By Suzanne Barlyn
(Reuters) - A U.S. lawmaker has called for a congressional committee to hold a hearing on legislation that would make it easier for law enforcement to identify legal owners of shell companies to curb future abuse.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, made the request in a letter dated April 20 to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas.
The letter, seen by Reuters, came weeks after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists worked with media outlets including The Guardian and BBC to report on 11.5 million leaked documents from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca.
The documents contained information on about 214,000 offshore companies and showed how individuals and corporations were able to hide assets and avoid taxes. The documents have come to be known as the Panama Papers.
Maloney wrote in a letter that data from the leak also "highlight the ease with which criminals and corrupt officials can use anonymous shell companies to hide assets from law enforcement."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Hensarling did not respond to a request for comment.
"It is important to remember that for individuals and companies that have been blacklisted by the U.S. government, anonymous shell companies are one of the only ways for them to effectively move their money around the world - money that is often associated with corruption, drug trafficking, and even terrorist activity," Maloney said in the letter.
In February, Maloney and Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, reintroduced legislation that would require the U.S. Treasury Department to collect information about owners of shell companies, in the event that states are not already doing so.
Another version of the bill, sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, would require states to identify and collect information about legal owners of companies formed through state laws. In an April 14 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, Whitehouse also called for a hearing.
Neither Maloney nor the Whitehouse have authority to schedule hearings.
Earlier versions have been circulating in Congress since at least 2008 when then-Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, sought to crack down on shell company abuse in states with liberal incorporation laws.
States have fiercely opposed efforts that would require them to collect identifying information, calling for the Internal Revenue Service to do so instead, among other alternatives.
Separately, the Treasury Department inched closer on Friday toward finalizing a rule requiring banks to identify legal owners of shell companies.
(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Bernard Orr)