(Bloomberg) Leaked files from a Panama law firm that creates shell companies show that politicians, criminals and celebrities worldwide have used banks and shadow companies to hide their finances, according to a series of reports by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Within hours of publication, the divulgences prompted a parliamentary vote of confidence in Iceland, a curt denial from Argentina and ridicule from a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The consortium said it had obtained a cache of 11.5 million records outlining the creation of more than 200,000 offshore shell companies. The trove includes offshore companies linked to 12 current and former world leaders, as well as hidden financial dealings by 128 more politicians, public officials and entertainment celebrities, according to the ICIJ.
While offshore holdings can be legal, they can also be used to hide wealth. Since the financial crisis, Western governments have sought to shed greater light on offshore banking centers, accusing them of being used for activities ranging from tax avoidance to hiding illicit funds to enabling reckless trading. Many Western countries have increasingly linked foreign aid to anti-corruption crackdowns in recipient countries. The ICIJ cited documents that it alleged showed that some banks and law firms failed to follow requirements to check that their clients weren’t involved in crimes.
“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,” José Ugaz, the chair of Transparency International, an advocacy group, said in a statement. “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.”
‘All But Untraceable’
At least $2 billion in transactions involved people and companies the ICIJ alleged had ties to Putin, according to the report. It outlined, for example, the creation, within 24 hours, of a chain of four shell companies in three countries, involving two banks, a process that made the money behind it “all but untraceable.”
The original company in the chain, according to the consortium’s report, was the St. Petersburg-based Bank Rossiya “whose majority owner and chairman has been called one of Putin’s ‘cashiers.”’ Some of this money was used to gain “indirect influence” over shareholders in Russian companies.
“Mr. Putin was never involved. It’s bulls**t,” Andrey Kostin, chief executive officer of VTB Group, Russia’s second-largest lender, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday. He also rejected allegations that the lender made unsecured loans through a Cyprus-based subsidiary, Russian Commercial Bank (RCB), to a close friend of the president, saying it was near impossible given that RCB is subject to European Central Bank regulations.
The Western country most affected by the allegations is Iceland, which went through a major banking crisis last decade and where Prime Minister Sigmundur D. Gunnlaugsson now faces a confidence vote in parliament Monday after he and his wife appeared in documents as having an investment account in the British Virgin Islands to handle an inheritance.
The ICIJ’s report said account holders also include current and former leaders from Argentina, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Ukraine.
The office of Argentinian President Mauricio Macri said in a statement that he had been “occasionally designated as a director” of an off-shore company mentioned in the report, but never held shares.
The documents span from 1977 to 2015 and came from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, a top creator of shell companies that has branches in Hong Kong, Miami, Zurich and more than 35 other places around the globe, the ICIJ said.
What makes an offshore account legal or not is often simply a question of whether it’s declared to tax authorities, said Professor Peter Hahn at London’s Institute of Financial Services.
“Rather than blame the banks for such transactions, international attention should focus on requiring disclosure of the end of the chain owners of shell companies, eliminating the ability of the unscrupulous to misuse the banking system and create vast compliance costs for legitimate businesses,” Hahn said in response to e-mailed questions.
In written comments to the consortium, Mossack Fonseca said it “does not foster or promote illegal acts” and that the group’s allegations that it provides shareholders with structures “supposedly designed to hide the identity of the real owners are completely unsupported and false.”
The government of Panama said it will cooperate with any legal probe resulting from the data leak, Agence France-Presse reported.
The ICIJ, founded in 1997, is a global network of investigative journalists who collaborate on in-depth investigations on issues including cross-border crime, corruption and the accountability of power, according to its website.
—With assistance from Stepan Kravchenko, Gregory Viscusi, Ambereen Choudhury, Ilya Arkhipov, Omar R. Valdimarsson, Tony Halpin and Richard Partington.
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