An unprecedented leak of more than 11 million documents, called the "Panama Papers", has revealed the hidden financial dealings of some of the world's wealthiest people, as well as 12 current and former world leaders and 128 more politicians and public officials around the world.
More than 200,000 companies, foundations and trusts are contained in the leak of information which came from a little-known but powerful law firm based in Panama called Mossack Fonseca, whose files include the offshore holdings of drug dealers, Mafia members, corrupt politicians and tax evaders – and wrongdoing galore.
The law firm is one of the world's top creators of shell companies, which can be legally used to hide the ownership of assets. The data includes emails, contracts, bank records, property deeds, passport copies and other sensitive information dating from 1977 to as recently as December 2015.
It allows a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.
Here is the brief summary of how these documents have been revealed, via the Sueddeutsche Zeitung:
Over a year ago, an anonymous source contacted the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and submitted encrypted internal documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that sells anonymous offshore companies around the world. These shell firms enable their owners to cover up their business dealings, no matter how shady.
In the months that followed, the number of documents continued to grow far beyond the original leak. Ultimately, SZ acquired about 2.6 terabytes of data, making the leak the biggest that journalists had ever worked with. The source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures.
The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows. It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world’s rich and famous: from politicians, Fifa officials, fraudsters and drug smugglers, to celebrities and professional athletes.
A quick snapshot of the scale of the leak in context:
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Mossack Fonseca’s fingers are in Africa’s diamond trade, the international art market and other businesses that thrive on secrecy. The firm has serviced enough Middle East royalty to fill a palace. It’s helped two kings, Mohammed VI of Morocco and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, take to the sea on luxury yachts.
In Iceland, the leaked files show how Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and his wife secretly owned an offshore firm that held millions of dollars in Icelandic bank bonds during that country’s financial crisis. In the video clip below, PM Gunnlaugsson walks out of an interview with Swedish television company SVT. Gunnlaugsson is asked about a company called Wintris, which he says has been fully declared to the Icelandic tax authority. Gunnlaugsson says he is not prepared to answer such questions and decides to discontinue the interview, saying: ‘What are you trying to make up here? This is totally inappropriate’
The ICIJ records show Sergey Roldugin, a long-time friend of Vladimir Putin, as a behind-the-scenes player in a clandestine network operated by Putin associates that has shuffled at least $2 billion through banks and offshore companies, German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media partners has found. In the documents, Roldugin is listed as the owner of offshore companies that have obtained payments from other companies worth tens of millions of dollars.
The files include a convicted money launderer who claimed he’d arranged a $50,000 illegal campaign contribution used to pay the Watergate burglars, 29 billionaires featured in Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s 500 richest people and movie star Jackie Chan, who has at least six companies managed through the law firm. The files contain new details about major scandals ranging from England’s most infamous gold heist to the bribery allegations convulsing FIFA, the body that rules international soccer.
In the “Operation Car Wash” case in Brazil, prosecutors allege that Mossack Fonseca employees destroyed and hid documents to mask the law firm’s involvement in money laundering. A police document says that, in one instance, an employee of the firm’s Brazil branch sent an email instructing co-workers to hide records involving a client who may have been the target of a police investigation: “Do not leave anything. I will save them in my car or at my house.”
In Nevada, the leaked files show, Mossack Fonseca employees worked in late 2014 to obscure the links between the law firm’s Las Vegas branch and its headquarters in Panama in anticipation of a U.S. court order requiring it to turn over information on 123 companies incorporated by the law firm. Argentine prosecutors had linked those Nevada-based companies to a corruption scandal involving an associate of former presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Today, Mossack Fonseca is considered one of the world’s five biggest wholesalers of offshore secrecy. It has more than more than 500 employees and collaborators in more than 40 offices around the world, including three in Switzerland and eight in China, and in 2013 had billings of more than $42 million.
An interactive summary of some of the most prominent individuals named:
The leak also provides details of the hidden financial dealings of 128 more politicians and public officials around the world.
The cache of 11.5 million records shows how a global industry of law firms and big banks sells financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars. These are among the findings of a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations.
The files expose offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan.
They also include at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they’d been involved in wrongdoing, such as doing business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.
"These findings show how deeply ingrained harmful practices and criminality are in the offshore world," said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens.” Zucman, who was briefed on the media partners’ investigation, said the release of the leaked documents should prompt governments to seek “concrete sanctions” against jurisdictions and institutions that peddle offshore secrecy.
The documents make it clear that major banks are big drivers behind the creation of hard-to-trace companies in the British Virgin Islands, Panama and other offshore havens. The files list nearly 15,600 paper companies that banks set up for clients who want keep their finances under wraps, including thousands created by international giants UBS and HSBC.
An ICIJ analysis of the leaked files found that more than 500 banks, their subsidiaries and branches have worked with Mossack Fonseca since the 1970s to help clients manage offshore companies. UBS set up more than 1,100 offshore companies through Mossack Fonseca. HSBC and its affiliates created more than 2,300.
Some of the key findings summarized via AFR:
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In the largest media collaboration ever undertaken, journalists working in more than 25 languages dug into Mossack Fonseca’s inner workings and traced the secret dealings of the law firm’s customers around the world. They shared information and hunted down leads generated by the leaked files using corporate filings, property records, financial disclosures, court documents and interviews with money laundering experts and law-enforcement officials.
Reporters at Süddeutsche Zeitung obtained millions of records from a confidential source and shared them with ICIJ and other media partners. The news outlets involved in the collaboration did not pay for the documents.
Before Süddeutsche Zeitung obtained the leak, German tax authorities bought a smaller set of Mossack Fonseca documents from a whistleblower, a move that triggered the raids in Germany in early 2015. This smaller set of files has since been offered to tax authorities in the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
The larger set of files obtained by the news organizations offers more than a snapshot of one law firm’s business methods or a catalog of its more unsavory customers. It allows a far-reaching view into an industry that has worked to keep its practices hidden — and offers clues as to why efforts to reform the system have faltered.
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The year-long investigation was coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), who worked with hundreds of journalists from the world's top media organisations including the ABC's Four Corners program.
What the documents reveal is the inner workings of a global industry of law firms and big banks who sell financial secrecy to those who can afford it.
The ICIJ findings include evidence that:
- Offshore companies linked to the family of China's top leader, Xi Jinping, as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has positioned himself as a reformer in a country shaken by corruption scandals
- 29 billionaires featured in Forbes Magazine's list of the world's 500 richest people
- Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and his wife secretly owned an offshore firm that held millions of dollars in Icelandic bank bonds during the country's financial crisis
- Associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies
- New details of offshore dealings by the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a leader in the push for tax-haven reform
- Offshore companies controlled by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the King of Saudi Arabia and the children of the President of Azerbaijan
- 33 people and companies blacklisted by the US Government because of evidence that they have done business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organisations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea
- Customers including Ponzi schemers, drug kingpins, tax evaders and at least one jailed sex offender
- Movie star Jackie Chan, who had at least six companies managed through the law firm
The leaked data allows a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.
Most of the services the offshore industry provides are legal if used by the law-abiding. But the documents show the extraordinary lengths individuals will go to in order to hide the true owners of companies.
Mossack Fonseca offers extra services to provide "front people" known as nominees to act as shareholders, directors or even the owners of your company. This can make it extremely difficult for authorities trying to investigate money laundering or follow the money through complex networks of offshore accounts.
Firm worked with more than 14,000 'middlemen' on clients' behalf
An ICIJ analysis of the leaked files found that more than 500 banks, their subsidiaries and branches had worked with Mossack Fonseca since the early 1970s to help clients manage offshore companies.
In all, the files indicate Mossack Fonseca worked with more than 14,000 banks, law firms, company incorporators and other middlemen to set up companies, foundations and trusts for customers.
The documents reveal that these offshore players often failed to follow legal requirements to ensure their clients were not involved in criminal enterprises, tax dodging or political corruption.
Mossack Fonseca says the middlemen are its true clients, not the eventual customers who use offshore companies. The firm says these middlemen provide additional layers of oversight for reviewing new customers. As for its own procedures, Mossack Fonseca says they often exceed "the existing rules and standards to which we and others are bound".
Mossack Fonseca offers backdating of documents
The leaked files also show the firm regularly offered to backdate documents to help its clients gain advantage in their financial affairs. It was so common that an email exchange from 2007 showed firm employees talking about establishing a price structure — clients would pay $8.75 for each month farther back in time that a corporate document would be backdated.
In a written response to questions from ICIJ and its media partners, the firm said it "does not foster or promote illegal acts".
"Your allegations that we provide shareholders with structures supposedly designed to hide the identity of the real owners are completely unsupported and false," the firm said.
The firm added that the backdating of documents "is a well-founded and accepted practice" that is "common in our industry and its aim is not to cover up or hide unlawful acts".
The firm said it could not answer questions about specific customers because of its obligation to maintain client confidentiality.
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There is much more in the full set of releases covered in the ICIJ's website, however we wonder what if any action will be taken against any of these criminals who also happen to be some of the world's wealthiest people and most powerful politicians: after all, it is they who make the rules.
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Finally, for those curious why not a single prominent US name features in the list above, the reason may be found within the snapshot of the non-profit ICIJ's "funding supporters":
Recent ICIJ funders include: Adessium Foundation, Open Society Foundations, The Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Fritt Ord Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The Ford Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and Waterloo Foundation.
And then, at the bottom of the Panama Papers disclosure site we again find Open Society which, as everyone knows, is another name for George Soros.
Finally, let's recall that as Bloomberg reported earlier this year, the world's biggest and "favorite" new tax haven as of this moment, is... the United States itself.