yes. Yes, a couple of times. A few times we had to sort of make a run for it back to the car and get out of there. We had a sort of little few codes for if things weren't going well. But generally, it worked. We used secret cameras - pinhole cameras - gathering evidence and put that evidence out to the world and challenged authority.

RAZ: Charmian and the other activists exposed and then helped to shut down that whole operation. And eventually, they formed a group. They're now called Global Witness. And that was the beginning of a mission to expose the secrets of corruption.

Tell me about what you did in Angola in 1997. You went there as a tourist or a buyer, or - what was your - how did you...

GOOCH: Nope. I had a different cover story, which, to this day I don't think the Angolan government ever worked out what my story was.

RAZ: What did you do? When you flew down there, you just said you'd be there as a tourist, or...

GOOCH: Well, I'm obviously not answering the question. (Laughter).

RAZ: I see, right. Got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLOOD DIAMOND")

ATO ESSANDOH: (As Commander Rambo) Give it to me.

RAZ: OK. Remember. Charmian was there to expose a dark secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLOOD DIAMOND")

ESSANDOH: (As Commander Rambo) You are here to help us in our struggle against the government.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Danny Archer) I'm here to do business with Commander Zero, all right?

RAZ: You might remember the movie "Blood Diamond." Leonardo DiCaprio plays a character who buys diamonds from violent rebel groups in Africa. Well, Charmian's secret operation helped expose the illegal diamond trade.

GOOCH: I was just trying to understand how it was that diamonds were involved in funding a very long-running civil war in Angola.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As G8 Summit executive) According to a devastating report by Global Witness, these stones are being used to purchase arms and finance civil war.

RAZ: And Global Witness has been doing this kind of stuff for 20 years now.

GOOCH: And we look at that nexus where environmental destruction, corruption, conflict and natural resources all collide together.

RAZ: Charmian Gooch and her team fight to expose all kinds of corporate secrets for one very simple reason.

GOOCH: If you're in a country that more than 70 percent of the population are below the poverty line, they're trying to get by on a couple of dollars a day, and then you find out somewhere down the line that your president or the cronies around him have made some massive minerals deal in oil, gas or some other minerals deal, how does that make you feel? It's not an OK way - it's not a fair way to do business. And that has to be challenged and is being challenged.

RAZ: In her TED Talk, Charmian Gooch focused on a particular kind of secret, one that she thinks is especially problematic.

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GOOCH: I've come here today to talk to you about a problem. It's a very simple yet devastating problem, one that spans the globe and is affecting all of us. The problem is anonymous companies. It sounds like a really dry and technical thing, doesn't it? But anonymous companies are making it difficult and sometimes impossible to find out the actual human beings responsible sometimes for really terrible crimes. So many of the countries rich in natural resources like oil or diamonds are home to some of the poorest and most dispossessed people on the planet. And much of this injustice is made possible by currently accepted business practices. And one of these is anonymous companies.

Now, we've come up against anonymous companies in lots of our investigations, like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we exposed how secretive deals involving anonymous companies had deprived the citizens of one of the poorest countries on the planet of well over a billion dollars. That's twice the country's health and education budget combined. Or in Liberia, where an international predatory logging company used front companies as an attempt at to grab a really huge chunk of Liberia's unique forests. Or political corruption in Sarawak, Malaysia, which has led to the destruction of much of its forests. Well, that uses anonymous companies, too.

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GOOCH: We secretly filmed some of the family of the former chief minister and a lawyer as they told our undercover investigator exactly how these devious deals are done using such companies. And the awful thing is, there are so many other examples out there from all walks of life.

RAZ: Can you describe a company that we would've heard of, that we know of, and that there might be evidence that even that company at the highest levels knew what was going on?

GOOCH: I could talk about this interesting deal, where Shell and the Italian oil company E-N-I, or Eni, paid just over a billion dollars for the rights to an oil block in Nigeria. They paid those billion dollars - 1.1 billion - to the Nigerian government. And then the Nigerian government transferred exactly the same amount into a front company.

RAZ: Owned by a government official.

GOOCH: It appears to be the case - a Nigerian oil minister. That money was then - went off into a whole lot more Shell companies. And that's where it becomes very hard to know who actually really, really and ultimately benefited. So we - Global Witness and others - found all sorts of emails from senior people within both of those big oil companies talking about meetings and money. And it was very, very hard if not simply incredible to believe that big, complex, sophisticated, multinational oil companies didn't understand who they were really doing business with.

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RAZ: That's Charmian Gooch. When we come back in just a moment, we'll hear more from Charmian about how things have changed in the four years since we spoke with her and the ways secrecy influences not only the government but also people like you and me.

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RAZ: And if you're listening on the radio, you can always hear the show whenever and wherever you are by subscribing to our podcast. It's easy. Just tap on the podcast app on your smartphone and look for TED Radio Hour. And, of course, hit subscribe. I'm Guy Raz. And this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about keeping secrets.

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RAZ: So before the break, we were hearing from Charmian Gooch, who fights corruption around the world. Now, since we last spoke with Charmian, the world has changed. And it seems like corporate and government corruption has just gotten worse, right?

GOOCH: Is it the bleakest time ever? - effectively, is what you're asking.

RAZ: Is it the bleakest time ever?

GOOCH: I think it's unprecedented. I just can't remember a time where everything was rushing so fast and so unpredictably. I mean, people ask me about Brexit. We're all scratching our heads at how it could have gotten to such a state. And the one thing I know is I don't have a clue what's going to happen next. And I think that really holds true globally.

RAZ: Yeah. When you think about huge forces that are shaping our world today, like Britain's departure from the European Union or the 2016 election in the U.S., could you make a parallel between the - sort of the secrecy of, like, dark money going into political campaigns, whether it's to promote the Leave campaign in Brexit or certain election outcomes in the U.S. or armies of social media bots that are using social media to influence people? I mean, are we sort of seeing now a new kind of secrecy?

GOOCH: It's an interesting question. And I think that corruption has many, many masks, many approaches of doing what it does. I think we're seeing the exploring of the misuse of new technology, social media platforms, ways of moving money, ways of creating so-called public voices. And I think we're sort of seeing the inevitable flexing of that, really, as people see how it can be misused. And I think the fact that we're talking about it and the fact that a lot of organizations, a lot of journalists are investigating it and reporting on it is a really good thing because, I think, it's dragging it out into the open.

RAZ: I want to ask you about secrets. I mean, do you think it has become more difficult for corporations to behave in devious and secretive ways today than it was five years ago or 10 years ago? Or do you think it's actually easier?

GOOCH: Well, I think corporations are beginning to realize there's a higher risk of getting caught and that what is being considered acceptable is changing. But in terms of your broader question - is it easier? Well, I would say it's getting harder because in the five years since we spoke, it's going to be the law in - you know, across the whole of the European Union, which is 28 countries, for public registries of, who are the beneficial owners? Who are the actual, real people who own companies? And that was a major step forward.

And in America, I mean, despite the massive change in sort of political climate, you know, five years ago, maybe a handful of Republicans understood the problem of anonymous companies. And, you know, last year, there were about six committees led by Republicans that were looking at the problem of anonymous companies across a whole swathes of American life. So I think there's been a huge shift in America itself.

So is there a change? Has it got harder for companies to keep secrets? There's more of a spotlight, and things have changed. I mean, to - certainly, in terms of that campaign. And I think also, yes, there is the whole kind of dark market and all of the potential for online crime. But also online tools for tracking what companies are doing, for crunching through millions of data points and drawing out information have got stronger and better than ever. So I think, actually - I think things are getting better.

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RAZ: That's Charmian Gooch. She's an anti-corruption activist and the co-founder of Global Witness. You can see both of her talks at ted.com.

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