GLOBAL INVESTIGATION: Inside the Offshore Global Money Maze

Dozens of journalists sifted through millions of leaked records and thousands of names to produce ICIJ’s investigation into offshore secrecy – Published on Premium Times, Nigeria, by Gerard Ryle, Marina Walker Guevara, Michael Hudson, Nicky Hager, Duncan Campbell and Stefan Candea, April 4, 2013.

A cache of 2.5 million files has cracked open the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and the mega-rich the world over.

The secret records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists lay bare the names behind covert companies and private trusts in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and other offshore hideaways.

They include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as Nigerian politicians and businesspersons, families and associates of long-time despots, Wall Street swindlers, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Russian corporate executives, international arms dealers and a sham-director-fronted company that the European Union has labeled as a cog in Iran’s nuclear-development program.   

The leaked files provide facts and figures — cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals — that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy and the well-connected to dodge taxes and fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations alike.

The records detail the offshore holdings of people and companies in more than 170 countries and territories.

The hoard of documents represents the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore system ever obtained by a media organization. The total size of the files, measured in gigabytes, is more than 160 times larger than the leak of U.S. State Department documents by Wikileaks in 2010.

To analyze the documents, ICIJ collaborated with reporters from The Guardian and the BBC in the U.K., Le Monde in France, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Norddeutscher Rundfunk in Germany, The Washington Post, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and 31 other media partners around the world.

Eighty-six journalists from 46 countries used high-tech data crunching and shoe-leather reporting to sift through emails, account ledgers and other files covering nearly 30 years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. This secret world has finally been revealed,” said Arthur Cockfield, a law professor and tax expert at Queen’s University in Canada, who reviewed some of the documents during an interview with the CBC. He said the documents remind him of the scene in the movie classic The Wizard of Oz in which “they pull back the curtain and you see the wizard operating this secret machine.”

MOBSTERS AND OLIGARCHS:

The vast flow of offshore money — legal and illegal, personal and corporate — can roil economies and pit nations against each other. Europe’s continuing financial crisis has been fueled by a Greek fiscal disaster exacerbated by offshore tax cheating and by a banking meltdown in the tiny tax haven of Cyprus, where local banks’ assets have been inflated by waves of cash from Russia.

Anti-corruption campaigners argue that offshore secrecy undermines law and order and forces average citizens to pay higher taxes to make up for revenues that vanish offshore. Studies have estimated that cross-border flows of global proceeds of financial crimes total between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion a year.

ICIJ’s 15-month investigation found that, alongside perfectly legal transactions, the secrecy and lax oversight offered by the offshore world allows fraud, tax dodging and political corruption to thrive … //

… OFFSHORE GROWTH:

The anonymity of the offshore world makes it difficult to track the flow of money. A study by James S. Henry, former chief economist at McKinsey & Company, estimates that wealthy individuals have $21 trillion to $32 trillion in private financial wealth tucked away in offshore havens — roughly equivalent to the size of the U.S. and Japanese economies combined.

Even as the world economy has stumbled, the offshore world has continued to grow, said Henry, who is a board member of the Tax Justice Network, an international research and advocacy group that is critical of offshore havens. His research shows, for example, that assets managed by the world’s 50 largest “private banks” — which often use offshore havens to serve their “high net worth” customers — grew from $5.4 trillion in 2005 to more than $12 trillion in 2010.

Henry and other critics argue that offshore secrecy has a corrosive effect on governments and legal systems, allowing crooked officials to loot national treasuries and providing cover to human smugglers, mobsters, animal poachers and other exploiters.

Offshore’s defenders counter that most offshore patrons are engaged in legitimate transactions. Offshore centers, they say, allow companies and individuals to diversify their investments, forge commercial alliances across national borders and do business in entrepreneur-friendly zones that eschew the heavy rules and red tape of the onshore world.

“Everything is much more geared toward business,” David Marchant, publisher of OffshoreAlert, an online news journal, said. “If you’re dishonest you can take advantage of that in a bad way. But if you’re honest you can take advantage of that in a good way.”

Much of ICIJ’s reporting focused on the work of two offshore firms, Singapore-based Portcullis TrustNet and BVI-based Commonwealth Trust Limited (CTL), which have helped tens of thousands of people set up offshore companies and trusts and hard-to-trace bank accounts.

Regulators in the BVI found that CTL repeatedly violated the islands’ anti-money-laundering laws between 2003 and 2008 by failing to verify and record its clients’ identities and backgrounds. “This particular firm had systemic money laundering issues within their organization,” an official with the BVI’s Financial Services Commission said last year.

The documents show, for example, that CTL set up 31 companies in 2006 and 2007 for an individual later identified in U.K. court claims as a front man for Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh banking tycoon who has been accused of stealing $5 billion from one of the former Russian republic’s largest banks. Ablyazov denies wrongdoing.

Thomas Ward, a Canadian who co-founded CTL in 1994 and continues to work as a consultant to the firm, said CTL’s client-vetting procedures have been consistent with industry standards in the BVI, but that no amount of screening can ensure that firms such as CTL won’t be “duped by dishonest clients” or sign on “someone who appears, to all historical examination, to be honest” but “later turns to something dishonest.”

“It is wrong, though perhaps convenient, to demonize CTL as by far the major problem area,” Ward said in a written response to questions. “Rather I believe that CTL’s problems were, by and large, directly proportional to its market share.”

ICIJ’s review of TrustNet documents identified 30 American clients accused in lawsuits or criminal cases of fraud, money laundering or other serious financial misconduct. They include ex-Wall Street titans Paul Bilzerian, a corporate raider who was convicted of tax fraud and securities violations in 1989, and Raj Rajaratnam, a billionaire hedge fund manager who was sent to prison in 2011 in one of the biggest insider trading scandals in U.S. history.

TrustNet declined to answer a series of questions for this article.

BLACKLISTED: … //

… (full long text, many hyperlinks in the text, links to related articles).

Links:

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists ICIJ;

plan-b-english.pdf, from WissensmanufakturNET.

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