On Monday, the Bank of Utah's name surfaced in the release of the “Paradise Papers” — 13.4 million documents from an offshore law firm that exposed how thousands of the world’s wealthiest people avoid taxes through offshore accounts. After combing through the documents, The New York Times discovered that Russia’s richest oligarch, Leonid Mikhelson, allegedly used the Bank of Utah's services through a shell corporation to circumvent U.S. residency laws and register a private jet in the United States.
This behavior — which involves creating a trust to hold a private jet — is legal in one sense, but it appears Mikhelson circumvented U.S. sanctions by exploiting this legal loophole.
The Bank of Utah insists it complies with all federal laws. Those laws seem to have allowed at least one foreign actor to sidestep sanctions, parking money and planes in the United States. That’s a threat to national security, and it has rightly caused members of Congress to raise vocal concerns.
The Bank of Utah is a regional bank based in Ogden with more than a dozen locations around central Utah and a variety of services. The bank’s website states that it provides services, including trusts, to “thousands of customers across Utah and the country.” That clientele, it now appears, extends beyond state and national lines.
"Bank of Utah has a well-respected Trust Department, which handles both corporate and personal trusts, and has built a special expertise and reputation in aircraft trusts over several years," the bank said in a statement to the Deseret News. "Their expertise is sought after by corporations from around the world, which may be surprising to some who are unaware of Bank of Utah’s depth of services and expertise. ... Published media comments that Bank of Utah 'would not reveal' ownership or details of aircraft trusts is due to the fact that Bank of Utah is both contractually and legally prohibited from sharing ownership information unless the requesting party is a government regulator or if the request is pursuant to a legal subpoena."
Meanwhile, the legitimacy of these aircraft "owner trusts," which may have permitted Mikhelson to park his money and plane in the U.S., is recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration. Mikhelson, the titan of the Russian gas industry, is one of more than 1,000 people who have bought aircraft trusts from the Bank of Utah.
In an aircraft trust agreement, the bank agrees to register private jets on behalf of people who, for one reason or another, are unable or do not desire to register their planes directly with the Federal Aviation Administration — though for a fee.
Today, the bank has more than $1 billion in assets, according to government information.
This is not the first time the bank has garnered unwanted attention for its aircraft trust accounts. In 2014, a private jet registered to the Bank of Utah landed at an airport in Tehran, Iran — yet another potential violation of U.S. sanctions. In response, the bank determined to strengthen the vetting process for clients. Mikhelson, however, bought his aircraft trust through a shell company, apparently avoiding detection by the bank staff vetting trust deals.
Foreign players under sanctions have strong incentives to find and exploit loopholes in U.S. law. Whether the bank knew the details of who was using the plane — and a bank representative told The New York Times that the bank did not know — is less relevant to the broader concern that the structure of these trusts through shell corporations might enable those with ill intent and lacking U.S. residency or citizenship to fly within the U.S. and around the world largely without detection.
This may pose a national security risk.
Lawmakers will need to reassess these loopholes, while balancing the benefits that these and other trusts serve. For the United States, the implications extend beyond a local bank's balance sheet.