Pondering Panama

​Image: Jandenouden | CC0 1.0

KleptoCast 11: One year after the Panama Papers, has anything changed in the world of offshoring? Casey Michel talks to Will Fitzgibbon of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.


By Casey Michel

One year ago this month, a series of documents began bursting into the public space, pulling back a veil, however partially, on international offshoring. Known collectively as the Panama Papers, the documents – some 11.5 million in total, enough to make it the world’s largest data leak – detailed decades’ worth of dealings from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm that at the time stood as the fourth-largest provider of offshore services for a global roster of clients.

Thanks to journalists at outlets like Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the public enjoyed an unprecedented glimpse at the murky, secretive world of international offshoring, from internal communiques and methods of marketing to shell company addresses and discussions on the next frontiers of offshoring.

The breadth of the revelations was staggering. All told, some 12 current or former heads of state, as well as dozens of individuals close to current leaders, were identified within the documents, ranging from the families of dictators in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to, memorably, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who claimed that the $2 billion tied to him stemmed largely from donations for purchasing expensive instruments. The revelations even cost the Icelandic prime minister his job.

And it wasn’t simply political actors who were looking to put Mossack Fonseca’s services to use. For instance, as Global Witness noted, Canada’s Royal Bank shuttered over 40 bank accounts following Panama Paper audits, while Europol discovered thousands of “probable matches” between names and addresses revealed in the Panama Papers and criminal and terrorist organizations. “By our count there were at least 150 different kinds of inquiries or audits or probes by parliaments, by judges, by police across the world following the Panama Papers reporting,” ICIJ’s Will Fitzgibbon told the Kleptocracy Initiative.

From Papers to policy

There is, of course, nothing inherently illegal about accessing the types of offshore services Mossack Fonseca provided. But the magnitude, the sheer scale, of operations – which extended to more than 200,000 anonymous companies created by a single company – was the greatest look to date at the burgeoning world of offshoring services, and the darker side of increasing globalization.

Over the past year, the release helped spur a new raft of legislation in jurisdictions from Lebanon to the United Kingdom in pursuing greater transparency and oversight, especially in the world of company registration. Even some of the greatest offshore stalwarts, including Panama and the Cayman Islands, have moved toward greater transparency, either in terms of sharing tax information or formalizing a registry that will help identify the beneficial owners of shell companies.

Still, it’s not simply that authorities managed to trace names in the Panama Papers revelations to investigative cases elsewhere, or that numerous jurisdictions have finally made rear-guard moves toward oversight in their own offshore services industries. As Global Witness added, the Panama Papers documents “are not like a treasure chest filled with scandals to be exhumed (though that may be true in some cases). Rather, the Papers are a vital repository of keys needed to unlock the scandals of today, and tomorrow.” Indeed, we saw this reality play out just last month when new revelations in Ukraine linked Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump, to a Belize-based shell company whose address was originally unearthed in the Panama Papers revelations.

Uncle Sam’s offshoring

But where we’ve seen progress toward an accurate beneficial ownership registry in London, or increased willingness to share financial information out of Panama City, one jurisdiction looms as an atypical example where little has changed since the Panama Papers revelations. Even before Mossack Fonseca’s operations leaked to a global audience, the United States existed as one of the foremost global offshore havens – especially as it pertained to shell company formation, with Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming competing with traditional offshore businesses in a race to the bottom for corporate transparency.

Twelve months later, little has changed. This is due, in part, to the fact that no high-level Americans were caught in the Panama Papers revelations. But it was already known that notorious arms dealers like Viktor Bout and outsized kleptocrats like Pavlo Lazarenko had prior accessed American shell companies, and that the US was already perhaps the worst jurisdiction globally for regulating shell companies. Likewise, the dearth of any post-Panama Papers push toward transparency in the U.S. came despite the fact that Mossack Fonseca advertised Nevada and Wyoming directly to clients – an arrangement that benefitted these two states. As the Wyoming secretary of state’s office noted in the aftermath of the Panama Papers leak, pushing back against the idea that they would support any reform, “We are not naive as to the importance of the release of these ‘Panama Papers,’ but we will not compromise the privacy of our customer.”

To be sure, it’s not as if American legislators are unaware of the risk posed by the ongoing opacity surrounding U.S.-based shell companies, or that, as Martin Kenney wrote for the FCPA Blog, actors from groups like ISIS may well be using shell companies in Dover or Cheyenne to help fund their operations. At a March 2017 Brookings Institute event marking the anniversary of the Panama Papers revelations, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has helped spear federal-level reforms – over opposition from actors in Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada – outlined his position on those propping the U.S.’s shell company industry:

“We know criminals and even terrorists view the United States as their haven to hide illegal activity. … Where you’re dealing with people for whom their business proposition is to facilitate this dark market, tough bounce. Far as I’m concerned, go get honest work. I’m not going to whittle back [a proposed transparency bill] to protect people who do that. Frankly, you know, I’ve got something of a law enforcement background, and to me they’re not a whole lot better than pimps or drug dealers in suits.”

Despite Whitehouse’s efforts, the U.S. remains a glaring exception to not only international shell company oversight, but among how offshore jurisdictions have responded to the Panama Papers. As Fitzgibbon said, “I think what we’ve seen in some cases is a willingness to talk the talk, but not necessarily walk the walk.” While the United Kingdom, Panama, and Cayman Islands continue to move, however stiltingly, toward greater oversight, the U.S., on the backs of a handful of states, continues to lag behind that much further – and, presumably, continues to attract that many more clients looking to mask their wealth along the way.

Casey Michel has worked as a researcher and journalist in the United States and former Soviet Union. Follow him @cjcmichel.

Will Fitzgibbon is a reporter for ICIJ. In 2014, Will was ICIJ’s first Investigative Journalism Fellow. He was a reporter on ICIJ’s Swiss Leaks project and heads ICIJ’s Africa Desk, coordinating and expanding ICIJ’s collaboration with journalists across Africa. Follow him @WillFitzgibbon.