More than a dozen heads of state and government, from Jordan to Azerbaijan, Kenya and the Czech Republic, have used offshore tax havens to hide assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a far-reaching new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) media consortium.
The so-called “Pandora Papers” investigation — involving about 600 journalists from media including the Washington Post, the BBC and the Guardian — is based on the leak of about 11.9 million documents from 14 financial services companies around the world.
About 35 current and former leaders are featured in the latest vast trove of documents analyzed by the ICIJ, facing allegations ranging from corruption to money laundering and global tax avoidance.
In most countries, it is not illegal to have assets offshore or to use shell companies to do business across national borders, the group said.
However, such revelations are no less of an embarrassment for leaders who may have campaigned publicly against tax avoidance and corruption, or advocated austerity measures at home.
The documents notably expose how Jordan’s King Abdullah II created a network of offshore companies and tax havens to amass a US$100 million property empire from Malibu, California, to Washington and London.
The Jordanian embassy in Washington declined to comment, but the BBC cited lawyers for the king saying that all the properties were bought with personal wealth, and it was common practice for high-profile individuals to purchase properties via offshore companies for privacy and security reasons.
Family and associates of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev — long accused of corruption in the Caucasus nation — are alleged to have been secretly involved in property deals in the UK worth hundreds of millions.
The documents also show how Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis — who faces an election later this week — failed to declare an offshore investment company used to purchase a US$22 million chateau in the south of France.
“I have never done anything illegal or wrong,” Babis wrote on Twitter, calling the revelations a smear attempt aimed at influencing the election.
In total, the ICIJ found links between almost 1,000 companies in offshore havens and 336 high-level politicians and public officials, including more than a dozen serving heads of state and government, country leaders, Cabinet ministers, ambassadors and others.
More than two-thirds of the companies were set up in the British Virgin Islands.
Nearly 2 million of the 11.9 million leaked documents came from prestigious Panamanian law firm Aleman, Cordero, Galindo & Lee (Alcogal), which the ICIJ said had become “a magnet for the rich and powerful from Latin America and beyond seeking to hide wealth offshore.”
Alcogal, whose clients allegedly included Jordan’s monarch and the Czech prime minister, rejected accusations of shady dealings, saying it was considering legal action to defend its reputation.
“I guess it mostly demonstrates that the people that could end the secrecy of offshore, could end what’s going on, are themselves benefiting from it,” ICIJ director Gerard Ryle said in a video accompanying the investigation.
“We’re looking at trillions of dollars,” he said.
For Maira Martini, a policy expert with Transparency International, the latest investigation once more offers “clear evidence of how the offshore industry promotes corruption and financial crime, while obstructing justice.”
“This business model cannot go on,” she said.
“The new data leak must be a wake-up call,” said Sven Giegold, a Green party lawmaker in the European Parliament. “Global tax evasion fuels global inequality. We need to expand and sharpen the countermeasures now.”
Oxfam International, a British consortium of charities, applauded the Pandora Papers for exposing brazen examples of greed that deprived countries of tax revenue that could be used to finance programs and projects for the greater good.
“This is where our missing hospitals are,” Oxfam said in a statement. “This is where the pay-packets sit of all the extra teachers and firefighters and public servants we need. Whenever a politician or business leader claims there is ‘no money’ to pay for climate damage and innovation, for more and better jobs, for a fair post-COVID recovery, for more overseas aid, they know where to look.”
Among the other revelations from the ICIJ investigation are:
• Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has been critical of tax loopholes, is shown to have legally avoided paying stamp duty on a multimillion-
dollar property in London when he and his wife, Cherie, bought the offshore company that owned it.
• Members of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle, including Cabinet ministers and their families, are said to secretly own companies and trusts holding millions of dollars.
In a series of posts on Twitter, Khan vowed to “take appropriate action” if any wrongdoing by Pakistani citizens is established.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin is not directly named in the files, but he is linked via associates to secret assets in Monaco, notably a waterfront home acquired by a Russian woman believed to have had a child with the Russian leader, the Washington Post reported.
• Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta — who has campaigned against corruption and for financial transparency — is alleged, along with several family members, of secretly owning a network of offshore companies.
• Two former Hong Kong chief executives were also named in the report: Billionaire Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) and his family have registered nearly 30 offshore companies, while Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) was listed as the owner of two British Virgin Island companies while serving as the territory’s leader.
Leung was investigated by Hong Kong’s anti-corruption agency, but the Department of Justice in 2018 dropped the case due to insufficient evidence.
Neither responded to requests for comment from the ICIJ, the group said.
• As well as politicians, the public figures exposed included the Colombian singer Shakira, German supermodel Claudia Schiffer and Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.
Representatives for all three told the ICIJ the investments were legitimate and denied tax avoidance.
The Pandora Papers are the latest in a series of mass ICIJ leaks of financial documents, from LuxLeaks in 2014, to the 2016 Panama Papers — which triggered the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland and paved the way for the leader of Pakistan to be ousted.
They were followed by the Paradise Papers in 2017 and FinCen files last year.
Additional reporting by AP and Bloomberg
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