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An unprecedented leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal documents from a Panamanian law firm has exposed the alleged financial dealings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and shed new light on how the world’s elite exploit secretive offshore tax regimes to move billions through offshore dummy corporations.
The investigation, led by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), reveals the alleged offshore holdings of more than 140 politicians and public officials from around the world. In addition to $2 billion tied to the Russian president, more than 214,000 offshore entities appear in the trove of records, which are connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories.
Dubbed the ‘Panama Papers,’ the leak is believed to be the largest in history, totaling 2.6 terabytes of data, more than 1,500 times the volume of data published by WikiLeaks.
Reviewed by a team of more than 370 journalists, the leaked documents originate from Mossack Fonseca, a powerful law firm based in Panama that provides financial secrecy to a host of politicians, billionaires, and celebrity figures. The internal files “contain information on 214,488 offshore entities,” a complete list of which ICIJ is expected to be published early next month.
Mossack Fonseca’s fingers are in Africa’s diamond trade, the international art market and other businesses that thrive on secrecy. The firm has serviced enough Middle East royalty to fill a palace. It’s helped two kings, Mohammed VI of Morocco and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, take to the sea on luxury yachts.
In Iceland, the leaked files show how Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and his wife secretly owned an offshore firm that held millions of dollars in Icelandic bank bonds during that country’s financial crisis.
The files include a convicted money launderer who claimed he’d arranged a $50,000 illegal campaign contribution used to pay the Watergate burglars, 29 billionaires featured in Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s 500 richest people and movie star Jackie Chan, who has at least six companies managed through the law firm.
According to Fusion, one of more than a hundred media organizations worldwide to investigative Mossack Fonseca’s records, a list of current former world leaders connected to the files includes: Mauricio Macri, president of Argentina; Ayad Allawi, former Iraqi prime minister; Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, prime minister of Iceland; King Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al Saud, king of Saudi Arabia; Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine; Rami and Hafez Makhlouf, cousins of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and Ian Cameron, father of current British Prime Minister David Cameron; among others.
In a statement provided to the Guardian, Mossack Fonseca said that the “vast majority” of its clients use the companies it creates for “legitimate purposes.”
“We provide company incorporation and related administrative services that are widely available and commonly used worldwide,” the firm’s public relations director, Carlos Sousa, said in the statement. He added that establishing offshore companies was a it was “common” practice for “a variety of legitimate reasons.”
Mossack Fonseca is “regulated on multiple levels, often by overlapping agencies,” Sousa added. He emphasized, however, that his firm is “not involved in managing” its clients’ companies.
“Excluding the professional fees we earn,” Sousa said, “we do not take possession or custody of clients’ money, or have anything to do with any of the direct financial aspects related to operating their businesses.”
Panama Papers: Where the money is hiding
The documents further reveal as much as $2 billion in assets shuffled through banks and shadow companies allegedly tied to Putin, who is said to be the primary focus of the investigation. The president’s closest friends and allies have amassed enormous wealth, the Guardian reports, that “seemingly could not have been secured without his patronage.”
In particular, the records reflect the offshore dealings of Sergei Roldugin, Putin’s closest friend and godfather to his older daughter, Maria. Roldugin is said to own 3.2 percent of Bank Rossiya, a private bank based in St. Petersburg, which was the target of U.S. sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The leaked documents show Bank Rossiya, headed by Yuri Kovalchuk—Putin’s so-called “personal banker”—managed to transfer at least $1 billion to an offshore entity called Sandalwood Continental, a shadow company established by Mossack Fonseca.
“The records show offshore companies linked to this network moving money in transactions as large as $200 million at a time,” ICIJ reports. “Putin associates disguised payments, backdated documents, and gained hidden influence within the country’s media and automotive industries, the leaked files show.”
Among other Mossack Fonseca customers—many of whom may not have broken any laws—are 29 billionaires featured in Forbes’s list of the world’s 500 richest people. However, the documents, some of which date back to 1977, shows the firm’s customers have included “Ponzi schemers, drug kingpins, tax evaders,” and the fugitive money launderer tied to Britain’s largest gold bullion robbery.
Update 12:48pm CT, April 4: Added statement from Mossack Fonseca.
Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.