Panama Papers a year on: Nearly 80 countries conduct 150 probes


PANAMA CITY: It’s been a year since the Panama Papers burst on the scene. The scandal has rocked governments, exposed high-profile personalities, triggered scores of investigations around the world and dealt a blow to Panama as an offshore financial hub.

A trove of 11.5 million digital records from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that revealed how many of the world’s wealthy used offshore companies to stash assets. The data were leaked to a German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and reports appeared in major media from April 3, 2016. Revelations continue to trickle out.

In the immediate aftermath, Iceland’s prime minister was forced to resign after the leak showed his family sheltered assets offshore.

Other people were exposed to scrutiny, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former British prime minister David Cameron, Argentina’s football icon Lionel Messi and President Mauricio Macri, Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar and many current and former politicians and associates.

At least 150 inquiries or investigations have been launched in 79 countries, with authorities examining many cases for possible tax evasion or money laundering, according to the Centre for Public Integrity, a US nonprofit group that until February hosted the now-independent ICIJ.

France put Panama on its blacklist of tax havens. The Central American nation is now scrambling to show the world it has cleaned up its act, notably through the sharing of tax information with other countries, to prevent the European Union and other jurisdictions following suit.

Mossack Fonseca’s partners, Juergen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca Mora, were arrested on February 9 on money-laundering charges. They remain in custody pending the outcome of a Panama investigation into their firm’s alleged links to a vast Brazilian bribery case known as “Operation Car Wash.”

In March, Panamanian prosecutors said they were resuming their Panama Papers probe that had been suspended for two months for legal technical issues.

This is not clear. Some politicians still have a Panama-sized cloud hanging over them, though others named in the files, such as Macri and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, were cleared.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is expected to rule mid-April on a Panama Papers revelation that Prime Minister Sharif’s children owned British Virgin Island (BVI) companies that dealt in millions of dollars in property transactions.

But while the Panama Papers shone the light on Panama, the scandal has focused attention on the BVI (where many entities managed by Mossack Fonseca were located) and other zones where financial secrecy reigns.

Those jurisdictions include the US states of Nevada, Wyoming and South Dakota. Advocacy groups note the United States has not signed onto an OECD information-sharing standard meant to put the squeeze on tax havens.

At the same time, though, the US under President Donald Trump, and Britain, which is navigating Brexit, are looking at possible tax changes that could entrench practices at home and in their low-tax dependent territories — such as the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands.

A year ago, the Panama Papers raised the prospect of a global tax clean-up campaign against the wealthy using secretive offshore entities.

In 2017, though, that may end up being less of a priority for much of the world as it tries to adjust to rapidly shifting ground on trade and security issues.