MUNICH — What would become far and away the largest leak of information in newspaper history began more than a year ago, when an anonymous source contacted Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. The leak consisted of encrypted internal documents from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, which sells offshore shell companies to clients around the world who want to shield their identity. The quantity of documents eventually grew to a mammoth 2.6 terabytes of data.
Süddeutsche Zeitung writes that the source "sought neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures. The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows. It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world's rich and famous: from politicians, FIFA officials, fraudsters and drug smugglers, to celebrities and professional athletes."
Quickly, editors at the German daily understood that they would need help in tackling the unprecedented mountain of data, and turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Panama Papers became the biggest-ever international cooperation of its kind, with 400 journalists from more than 100 media organizations taking part.
Here are some of the initial revelations:
In its editorial, France's newspaper of record describes "the dizziness, the vertigo and the nausea" the massive leak provoked, revealing what it says is "the most complete and the most up-to-date disclosure of an entire part of global finance that was until now acting away from prying eyes." Slamming a "tiny part of the humanity that secretly exonerates itself from common duties and general interest," editor-in-chief Jérôme Fenoglio writes that globalization's "underground rifts" exposed in the Panama Papers could "sooner or later, if nothing's done, lead to its collapse."
Le Monde dedicates a comprehensive piece to Rami Makhlouf, a maternal first-cousin to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and one of the country's most powerful oligarchs. Makhlouf is said to have benefited greatly from his cousin becoming president in 2000, taking "Syria's plundering to the next level," the newspaper writes. An employee at Mossack Fonseca protected him until September 2011, despite U.S. sanctions against him and the regime, which is also said to have used offshore accounts to circumvent international sanctions after the beginning of the Syrian War, five years ago.
The newspaper also focuses on King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who, it provocatively writes, "loves the Virgin Islands." Via companies installed there and officially controlled by his personal secretary Mounir Majidi, the monarch was able to discreetly acquire a luxury 1930s schooner in 2006. Majidi is also the administrator of a Luxembourg-based company that, thanks to a no-interest $42 million loan from another Mossack Fonseca company based in the Virgin Islands, purchased a private mansion in central Paris. Le Monde writes that the scheme suggests that the company that loaned the money was also ultimately controlled by Mohammed VI.
The names of several FIFA officials also feature prominently in the leaked documents, including those of some who have already been charged in the FIFA corruption scandal. More surprisingly (or perhaps not), Juan Pedro Damiani, the FIFA's Independent Ethics Committee who handed down suspensions and bans to many officials, including to former FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, is also part of the database. Though his activity doesn't appear to have been illegal, his law firm is said to have worked for more than 400 offshore companies, including at least seven linked to former FIFA Vice-President Eugenio Figueredo, who was also charged by the U.S. for his alleged role in the bribery scandal. Read more in English from the ICIJ.
Finally, suspended UEFA Chief Michel Platini reportedly relied on Mossack Fonseca to help him administer an offshore company created in Panama in 2007, 11 months after he was named president of the Union of European Football Associations. Platini is currently serving a six-year ban from football over a $2 million payment from FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Platini, readers may recall, famously said in an interview last year, "I'm not a money man."
The German daily posted a special English-language edition for Panama Papers, first laying out the pure scale of the leak: 11.5 million documents — emails, pdf files, photo files, and excerpts of an internal Mossack Fonseca database. The cache of encrypted documents is more than the combined total of the WikiLeaks Cablegate, Offshore Leaks, Lux Leaks, and Swiss Leaks.
Süddeutsche Zeitung reports on the revelations linked to the small but wealthy nation of Iceland. Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, and the Minister of the Interior, Olöf Nordal appear in the records of Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian offshore provider. The documents link all three politicians to anonymous offshore companies, which they had never disclosed. The Panama Papers also include several of Iceland's wealthiest men and former top bankers, with the overall number of suspects "shockingly high for a country of just 330,000 inhabitants."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was elected in 2014, after the Maidan revolution, on the promise to clean up Ukrainian politics, but according to the German newspaper the "Chocolate King," who does business with Mossack Fonseca, is still costing the crippled Ukrainian economy millions in evaded tax. Poroshenko had vowed to sell his confectionery company, Roshen, in order to fully dedicate his time to politics. But Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that instead of that, while hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers died during one of the deadliest battles against pro-Russian rebels in August 2014, Poroshenko registered a letterbox company in the Virgin Islands where his assets were transferred.
The German daily also reports on records that Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi may hold a 50% share of a shell company, the existence of which was unknown until now. This could add to Messi's legal woes, after the revelation of several other offshore companies that Spanish investigators had already uncovered.
British newspaper The Guardian reports that Prime Minister David Cameron's late father ran an investment fund using residents of the Bahamas, including a Catholic bishop, to handle paperwork, thereby managing to avoid any UK taxes. As director of Blairmore Holdings Inc., Ian Cameron managed millions of pounds on behalf of a number of wealthy clients and institutions, including the private bank used by the Rolling Stones.
"The fund was founded in the early 1980s with help from the prime minister's late father and still exists today," the newspaper reports. "The Guardian has confirmed that in 30 years Blairmore has never paid a penny of tax in the UK on its profits. The prime minister's spokeswoman said that Downing Street had responded to allegations about Ian Cameron in the past. Asked if there was still any family money invested in the fund, she said: â€˜That is a private matter.'"
Among its other major revelations, The Guardian traces a $2 billion money trail to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Though the president's name does not appear in any of the records, the data reveals a pattern — his friends have earned millions from deals that seemingly could not have been secured without his patronage," the paper reports. "The documents suggest Putin's family has benefited from this money — his friends' fortunes appear his to spend."
The Guardian also reports that the law firm at the center of the global investigation, Mossack Fonseca, also helped hide laundered money from a notorious gold theft at the Brink's-Mat depot near Heathrow more than 30 years ago.
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Panama skyline — Photo: F Delventhal
Argentine daily La Nacion reports that newly elected President Mauricio Macri was part of a family offshore company during his time as Buenos Aires' mayor. The leaked documents show that Macri was director and vice president of a company managed by Mossack Fonseca. The Macri administration issued a statement yesterday saying that Macri was never a stakeholder in the ghost company but that he did play an occasional role as CEO.
Spanish TV station La Sexta reports that Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and his brother Agustín were listed as the agents of a British Virgin Islands company from 1991 to 1994. Agustín Almodovar blames his lack of experience for a decision to set up an offshore company aimed at expanding their international film business.
Some major names in Italian business, politics and sports turn up in the Panama Papers documents analyzed by the Rome-based weekly L'Espresso. According to the leaked documents, Luca di Montezemolo, the former Ferrari chief and current top executive at Italian airline Alitalia, had formed a Panama-based offshore company dubbed Lenville. The names of top Italian banks Unicredit and Ubi also show up repeatedly in the leaked documents. There are also traces of offshore accounts of longtime Silvio Berlusconi confidante Marcello Dell'Utri, who is currently serving a seven-year sentence for mafia association charges, as well as former Formula One driver Jarno Trulli.
Danish daily Politiken reports that the major financial service group Nordea has cooperated with Mossack Fonseca to provide their wealthiest clients with shell companies in tax havens. Nordea claims that these activities stopped in 2009 when the bank established new regulations, but the Panama Papers show that Nordea still administers more than 100 other active shell companies. Email correspondence reveals that Nordea asked Mossack Fonseca to set up a new shell company for a client as late as 2015. The documents also demonstrate that Nordea has frequently made use of so called "dummy names" — registered business owners who has no real responsibility for the company, including names of deceased individuals.
The Australian Taxation Office is investigating more than 800 high-net-wealth Australian clients of Mossack Fonseca, the Panama law firm from which the leaks originate, reports the Australian Financial Review daily.