Millions of leaked documents reveal how dozens of politicians and public officials from countries across the world have been stashing cash in offshore havens.
The 11.5 million leaked records, dubbed the “Panama Papers,” show that some of the world’s most well-known heads of state, politicians and celebrities – including Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the prime minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson – have millions of dollars squirreled away in offshore accounts.
The leaked documents, which were reviewed by journalists from more than a hundred international news organisations – such as The Guardian, the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – reveal that major banks have been key in creating evasive companies in Panama and other locations.
According to the ICIJ, more than 200,000 offshore accounts are listed in the leaked documents, and banking giants, including UBS and HSBC, have set up thousands of shell corporations for international clients.
The records, ICIJ says, illustrate how international law firms and big banks are “selling financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars”.
The documents have been leaked from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. With a “global presence,” Mossack Fonseca has branches dotted across the world in places such as The Bahamas, Jersey, Hong Kong and Liechtenstein.
The company is expert in creating shell companies, and according to The Guardian and the ICIJ, the leaked files contain information about some 214,000 offshore accounts which are connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories.
As the ICIJ states, with many of Mossack Fonseca’s clients there is no evidence to suggest that the shell companies are being used for illegal activities. The documents also show, however, that Mossack Fonseca’s client list includes drug traffickers, tax evaders and scam artists.
In one case, at least two South African businessmen involved in a $60 million investment scam, which included embezzling money from a benefit pool for the widows and orphans of deceased mine workers, used Mossack Fonseca to create offshore corporations.
Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing. The Panamanian law firm said in a “Fact Sheet,” which is available online, that “our firm, like many firms, provides worldwide registered agent services for our professional clients (e.g., lawyers, banks, and trusts) who are intermediaries. As a registered agent we merely help incorporate companies, and before we agree to work with a client in any way, we conduct a thorough due-diligence process, one that in every case meets and quite often exceeds all relevant local rules, regulations and standards to which we and others are bound”.
In the wake of the massive document leak, international accountability and anti-corruption organisations are calling for greater transparency.
According to a press release from non-governmental organisation, Transparency International, José Ugaz, the organisation’s chair, said: “The Panama Papers investigation unmasks the dark side of the global financial system where banks, lawyers and financial professionals enable secret companies to hide illicit corrupt money. This must stop. World leaders must come together and ban the secret companies that fuel grand corruption and allow the corrupt to benefit from ill-gotten wealth.”
The ICIJ has said it will release a comprehensive list of companies and people linked to them in early May. For more information about the “Panama Papers,” Mossack Fonseca and corruption scandals, visit theICIJwebsite.