‘PANAMA PAPERS’ SPARK GLOBAL PROBES
Governments across the world began investigating possible financial wrongdoing by the rich and powerful on Monday after a leak of four decades of documents from a Panamanian law firm that specialized in setting up offshore companies.
The “Panama Papers” revealed financial arrangements of global politicians and public figures including friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, relatives of the prime ministers of Britain, Iceland and Pakistan, and the president of Ukraine.
While holding money in offshore companies is not illegal, journalists who received the leaked documents said they could provide evidence of wealth hidden for tax evasion, money laundering, sanctions busting, drug deals or other crimes.
The law firm, Mossack Fonseca, which says it has set up more than 240,000 offshore companies for clients around the globe, denied any wrongdoing and called itself the victim of a campaign against privacy.
The Kremlin said the documents contained “nothing concrete and nothing new” while a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said his late father’s reported links to an offshore company were a “private matter.”
Financial prosecutors in France announced the opening of a preliminary investigation for aggravated tax fraud.
Germany would also “pick up the ball” in the case, a Finance Ministry spokesman said on Monday. Financial market watchdog Bafin is looking into the matter, said a source close to the regulator, which reports to the ministry.
Australia, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands were among other countries which said they had begun investigating the allegations based on more than 11.5 million documents. Banks came under the spotlight over allegations that they helped clients hide their wealth offshore.
A White House spokesman said that while he had no specific comment on the leaked papers, “greater transparency allows us to root out corruption.”
The documents, covering a period from 1977 until last December, were leaked to more than 100 news organizations around the world, cooperating with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington, D.C.-based network.
“I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken because of the extent of the documents,” ICIJ director Gerard Ryle said.
Government leaders around the world responded to the leaks on Monday with denials or declining comment.
Pakistan denied any wrongdoing by the family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after his daughter and son were linked to offshore companies.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko defended his commitment to transparency after lawmakers called for an investigation into allegations in the documents that he had used an offshore firm to avoid tax. Poroshenko purportedly moved his confectionery business, Roshen, to the British Virgin Islands in August 2014 as fighting between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists peaked.
“I believe I might be the first top official in Ukraine who treats declaring of assets, paying taxes, conflict of interest issues seriously,” Poroshenko tweeted.
Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson could not immediately be reached for comment after ICIJ said he and his wife were connected with a secretive company in an offshore haven, which brought opposition calls for him to resign.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper said the documents showed a network of secret offshore deals and loans worth $2 billion led to associates of Putin, including concert cellist Sergei Roldugin, a childhood friend of the president. Reuters could not confirm those details.
Putin’s spokesman dismissed the reports, saying they aimed to discredit him ahead of upcoming elections.
“This Putinophobia abroad has reached such a point that it is in fact taboo to say something good about Russia, or about any actions by Russia or any Russian achievements. But it’s a must to say bad things, a lot of bad things, and when there’s nothing to say, it must be concocted,” the spokesman said.
The British government asked for a copy of the leaked data, which could be embarrassing for Prime Minister Cameron, who has spoken out against tax evasion and tax avoidance.