Reports published this week on the secretive industry that banks and lawyers use to hide the financial holdings of some of the world’s top leaders and billionaires brought a powerful global response, including the resignation of one prime minister, while the White House and U.S. agencies reacted more cautiously.
President Barack Obama addressed the massive leak of documents, which led to the reporting, on Tuesday during a press conference about business tax reform.
“There is no doubt that the problem of global tax avoidance generally, is a huge problem,” the president said. The president also noted in his remarks that the problem is not unique to other nations. “There are folks here in America who are taking advantage of the same stuff. A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem,” the president added. “It’s not that they’re breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they’ve got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by.”
The Justice Department, which is investigating alleged corruption in the world’s top soccer body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), said it may focus more on the financial dealings raised in the reporting based on the documents.
“We are aware of the reports and are reviewing them,” said Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman. “While we cannot comment on the specifics of these alleged documents, the U.S. Department of Justice takes very seriously all credible allegations of high level, foreign corruption that might have a link to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”
The investigation was published Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which with the German-based newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung oversaw the probe, which is being referred to as the Panama Papers. ICIJ is the international arm of the Center for Public Integrity.
At the White House’s daily news briefing on Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked four separate times about the reports. He said he wouldn’t comment on the allegations and stressed that “the United States continues to be a leading advocate for increased transparency in the international financial system and in working against illicit financial transactions and in fighting corruption.”
Earnest avoided a question asking if the administration would scrutinize the financial dealings of some world leaders with offshore holdings, including Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri, whom President Obama met with last month, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, whom Obama plans to visit this month.
“I’m not going to be able to consider the individual claims that are made based on some information included in the documents,” Earnest said. “But, look, this large volume of documents does not change the U.S. position.”
The papers, which totaled more than 11 million documents, were leaked from inside Panama-based Mossack Fonseca, one of the world’s top creators of shell companies, which are corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets. The documents expose the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders, associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former FIFA vice president, who has been charged by U.S. authorities with wire fraud and money laundering.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders issued a press release Tuesday on the Panama Papers to draw a contrast with Hillary Clinton. He said he voted against the Panama Free Trade Agreement, passed by Congress in 2011, arguing it would encourage the growth of offshore accounts to shield the wealthy from paying taxes. Clinton, Sanders said, “helped push the Panama Free Trade Agreement through Congress as Secretary of State.”
If elected president, Sanders said he would terminate the agreement.
Clinton has not issued a statement about the Panama Papers.
Still, most U.S. reaction was measured. U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman Whitney Smith said in an email that “we will not comment specifically on the findings.”
Smith added that “it is important to note that the U.S. government intently focuses on investigating possible illicit activity, including violations of U.S. tax laws or sanctions, using all sources of information, both public and non-public. … If there has been any violation of U.S. tax law or sanctions evasion, we will take appropriate action consistent with the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Major U.S. media outlets weighed in as well.
“Lost tax revenue is one consequence of this hidden system,” said the New York Times in an editorial. “Even more dangerous is its deep damage to democratic rule and regional stability when corrupt politiciains have a place to stash stolen national assets out of public view.”
USA TODAY said that Mossack Fonseca has assisted in establishing almost 1,100 business entities in the United States since 2001, mostly in Nevada and Wyoming, according to state incorporation records; both those states have relatively permissive laws regarding corporate secrecy. The newspaper said most of the firms linked to Mossack Fonseca “were formed by M.F. Corporate Services (Nevada) Limited, a one-employee company based out of a low-slung tile-roofed office building 20 miles from the Las Vegas strip.”
The Panama Papers investigation has had a massive impact globally. It led to the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, official investigations were opened worldwide and an immediate censorship drive was instituted in China.
Thousands of Icelanders took to the streets of Reykjavik on Monday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson following the disclosure by ICIJ, Reykjavik Media, and Suddeutsche Zeitung that he and two members of his cabinet had owned or controlled secret offshore shell companies.
On Tuesday, Iceland’s president refused a request from Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson to dissolve parliament and call snap elections, according to the Guardian.
Gunnlaugsson’s resignation came hours later.
Gunnlaugsson violated parliamentary ethics rules when he failed to disclose his 50 percent ownership of Wintris Inc. in 2009. The company held millions of dollars worth of bonds in the three major Icelandic banks, which collapsed in 2008. The prime minister said the company was actually his wife’s all along and that his 50 percent ownership was caused by an error by the couple’s bank.
The crowd gathered in the square across from Parliament House, tossing eggs, bananas, and Icelandic yogurt at the building.
Elsewhere, prosecutors and officials across the world have announced investigations into the Panama Papers revelations:
- German Justice Minister Heiko Maas announced plans for a new national register that will put an end to anonymous ownership of companies in a bid to fight tax evasion and financial wrongdoing.
- In the United Kingdom, HM Revenue and Customs promised to act “swiftly and appropriately” to the allegations, and said it was seeking further data from media organizations.
- Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, dismissed the revelations as “Putinphobia” and accused the media of attempting to “destabilize” Russia ahead of elections. Peskov also denied revelations his wife held a secret offshore company.
- The Chinese government responded to the Panama Papers with a renewed censorship drive, and banned all media sites from mentioning the investigation in China.
- In France, the Finance Ministry announced an official investigation and President Francois Hollande said: “I can assure you that as information emerges, investigations will be carried out, cases will be opened and trials will be held.” France also put Panama back on their tax haven blacklist, according to Reuters.
- Panama will open an investigation into the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers, Mossack Fonseca. It will be the second time this year the law firm has faced an official probe. Panama President Juan Carlos Varela agreed to cooperate with investigations, and the nation’s attorney general said Panama would comply with requests for assistance from foreign countries launching their own investigations.
- Two Spanish authorities, the Attorney General’s office and the Finance Ministry, announced investigations, and contacted ICIJ and its media partners seeking access to the data.
- The Australian Tax Office confirmed it was targeting 800 high net wealth Australian clients of Mossack Fonseca.
- In Austria, regulators announced an investigation into whether two banks named in Panama Papers stories breached rules on money laundering.
- Belgium’s Finance Minister congratulated the journalists who worked on the Panama Papers, and said Belgium would open an investigation into its findings.
- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked for a special multi-agency task force to be established to probe the Panama Papers revelations for evidence of tax evasion or wrongdoing by Indian citizens.
- The Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority reached out to authorities in Luxembourg for information as it commenced an investigation into Nordic banking giant Nordea, after revelations the bank helped clients set up secret offshore accounts.
- Norway’s bank regulatory body, the Financial Supervisory Authority, also said it would seek an explanation from Norwegian banks named in the investigation.
- In Mexico, the tax authority said it would review the Panama Papers findings and open investigations against tax evaders. It said it would invoke exchange of information agreements with other countries as it sought more information.
- The head of advocacy group Transparency International’s branch in Chile resigned on Monday following revelations he held a number of offshore companies.
- The Costa Rican government used the Panama Papers revelations to call for law and policy reform to crack down on tax evasion and money laundering.
- Mossack Fonseca has denied wrongdoing, and published its full response to the revelations on its website. Founding partner Ramon Fonseca denounced the Panama Papers investigation as an attack on privacy.ICIJ and its media partners will continue publishing more findings over the coming days and weeks.
Jared Bennett contributed to this report.