Drawing from 2.5 million secret files made public by a data leak more than 160 times the size of the leaked U.S. State Department documents published by WikiLeaks -- the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)’s investigation into the concealed world of tax havens and those who use them has made waves around the world.
In the 48 hours since the initial release of the largest investigative reporting project in the ICIJ’s 15-year history -- “Secrecy For Sale: Inside The Global Offshore Money Maze” -- public officials have issued statements, governments have launched investigations and politicians and journalists have debated the implications of the records and the reporting.
Dubbed “Offshore Leaks,” the records obtained by the ICIJ contain details on more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts and nearly 130,000 individuals and agents, in more than 170 countries. Over the last 15 months, 86 journalists in 46 countries pored over the document cache. Their findings shed some rare light on how various people, from government officials to the mega-rich, use secrecy jurisdictions to hide their money with the help of banks and accountants.
The Washington, D.C.-based ICIJ announced in a tweet that it’s contemplating making a possible public release of the 260 gigabytes of leaked offshore data. If that happens, more secrets are likely to emerge as journalists and others who were not originally part of the collaboration dig into the data and find their own stories.
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A third of the world’s wealth is tied up in offshore accounts, according to the Tax Justice Network, cited by ICIJ’s website. That’s estimated to be about $20 trillion.
Among those alleged to hold offshore accounts are Denise Rich, the ex-wife of the United State’s most famous tax fugitive, Marc Rich, who was controversially pardoned by former President Bill Clinton on Clinton’s last day in office; Maria Imelda Marcos Manotoc, the daughter of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who currently serves as a provincial governor; and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the prime minister of Georgia.
The Philippine government said it will investigate evidence that Marcos was the beneficiary of a secret British Virgin Islands offshore trust. Records show that the late dictator's oldest child, now a Philippine provincial governor, didn't disclose a British Virgin Islands, or BVI, trust in asset declarations required for public officials, ICIJ noted. When asked by the Philstar.com to comment on the ICIJ report, Marcos said she is “in the process of getting in touch with our lawyers and after that I will be ready with an answer.”
Officers of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), tasked to recover the billions believed to have been stashed away by the Marcos family, have formed a team to look into Marcos' alleged secret offshore trust funds. “We are duty bound to investigate, and then pursue or discount the matter depending on informed findings,” PCGG chairman Andres Bautista said in a statement. “If funds came from the pre-1986 Marcos secret deposits that were the subject of freeze orders, then those responsible for moving the funds around could be committing money laundering.”
Another finding by ICIJ shows that Greek citizens who own or direct offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens rarely declare them to Greek tax officials. Just four out of 107 offshore companies investigated by ICIJ are registered with tax authorities as the law usually requires, a compliance rate that particularly describes firms that hold assets or conduct business in Greece. Tax revenue from Greek offshore companies fell 90 percent in the past two years to €345,000 ($440,000) in 2012 from €3.4 million ($4.5 million) in 2010, according to figures from the Ministry of Finance.
After learning about the findings, George Mavraganis, the Deputy Finance Minister of Greece, announced that the Greek government is moving to address offshore-driven tax dodging. George Sourlas from Greece’s Ministry of Justice said the revenue loss caused by hiding offshore assets was huge, according to ICIJ. “By the actions of offshore companies in Greece, the revenue loss to the Greek government is in the order of 40 percent or more of the debt of our country,” Sourlas said. “The offshore companies cast a shadow at this time of great crisis, when some get rich and many get poor.”
A financial scandal is threatening French President Francois Hollande, after files unearthed by ICIJ have established that a close friend and treasurer for his 2012 presidential election campaign, Jean-Jacques Augier, and several other shareholders set up a company called International Bookstores Limited in 2005 in the Cayman Islands, a well-known Caribbean tax haven that is a British Overseas Territory.
Augier confirmed these facts with a hint of embarrassment but has stated that he does not have “either a personal bank account in the Cayman Islands or any personal direct investment in that territory.”
“I invested in this firm through Eurane’s Chinese subsidiary, Capital Concorde Limited, a holding company that manages all my business in China,” Augier said. “The investment in International Bookstores appears in company records. Nothing is illegal.”
According to Le Monde, Hollande denied knowledge of the offshore accounts held by Augier, asserting that it’s up to the tax administration to monitor Augier’s private activities.
In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron is also facing renewed pressure to act against Britain's secretive offshore industry, according to the Guardian, as leaked evidence continued to mount that politicians and tycoons from all over the world have used the British Virgin Islands to hide funds.
Lord Oakeshott, a senior Liberal Democrat, said that the secrecy haven of the BVI “stains the face of Britain.” Oakeshott and others question whether Cameron will raise the issue in June at the next G8 summit of wealthy nations. "How can David Cameron keep a straight face calling for the G8 to make big business pay tax when we let the BVI use British law and British protection to suck in billions in dirty money?" Oakeshott said.
Documents obtained by ICIJ show that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s two daughters were shareholders of three offshore companies. Aliyev’s office asserted there was nothing unusual about the information in the leak. According to BBC, the statement said the President’s daughters “are grown up and have the right to do business.”
A spokesperson for Azersun -- a holding company controlled by Hasan Gozal, a corporate mogul who was listed as the director of the daughters’ companies -- said the report was biased and based on inaccurate information. “I regret that the authority of the Press Council doesn't go beyond Azerbaijan and there is no such institution worldwide to fight racketeer journalists,” the spokesman told ICIJ.
The semana.com reports that ex-Columbian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez publicly defended his sons’ involvement in offshore business. Uribe said that his sons Tomás and Jerónimo are entrepreneurs and “have participated in business dealings since they were children,” and that “they are not tax evaders.”
Germany’s largest lender, Deutsche Bank AG (NYSE: DB), has allegedly helped its customers maintain more than 300 secretive offshore companies and trusts through its Singapore branch. Deutsche Bank vigorously defended the legality of its management services and insisted that clients were advised to properly report all of their taxes.
“I am pleased about these reports,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio, according to the New York Times. “I think that such things as have been made known will increase the pressure internationally, and we will be able to increase the cooperation with those who have been more reticent.”
Canadian Federal Revenue Minister Gail Shea praised the release of offshore banking information, calling it “good news” for Canadians and bad news for tax evaders, the Globe And Mail reports.
Shea urged ICIJ or anyone else with information on tax cheats to come forward. “We call on The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to hand over this list to allow our government to crack down on tax evaders,” the minister said in a statement.