The Latest From the Panama Papers: Details From the Largest Leak in History
More than 100 news outlets from around the world worked on the largest journalistic leak in history, dubbed the Panama Papers, which is exposing the secrets of how the global elite often find workarounds to hide their wealth. As news organizations dig through the documents and citizens react to the revelations we’ll be updating this post with the most important new developments as they occur.
French, Panama finance ministers to meet. French President Francois Hollande spoke on the phone with his Panamanian counterpart Juan Carlos Varela and the two agreed the finance ministers of the two countries should meet to discuss ways in which they could cooperate.
Hollande urged his counterpart to make sure his country answers requests for information regarding the offshore companies that are set up in the country. The French Finance Ministry said Panama was still not releasing relevant information about companies and accounts.
In the conversation, Varela emphasized the country's "commitment to continue cooperating with the international community in the fight against the improper use of financial and corporate services," the Panamanian government said.
OECD calls tax meeting. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has called for a meeting of senior tax officials on April 13 in Paris to discuss the Panama Papers. Members of the Joint International Tax Shelter Information and Collaboration (JITSIC) will take part in the meeting that "presents tax administrations with a first opportunity to act on the considerable body of information revealed by the 'Panama Papers' release," according to an OECD statement.
Separately, Panama has vowed to increase talks with OECD on sharing tax data, the country’s vice president told AFP. "We are going to establish technical-level dialogue between Panama and the OECD specifically on exchanging information," said Isabel De Saint Malo, who is also Panama’s foreign minister. Earlier in the week, Angel Gurria, the head of the OECD had described Panama as "the last major holdout" that continued to allow people to hide assets out of sight from authorities.
“A bad image to our country.” One set of people who have not had the best week are the offshore lawyers in Panama. Even those who don’t work at Mossack Fonseca were feeling the effects of the leak as they suddenly saw business dry up. "I was about to sign a contract on Monday with some Italian clients but they postponed it," one lawyer told Reuters.
The lawyers who work in the offshore industry say that the image of Panama as a paradise for money launderers was unfair. "We're worried because its giving a bad image to our country... it doesn't reflect reality," another lawyer said.
The Financial Times also talks to sector executives in Panama who insist the Mossack Fonseca leak ignores all the progress that the country has made in terms of transparency in recent years. “The steps [towards greater transparency] are not quantum leaps, but they are not baby steps either. They are respectable steps in the right direction,” one executive said.
EU calls for common list of tax havens. The European Union should come up with a list of tax havens over the next six months to impose sanctions on those who help people and companies hide revenue that could be taxed within the European Union. "We need now a true European list of non-cooperative jurisdictions," EU tax and economics commissioner Pierre Moscovici told reporters in Brussels.
Poroshenko vows to get tough (now). Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is speaking up against tax havens. Now that his has been found. “I am planning to present a significant reform that will make using offshore accounts in Ukraine impossible,” Poroshenko said this week after the Panama Papers revealed he had an offshore firm. Poroshenko had vowed to sell his candy empire when he ran for office, but instead he moved it offshore. He insisted the firm was a way to separate his business and political lives and not to minimize tax, claiming he couldn’t sell it before taking office because of the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Moscow may not like talking about its own starring role in the Panama Papers but it thinks Poroshenko’s appearance in the Mossack Fonseca documents could affect the European Union’s policy toward Ukraine. "I think that the European Union is gradually adjusting its policy toward Ukraine," Russia’s Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said.
The Panama Papers came at a horrible time for Poroshenko, who is dealing with a deepening government crisis and increasing anger at his administration. “Things are coming to a head, experts say, largely because Ukraine has failed to deliver on promised reforms under Poroshenko's two-year-old presidency,” notes the Christian Science Monitor.
Nigeria’s Senate president vows to hang tight. Bukola Saraki, the president of the Nigerian Senate, said he has no intention of stepping down after the Panama Papers revealed he did not declare at least four offshore assets listed under his wife’s name. Saraki, who is Nigeria’s third most powerful official, said the assets belonged to his wife’s family. Nigerian newspaper Premium Times, however, said the assets under his wife’s name “are actually held in trust for Mr. Saraki.”
A bad plugin? Cybersecurity experts continue trying to track down how someone was able to get so many files from Mossack Fonseca. The Panamanian law firm says it was hacked. One company that does security for Wordpress, a popular open-source website creation and content management tool, said that Mossack Fonseca was running a version of a plugin that has known vulnerabilities. The vulnerability “would have been trivially easy to exploit,” notes Wordfence.
“It is hard to confirm with full confidence what exactly happened but this report makes sense. WordPress and other CMSs are under constant attacks,” Jérôme Segura of Malwarebytes told Gizmodo. “The more extensions and third-party software a site uses, the more difficult it is going to be to protect it.”
Update at 10:40 a.m.: Cameron faces calls to resign. British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing increasing calls to resign after he finally acknowledged on Thursday that he profited from his father’s offshore trust. The hashtag #ResignCameron became the top trending topic on Twitter on Friday morning as members of parliament, celebrities, and just random citizens called on Cameron to step down. There is also a protest planned for Saturday.
“What's happened over this recent period is there's significant erosion of trust in the Prime Minister because he wasn't straight and he didn't answer straight away and responses, as others have said, had to be dragged out of him,” John Mann, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party, said. Mann has also called for a parliamentary investigation into the matter.
Many of Cameron’s critics hit out at what they called hypocrisy for his previous statements on the issue. “He said that sunlight is the best disinfectant and wasn’t entirely straight with the British people about what his own financial arrangements were,” Tom Watson, deputy Labour leader said. “That wouldn’t be so bad if he hadn’t also been lecturing very prominent people about their own tax arrangements, some he called morally wrong for being invested in similar schemes.”
Singer Lily Allen also joined the chorus of critics on Twitter: “Our Prime Minister has been stealing from us. It's very important that he resigns.”
Why did it take so long for Cameron to come clean? It was all out of respect for his late father, his defenders say. "I think he thought 'I know that I have complied fully with all of the tax laws' and I don't like feeding this mill of preying on his father's memory, and his father cannot defend himself," government minister Nick Boles said. “He’s prime minister yes, but he’s also a human being and he’s a son,” he added. “A son who lost his father.”
U.K. banks must disclose. Big British banks must disclose any ties with the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The U.K. Financial Conduct Authority has called on 20 banks and financial firms to disclose any ties with Mossack Fonseca by April 15.
Argentine president fights back. Mauricio Macri, one of the 12 heads of state named directly in the Panama Papers, continues to insist he has nothing to hide after a prosecutor called for an investigation into the Argentine president’s offshore holdings. Since the papers were leaked, Macri has said he didn’t need to declare that he was a director at Bahamas-based Fleg Trading because he did not own a stake in the firm.
Macri has vowed to go to court on Friday to certify that what he has been saying about the firm is true. Earlier, a prosecutor called on a judge to greenlight an investigation into whether Macri “maliciously” failed to detail his role in the offshore company in his annual tax statements. Around 500 protesters gathered outside the presidential palace after Macri spoke.
Panama’s attorney general and a ‘half-hearted’ probe. Four days after the Panama Papers broke, Panama’s Attorney General Kenia Porcell confirmed yesterday that there will be an investigation into the Panama Papers. But the probe so far only relates to Mossack Fonseca’s loss of confidential information, and won't look into whether its business practices were illegal. Porcell has come under intense criticism within Panama for her office’s failure to launch an investigation on the Panamanian law firm that has made headlines around the world.
Mossack Fonseca co-founder quits government council. Lawyer Jurgen Mossack, a co-founder of the Mossack Fonseca law firm, resigned from his seat in a council that advised Panama’s government on foreign policy. The post on the National Council of Foreign Relations was an unpaid post but illustrates how the executives at the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandal have clout with the Panamanian government. Until February, Ramon Fonseca, the firm’s other founding partner, was a member of President Juan Carlos Varela’s Cabinet.
Senators call on Treasury to investigate. Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown are calling on the Treasury Department to look into the documents released as part of the Panama Papers. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew the senators who are frequent critics of the banking sector said the government must investigate whether there are any companies, banks, or individuals in the U.S. with ties to Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
Although the Justice Department has already said it is reviewing the issue, the senators said that isn’t enough. “As the primary agency charged with protecting the integrity of the U.S. financial system and enforcing our laws against money laundering and terrorist financing, we strongly urge the Treasury Department to conduct its own inquiry into Mossack Fonseca's activities and its clients,” reads the letter.
Update on April 7 at 5:45 p.m.: Putin says Panama Papers are U.S. plot to weaken Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin staunchly denied there was “any element of corruption” in the massive leak of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. "They've found a few of my acquaintances and friends... and scraped up something from there and stuck it together." And what would be the purpose of such an exercise? "They are trying to destabilize us from within in order to make us more compliant," he said.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and several media outlets said that Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin was a front man for a network of Putin loyalists who moved some $2 billion through offshore networks. Putin said that Roldugin, a personal friend, had done nothing wrong.
This is all part of what any close observer of Moscow would expect Putin to say. The New York Times explains:
The Russian president rolled out the standard Kremlin excuse for any bad news regarding Russia from abroad. Russia, he said, deprives the West of its monopoly on economic and military power, which irritates the leading nations.
So the West dreams up plots to undermine the “unity and cohesion” of Russia, which is “an exercise in futility,” he said.
Putin specifically cited WikiLeaks to assert his claims that this was all part of a U.S. plot. But WikiLeaks has published a few contradictory tweets on the issue. First: “US govt funded #PanamaPapers attack story on Putin via USAID. Some good journalists but no model for integrity.” But then seemed to roll that back a bit a few hours later: “Claims that #PanamaPapers themselves are a 'plot' against Russia are nonsense. However hoarding, DC organization & USAID money tilt coverage.”
David Cameron admits benefit. After days of non-denials denials that raised more questions than answers, British Prime Minister David Cameron finally came clean in saying he benefitted from his late father’s offshore trust.
Mossack Fonseca keeps Americans at arm’s length. Many (including Slatest) have raised the question about why there aren’t more Americans in the Panama Papers. Ramon Fonseca talked to the Associated Press and gave a straightforward explanation: the firm would rather not have them as clients. The firm has long focused its business on Europe and Latin America rather than the United States. “The few American clients the firm has taken are mostly to handle visas and other requests from Panama's burgeoning expatriate retirement community,” notes the AP.
Banking execs quit. A member of the supervisory board at Dutch bank ABN Amro said he is stepping down after his name showed up in the Panama Papers. “I want to prevent the bank experiencing adverse effects,” Bert Meerstadt said in a statement.
He becomes the second European banking executive to resign after the chief executive of Austrian lender Hypo Landesbank Vorarlberg stepped down from his post. Michael Grahammer “surprisingly declared his resignation last night,” the bank said last night. Austrian broadcaster ORF said the bank was connected to offshore firms, a claim that is now being investigated by the country’s markets regulator. "I remain 100 percent convinced that the bank at no point violated laws or sanctions," Grahammer said in a statement issued by the bank.
Update at 10:34 a.m.: Some Panama Papers to stay out of limelight. The German paper that was the first to receive the leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca said that it won’t make all the 11.5 million files available to the public. The documents also won’t be made available to law enforcement agencies, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said. “That's because the SZ isn't the extended arm of prosecutors or the tax investigators,” the Munich-based paper added.
Panama vows review. Panama wants the world to know it isn’t sitting still. President Juan Carlos Varela vowed that the country’s foreign ministry would set up an “independent commission of domestic and international experts” to examine the country’s financial practices and propose ways to boost transparency. “We are a serious country, respectful of international law and cooperative with the efforts of the international community to seek solutions to this global problem,” he said in a television address.
Rather than criticize the publication of the documents, Varela said the country welcomed the reporting, saying it can help it improve. “We welcome any publication or any investigation which protects the Panamanian and global financial systems so that it cannot be used at any time for any illicit act,” Varela said. Still, he was sure to note that it would be mistaken to say the issue is only Panama’s problem and, like others in the country, he hates that it is being called the Panama Papers.
“Panama wants to make it very clear that this situation that has been mistakenly called ‘the Panama Papers’ is not our country’s problem, but rather that of many countries in the world, which has legal and financial structures that are still vulnerable to be used with ends that do not represent the common good,” Varela said.
A senior government adviser said that the commission is likely to issue its first report within six months. And, in an interview with Reuters, he rejected suggestions that Varela's friendship with one of the founders of Mossack Fonseca, Ramon Fonseca, would make a difference in the investigation. "I don't think it's really that difficult," he said.
China boosts censorship. It was already difficult for people in China to read news about the Panama Papers. But after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and associated media outlets, published an extensive look at the offshore holdings of some of China’s most powerful politicians, the censorship has only increased. The latest censorship directive calls on websites to make sure their entire site, including community forums and comments, make no mention of the Panama Papers.
When the Guardian published stories on the Chinese leadership on Thursday afternoon, the paper’s website became partially blocked in China. The government has also continued to refuse to say anything about the global story. “My colleague has already taken this question. We have no comment on this.” So far, the only official response to the documents was a spokesman calling the report “groundless.”
For China’s elite, the stakes are high because the Panama Papers come on the heels of a three-year anti-corruption campaign. Still, President Xi Jinping is expected to easily survive the revelations in the Panama Papers. Some, however, say it could fundamentally alter the anti-corruption drive. “The campaign may become more intense, or it may halt it, and everyone might protect each other, saying: 'You don't touch me, I won't touch you,” said Wu Qiang, an independent political commentator and former lecturer at Tsinghua University.
Update on April 6 at 5:02 p.m.: The many secrets of China’s top leaders. At least three of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s Communist Party’s most powerful committee, have relatives who head up offshore companies, according to the Panama Papers. When former members of the committee are also included in the list the number rises to eight. By far the biggest name on the list is President Xi Jinping, whose brother-in-law has owned companies in tax havens.
The starring role of what is known as the “red nobility” in the Panama Papers is merely the top of the pyramid for what has become a huge market for offshore firms. Nearly one-third of Mossack Fonseca’s businesses came from Hong Kong and China, “making China the firm's biggest market and Hong Kong the company's busiest office,” notes the BBC.
It likely won’t be easy for Chinese citizens to read about how their country is featured in the Panama Papers. China has been censoring news about the leak since Monday. The government has reason to be nervous. After all, Xi, and the Communist Party as a whole, have vowed to combat corruption following several high-profile scandals.
European soccer under scrutiny. Swiss authorities have raided the offices of UEFA, which governs European soccer, after a former secretary general of the organization, Gianni Infantino, appeared in the Panama Papers. He is currently the president of FIFA, the world governing body for soccer.
Documents that are part of the Mossack Fonseca leak show how Infantino signed a contract for television rights with two business leaders who have since been tied with the FIFA corruption scandal. The documents show how UEFA sold the Ecuadorian TV rights for some games to an Argentinian company registered in the tax haven of Niue, an island in the South Pacific, at one price and then the company immediately resold them at a much higher price.
Infantino has strongly denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to cooperate with investigators. “If my determination to restore football’s reputation was already very strong, it is now even stronger,” he said. “I welcome any investigation conducted into this matter.” The Swiss attorney general said the raid was “motivated by the suspicion of criminal mismanagement” but “no specific individual is being targeted by these proceedings.”
FIFA official resigns. A Uruguayan member of FIFA’s independent ethics committee has resigned following the release of the Panama Papers. Juan Pedro Damiani was one of the first big-name officials to receive worldwide attention from the Panama Papers that appeared to show how his law firm was an intermediary for a FIFA official who has been caught up in the corruption scandal involving the global soccer authority. Damiani’s firm allegedly helped Eugenio Figueredo, a fellow Uruguayan and a former FIFA vice-president who was arrested last year, set up an offshore company.
"We can confirm that Mr. Damiani resigned from his position as member of the adjudicatory chamber of the independent Ethics Committee of FIFA," spokesman Marc Tenbuecken told AFP in an email.
British prime minister avoids the past. Prime Minister David Cameron’s administration appears to be pursuing a new tactic to deal with the Panama Papers: staying quiet. Cameron and his aides have given four explanations about the offshore company set up by the prime minister’s late father but all of them leave some wiggle room that has only led to more questions. The latest attempt at a statement came Wednesday morning: "There are no offshore funds or trusts which the prime minister, Mrs Cameron or their children will benefit from in future."
That statement leaves open the possibility that the prime minister or his family benefited from offshore funds in the past. The opposition Labour Party continues to demand clarification on the issue.
Update at 11:16 a.m.: Fonseca cries foul. The Panama Papers are the result of an external hack, according to the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which has now filed a complaint with state prosecutors. "We rule out an inside job. This is not a leak. This is a hack," Ramon Fonseca, a founding partner at the firm, told Reuters, adding that the company has done nothing wrong and hasn't broken any laws. The emails that have made waves around the world were “taken out of context,” he said. The journalists poring through the firm’s 11.5 million documents should be focusing on how they were obtained, not what they say. "The only crime that has been proven is the hack," Fonseca said. "No one is talking about that. That is the story."
At the end of the day though, Fonseca is optimistic about the future. "This is a tropical storm, like the ones we have here in Panama where once it passes the sun will come out," Fonseca said. "I guarantee you that we will not be found guilty of anything."
Judging old practices by new standards? Many have described the Panama Papers as simply the tip of the iceberg. Others in the financial industry are pushing back against that assertion, saying that in fact the journalists writing stories about the leak are applying today’s laws to things that were done in the past. "Fifteen years ago, due diligence didn't exist and they are judging us by other standards," Ramon Fonseca said.
Nigel Green, founder and CEO of international financial advising firm deVere Group said the documents are not representative of the international financial services industry as a whole. “Many of the documents that have been revealed by the Panama Papers case date back decades and for the last several years a new and totally unprecedented era of transparency and disclosure has been ushered in,” Green said. Now, “the overwhelming majority of the offshore sector only provides services that are fully compliant and legal and they are used by law-abiding clients.”
The Americans. One of the things that has most raised eyebrows in the press regarding the Panama Papers is the sheer lack of U.S. citizens on the list. Moscow was eager to seize on this as an illustration of why the leak should be seen as a Western plot. One of the only U.S. names released at first was Marianna Olszewski, an investment adviser who wrote the book Live It, Love It, Earn It: A Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom. Mossack Fonseca allegedly set up a shell company for Olszewski to help her retrieve $1.8 million from an offshore investment without revealing her identity, according to the BBC.
Olszewski isn’t alone. Even though determining the exact number of Americans in the leaked documents is difficult, at least 200 scanned individual U.S passports are part of the leak. The names don’t appear to include any politicians or otherwise famous people. “Some appear to be American retirees purchasing real estate in places like Costa Rica and Panama,” reports McClatchy. At least five though seem to be people who have been charged with financial crimes. When you zoom out a bit, the connections to the U.S. grow as approximately 3,500 shareholders of offshore companies list a U.S. address.
Overall, Mossack Fonseca worked with 617 intermediaries operating in the United States, according to ICIJ.
Nevada connection. Mossack Fonseca may be a Panamanian firm but it has ties to almost 1,100 U.S. companies that were largely set up in Nevada and Wyoming since 2001. So far though, “the firm has appeared in only a scattering of court cases and regulatory filings,” reports USA Today. Most of the firms Mossack Fonseca helped set up were in Nevada. There is very little publicly available information about the corporations to figure out who is behind them.
Americans don’t need to go offshore. The connection between Mossack Fonseca and Nevada raise another issue about why there may be so few American names in the Panama Papers: U.S. citizens don’t need to go far to find their own tax haven. “You don’t really have to go to Panama or other tax havens. They are not the only ones making it possible for corrupt officials and other criminals to launder their money. You can do it in every state in the U.S.,” Shruti Shah, vice-president of programs and operations at Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization, tells the Guardian. The Tax Justice Network ranks Panama as 13th in the “2015 Secrecy Ranking.” The U.S. comes in at number three.
The United States has emerged as “an active competitor in the ‘corruption services’ business,” writes Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota have all made it easier to set up shell companies and harder for authorities to figure out who are the real owners. “Bankers say that has actually prompted a flow of foreign assets from traditional tax havens such as Zurich and Bermuda to less elegant banking centers like Reno and Sioux Falls,” notes McManus.
Update on April 5 at 4:36 p.m.: Banks: nothing to see here. The Panama Papers revelations that have some sort of connection to politicians across the world have received most of the attention. But one of the most fascinating aspects of the Mossack Fonseca leak is how some of the biggest banks helped their customers set up offshore companies. The Panama Papers reveal that more than 500 banks registered almost 15,600 shell companies with Mossack Fonseca. There are some big names on the list too, including HSBC, UBS, Credit Suisse, Societe General, and the Royal Bank of Canada.
The biggest offender on the list of big names? HSBC, which, along with subsidiaries, account for more than 2,300 of the companies in the report. The news comes as a big blow to a bank that has faced scrutiny across the world for its practices. In February of last year, authorities raided two HSBC offices in Switzerland due to offshore finances.
Regulators across Europe have said they will launch investigations into the offshore activities of the banks they’re supposed to be supervising. The banks, however, have staunchly rejected any suggestion that they use offshore assets to help clients evade taxes. In a statement provided to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2015 though, HSBC acknowledged that “the compliance culture and standards of due diligence in HSBC's Swiss private bank, as well as the industry in general, were significantly lower than they are today.”
Some experts contend the fallout from the Panama Papers could end up being good news for banks tired of working on the margins of legality. “It might give banks a hand,” Brian Kindle, executive director of the Miami-based Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists, told the Globe and Mail. “Banks don’t have the proper framework, in terms of regulation and information sources, provided to them to do the due diligence they need to do. There needs to be reform around how companies are incorporated and what information they are required to give and who is responsible for updating that when the information changes.”
Obama speaks. President Obama talked to reporters about the Panama Papers on Tuesday, saying that it demonstrates the need for international reform. “There is no doubt that the problem of global tax avoidance generally is a huge problem,” Obama said. “The problem is that a lot of this stuff is legal, not illegal.” Although there are no U.S. politicians in the leak (so far at least) Obama said he’s under no illusion that Americans are not participating in offshore schemes to evade taxes. “Frankly, folks in America are taking advantage of the same stuff," he said as he touted new rules to prevent what is known as corporate inversions, which is when companies move overseas to avoid taxes.
Don’t call it the Panama Papers in Panama. There is one country that is not so fond of the name that has been given to the largest leak in journalistic history. You guessed it, it’s Panama. While around the world the search for “Panama Papers” is trending, in Panama it's a (misspelled) “MossakFonsecaPapers,” reports the BBC. Some Twitter users from Panama are even trying to launch a campaign to get the country name out of the equation and have everyone just focus on the law firm Mossack Fonseca. Considering even those trying to advocate the name change spelled it wrong, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that happening.
Update at 1:05 p.m.: Cameron tries to clarify (and ends up raising more questions). British Prime Minister David Cameron has been one of the world leaders who has come under fire from the Panama Papers, which listed his late father Ian Cameron as a client of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. After a spokeswoman described it all as a private matter, Cameron sought to address the lingering questions on Tuesday.
In the end though, Cameron raised more questions than he answered during an interview. “I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that. And, so that, I think, is a very clear description,” Cameron said. Except it wasn’t. Cameron was answering to a question that referred to past and future profits and to him and his family. Instead, the prime minister only talked about himself and in the present tense.
Shortly thereafter, a spokesperson for the prime minister sought to broaden the answer: “To be clear, the prime minister, his wife and their children do not benefit from any offshore funds.” Problem is, as the Guardian quickly pointed out, the answer was written in the present tense, so no word about whether it was different in the past.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is calling for an independent investigation on the issue. "There cannot be one set of tax rules for the wealthy elite and another for the rest of us," Corbyn said. “The unfairness and abuse must stop.” Corbyn said he would publish his tax returns and called on the prime minister to follow suit.
Argentina’s president also digs in heels. Argentine President Mauricio Macri was one of the 12 global leaders directly named in the Panama Papers. He had already denied any wrongdoing yesterday. But turns out local journalists, working with a separate database that is not the Panama Papers, linked Macri with a second offshore company. So his Cabinet chief talked to the press today to once again deny any wrongdoing: “The president doesn’t have accounts nor undeclared assets anywhere in the world, including Panama.”
First politician falls. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson has the dubious honor of being the first politician to be forced out since the publication of the Panama Papers.
Really, really, really large piggy banks. Still having trouble understanding the basics of the Panama Papers and offshore companies? Reddit user DanGliesack came up with a way of simply explaining the basics with a story that is friendly enough for a five-year-old to understand. The Guardian added a few illustrations to the story to make it even easier to read.
China: nothing to see here. China doesn’t really wants its citizens to know much about the largest leak in journalistic history. At first, it seemed the Chinese government didn’t mind if the public knew about the Panama Papers as long as talk of potential ties between the country’s Communist Party leaders and offshore companies stayed outside its borders. So Chinese reports on the issue were very elliptical and made absolutely no reference to the way the relatives of several top officials, including President Xi Jinping, had offshore assets.
By Monday afternoon, Chinese officials were already having second thoughts and reportedly told news agencies to take down the articles on the Panama Papers. “By Tuesday, it was as if they’d never existed,” notes the Los Angeles Times. China Digital Times has published a memo sent by a provincial propaganda department to media outlets: “Find and delete reprinted reports on the Panama Papers. Do not follow up on related content, no exceptions.” The censorship of the articles was accompanied by blocks on several searches, including “Panama + offshore,” in Sina Weibo, which is often referred to as China’s Twitter.
So what did the Panama Papers reveal about China? Family members of at least eight current or former members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, have set up offshore assets through Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
One exception to the broad censorship of news about the Panama Papers was in the English-language Global Times, a state-run tabloid. The paper seemed to take a page out of Moscow’s playbook and characterized the Panama Papers as an ideological attack by Western media outlets:
The Western media has taken control of the interpretation each time there has been such a document dump, and Washington has demonstrated particular influence in it. Information that is negative to the US can always be minimized, while exposure of non-Western leaders, such as Putin, can get extra spin.
In the Internet era, disinformation poses no major risks to Western influential elites or the West. In the long-run, it will become a new means for the ideology-allied Western nations to strike a blow to non-Western political elites and key organizations.
Update on April 4 at 7:15 p.m.: Department of Justice takes a look. The Department of Justice said it will be looking at the revelations from the Panama Papers to try to figure out whether the documents can help prove corrupt practices or other violations of the law. “We are aware of the reports and are reviewing them,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said. “While we cannot comment on the specifics of these alleged documents, the U.S. Department of Justice takes very seriously all credible allegations of high-level, foreign corruption that might have a link to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”
The IRS could also wind up getting involved. A former IRS official said it was almost inevitable that it would start taking a look at the names revealed in the documents. "Once the IRS becomes aware of the identities of these people, I almost can guarantee you that they will do some kind of triaging of the data to see if there are U.S. people in there and based on the results of that, they may elect to go after people," Daniel Reeves, who helped create the IRS offshore compliance unit, told McClatchy.
The group that is coordinating the reporting isn’t planning on making it any easier for authorities. The Justice Department “can read it like any other person in what we publish,” the head of the organization said.
France also opens investigation. The U.S. government is hardly alone in wanting to figure out just how much there there is in 2.6 terabytes of data. French prosecutors also opened an investigation to try to figure out whether French nationals or companies used companies in Panama as a way to evade taxes. “The goal of the investigation is to characterize infractions that may have been committed in France, by people whom the probe will identify,” the spokesman said.
Update at 6:15 p.m.: Messi and the world of soccer. Soccer superstar Lionel Messi is under (yet another) investigation by Spanish tax authorities after his name appeared in the Panama Papers. He is one of 20 high-profile soccer players listed in the report. But the issue is particularly sensitive for Messi, who, along with his father, is scheduled to go on trial next month for alleged tax evasion. The documents show that Messi and his father are the only beneficiaries of a company in Panama named Mega Star Enterprises. Amazingly, the first reference to the company came one day after Spanish prosecutors charged Messi and his father for tax evasion.
The Messi family has staunchly denied any wrongdoing saying that the offshore firm “never had any funds or accounts” and that it was created by financial advisers who are no longer working for the family. In a statement, the family said it was analyzing the possibility of taking legal action against media outlets that published the news.
When there’s a story about global corruption, it seems inevitable that global soccer body FIFA will be involved. And this is no exception. Now the troubled organization could be steps away from another crisis as the files demonstrate close ties between the law firm of a FIFA ethics watchdog and three men who have been accused as part of the global corruption scandal that has engulfed the group. “The files could threaten to undermine the credibility of the ethics committee, which is central to attempts to show FIFA is willing to reform after decades of corruption allegations,” notes the Guardian. FIFA has vowed to investigate.
The Argentine connection. Two of the three most powerful Argentines in the world are front and center of the Panama Papers as both President Mauricio Macri and soccer superstar Lionel Messi were listed (Pope Francis is nowhere in sight). Macri, a businessman turned politician, is one of 12 heads of state whose name appears directly in the leaked documents. Macri, his father and brother were all part of the board of directors of an offshore company registered in the Bahamas since 1998. The company was still running in 2009, two years after Macri was elected mayor of the city of Buenos Aires so should have technically been reported to oversight authorities. The government denied the president did anything wrong, saying he was never a shareholder in the company so wasn’t required to disclose it.
Macri defended his actions in an interview today saying it was all part of “a legal operation,” adding that “there is nothing strange” about his participation in the firm. He said his father, business magnate Franco Macri, created the company to carry out an investment in Brazil that never came to fruition.
Although the opposition hasn’t accused Macri of doing anything illegal, they say he has to come forward and explain himself, particularly considering he was elected last year partly with the promise to combat corruption. "An offshore company is never created with licit aims," said Hector Recalde, the president of the Victory Front party in the Lower House of Congress. "The President has the responsibility to make things absolutely clear."
Laura Alonso, a member of the ruling party and head of the anti-corruption office, immediately came under fire for seemingly defending the president when the story first broke on Sunday. "To create a company in a tax haven is not a crime in and of itself," Alonso wrote on Twitter.
Other notable Argentines on the list include Daniel Muñoz, the private secretary of late former president Nestor Kirchner, who ruled the country between 2003 and 2007.
Original post at 3:33 p.m.: Politicians, business leaders, sports stars, and banks around the world are reeling from what has been dubbed the Panama Papers, the biggest journalistic leak in history. An anonymous source leaked 11.5 million documents going back 40 years from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung was the first to get the documents and then shared them with the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which launched a global reporting effort involving 107 media organizations in 78 countries.
The leak involved 2.6 terabytes of data. That is huge. For comparison’s sake the WikiLeaks State Department cables released in 2010 amounted to 1.7 gigabytes of data, which is tiny compared to the 2,600GB of the Panama Papers. With so much information breaking around the world, it’s hard to know where to start analyzing the scope of such a huge trove of data. To help in that quest, Slatest will do rolling updates of interesting nuggets of information as they break.
First though, a few basic things to get out of the way. Owning or participating in an offshore company is not in and of itself illegal. But, of course, offshore companies are the preferred venue for the corrupt and the launderers. Plus, more than any one specific revelation what the documents expose is just how huge and pervasive offshore structures have become around the world—and how they often involve the biggest banks.
“Doing legitimate business in secrecy jurisdictions is not illegal, but the Panama Papers investigation is yet another example of how individuals and businesses are systematically abusing the secrecy they provide” explained Global Financial Integrity Policy Counsel Liz Confalone.
For the record, Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing. “Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing,” the Panama-based law firm said.
So, without further ado, here are the latest developments.
Icelanders take to the streets. Thousands of protesters in Iceland gathered outside the parliament in Reykjavik to express their anger at the government on Monday after the leaks revealed Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, and two other top officials in his government, have ties to anonymous offshore companies.
The protest was launched after a defiant prime minister told parliament he had no intention of resigning after reports linked him and his wife with a company in the British Virgin Islands. Gunnlaugsson staunchly denied any wrongdoing, saying he and his wife paid all their taxes.
Despite his denials, several members of Iceland’s opposition have called on him to resign. "What would be the most natural and the right thing to do is that (he) resign as prime minister," Birgitta Jonsdottir, the head of the Pirate Party, one of the country’s biggest opposition parties, told Reuters.
Russia yawns. One of the first stories to come out of the treasure trove of documents had to do with a network of allies to Russian President Vladimir Putin that moved around $2 billion through a sophisticated network of offshore companies. The story had lots of fascinating nuggets that made it journalistically appealing, including the starring role of a cellist who somehow controlled a business empire that earned tens of millions of rubles per day.
Russians, however, were not impressed. In fact, it was likely many had no idea about what was being reported around the world. State-owned Channel One reported the story after hours of silence and prominently featured a denial from Putin’s spokesman, who raised questions about the source of information and characterized it as a U.S. plot against Moscow.
"It's obvious that there are many journalists there whose main profession is unlikely to be journalism," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said. Government-owned RT highlighted how many outlets (Slate included) illustrated their Panama Papers story with a photo of Putin even though he isn’t mentioned in any of the documents.
The reaction is hardly surprising for those who keep a close eye on Moscow. “Casting Russia as a fortress resisting external onslaughts has become a key feature of Putin’s domestic political narrative,” writes Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian. The lack of reaction from Russia is perhaps best summarized by what blogger Ilya Varlamov wrote on Twitter: "Seriously, if someone had posted a photo of Putin watching Peppa Pig it would have caused more of a stir."
This post will be updated with new information as the story develops. The post has been updated for clarity since it was first published.