The German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung, in tandem with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), just released an incendiary story they have both been working on for the past year. It details shell companies and money-laundering schemes allegedly used by powerful people the world over. The story “provides details of the hidden financial dealings of 128… politicians and public officials around the world.” The massive leak has been called the “Panama Papers.”
Suddeutsche Zeitung shared the scoop (which was leaked by a John Doe last year who said his life was in danger) with hundreds of publications and reporters who have spent a year rummaging through the data dump. The basic gist of what has been uncovered so far in the 2.6 terabyte and 11.5 million document story is as follows.
In 1977 a Panamanian law firm called Mossack Fonseca was started basically to help the rich and powerful set up shell companies that would help them hide their wealth from being taxed or noticed at all. The fact that the rich like to move their money about is not news, and often does not break any laws, but the extent of the movement certainly is news, as well as the fact that the accused are not just companies but world leaders including the rulers of Pakistan, Ukraine, Iceland, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Further ties to the families of world leaders of the U.K. and China were also discovered.
It looks like everything from Mossack Fonseca’s 40-year history is now in the hands of journalists, and there is egg all over a lot of faces. Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Iceland’s prime minister, seems to have owned a shell company tied to several of the banks that imploded right before he took office. When a reporter pressed him on the matter, he walked out of the interview. Oops. Gunnlaugsson says there is nothing new in these revelations and in spite of some calls for him to resign, he will not be doing so.
Two billion dollars ostensibly tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been identified. Putin’s childhood friend, a classical cellist, is the official owner of several companies, and he has said in the past that he is not a businessman. It seems like a good guess that that money may be being manipulated by Putin himself.
Oh, and if you were wondering if FIFA could get any more corrupt, the world soccer body definitely can. Within the leak resides information that a lawyer for FIFA’s ethics team helped a former FIFA VP (who was arrested for wire fraud and money-laundering last year) with various legal issues related to the VP’s seven offshore shell companies. Awesome.
It’s quite possible that at least some of the offshore accounts are not illegal. Certainly, it’s been done before, and opening up a new bank account is not against the law, nor should it be. But any politician who champions high taxes as a social good but hides their own wealth deserves a public slap in the face, if nothing else. A slap and being booted from office, maybe.
But this thing is deeper and more dangerous than mere political hypocrisy. The shell companies generally exist to obfuscate who actually owns them. They may also hide not just untaxed or undertaxed wealth but money earned from bribes, laundering or other illicit activities. There’s also a great deal of fake stock sales (since, you know, the companies are not real) and payments of one dollar being made again and again, all leading to a source of impossible to track.
Editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung responded to the lack of U.S. individuals in the documents, saying “Just wait for what is coming next”— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) April 3, 2016
Darker than even the revelations that politicians and FIFA are corrupt (no!) is evidence that criminal groups and organizations “blacklisted by the U.S.” have also hidden their money with the help of Mossack Fonseca. It appears that anyone with money was welcome to be a client.
Some of these nastier clients include people with financial ties to Hezbollah, North Korea and Iran, as well as Mexican drug cartels. There may be an individual who helped pay off the Watergate burglars. One New Jersey man who was convicted of traveling to Russia in order to rape orphans (seriously) had his money handled by the firm. Mossack Fonseca may also have helped to hide the loot gained from a famous 1983 diamond and gold heist in the U.K., as well as the assets of two of the South African businessmen who committed $60 million in investment fraud, which included taking from a miners’ widows and orphans fund intended to support some 46,000 people.
Basically, this is a big story, and it is just getting started. There are plans to release the full list of names and groups involved in the sordid tale next month. Whether people the world over have have the attention span to keep up with a messy financial story is another question. It’s always easier not to bother untangling all the different ways that the powerful muck about in the dark.