The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) produced another substantial report on troubling offshore financial activities. The ICIJ previously broke a major story on how Swiss-based bank HSBC helped dictators, arms dealers and others launder and hide money. Now, ICIJ is reporting offshore holdings of current and former world leaders, called the Panama Papers.
The records, totaling 11.5 million documents, reportedly “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.” The banks and law firms help their clients hide wealth from local tax and regulatory authorities, in many cases violating both the spirit and letter of the law.
The leaked records come from a Panama-based law firm called Mossack Fonseca, which is, according to ICIJ, one of the leading firms in the world when it comes to creating shell companies and corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets.
The current world leaders involved in the scheme include Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Other figures involved in the scheme are reportedly connected to British Prime Minister David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
The ICIJ claims that, in all, 12 current and former world leaders as well as 128 other politicians from around the world are involved in the schemes.
One of the questions that remains is how much of this activity is legal. The leaked records cover decades of financial activity but many offshore financial services are legal. Where the ICIJ raises issues of legality is on whether information was fully disclosed or proper. ICIJ reports that in many cases, information was hidden and manipulated through disguising transactions and backdating documents.
The reach of the firm and its offshore operations is extensive:
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.
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 records show.
The firm has so far avoided successful prosecution, likely due to its role working with middlemen rather than the principals of money laundering and tax avoidance schemes. Nonetheless, Mossack Fonseca has faced recent scrutiny from Brazil and Germany and, of course, will likely face more after the ICIJ report.
As of yet, there have been no Americans cited as being involved in the system, but ICIJ says it will “release a full list of companies and people linked to them in early May.” In 2011, during deliberations on a proposed US-Panama trade deal, concerns were raised that signing the deal would undermine efforts to get rich Americans to pay taxes. President Barack Obama pushed Congress to approve the deal anyway, which it did.