'We need to shine a spotlight on who owns what and where money is really flowing," British prime minister David Cameron told the 2013 G8 summit in Northern Ireland. He promised, with fellow world leaders, to fight the "scourge of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance". Such behaviour was no longer acceptable. Transparency is the order of the day.
Indeed, Mr Cameron. That spotlight is now being shone on the extraordinary client base of Panamanian-based Mossack Fonseca (MF), the world's fourth largest offshore law firm, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A year-long study by more than 370 journalists from 109 media organisations in 76 countries – including The Irish Times – of a leak from MF of 11.5 million documents has shed new light on a secret world awash with cash salted away from prying eyes. Much of it, if not most, is concealed perfectly legally we are told, but under the sort of tax "efficient" arrangements mostly associated with the very rich, and by, among others, a clatter of politicians who would rather continue to pretend to their citizens that they are of modest means.
The real owners of this sea of wealth, much lodged in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, are carefully hidden behind nominees and bearer bonds. But by tracking contacts and associates, 12 national leaders have been identified who through immediate family or crony circles are involved in the beneficial ownership of offshore companies created by MF. These include Russia's president Vladimir Putin; China's president Zi Jinping (and eight current or former members of the party politburo); Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif; Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko; and Iceland's prime minister Sigmundur Davíd Gunnlaugsson.
In some cases, the benefits of this web of financial secrecy are also being reaped by drug dealers, blacklisted international sanctions breakers, fraudsters, money launderers and arms dealers. They are facilitated by MF and banks who assure us that they are neither aware of nor complicit in any illegality. They can’t be held responsible, they say, for any misbehaviour by their clients. Like, they say, a car manufacturer for speeding drivers. Or, we might add, a gun manufacturer for the use its weapons are put to. “We regret any misuse of our services and actively take steps to prevent it,” says MF, insisting the vast majority of its clients are law-abiding. Scepticism might be in order.
Of course, the offshore story is scarcely news to Ireland. It has been a leitmotif of our own home-grown scandals for decades. Remember Ansbacher? The files have thrown up 323 Irish-linked companies and numerous individual linked to them – some with a public profile and others not widely known – and a discreet address in Drumcondra. More questions to be answered......