In one of the largest and most far-reaching document leaks in modern history, more than 370 journalists from 76 countries spent over a year plowing through 11.5 million records on offshore accounts and dummy corporations created by a secretive Panamanian law firm.
What the group—which was co-ordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and over 100 media entities around the globe—found was a trove of files that detail the holdings of 140 politicians and public officials, including the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan and the president of Ukraine.
The documents, which cover more than 40 years worth of offshore companies created by the Mossack Fonseca firm, also exposed the holdings of a dozen other global leaders. According to the ICIJ they show how officials tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin moved as much as $2 billion in Russian currency through a variety of banks and dummy corporations.
The millions of leaked documents were obtained by reporters at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the ICIJ and other media partners. In the U.S., those partners included Univision, the Miami Herald and The McClatchy Co. Univision-owned Fusion has published a look at the documents and their impact.
The leak “provides details of the hidden financial dealings of 128 more politicians and public officials around the world,” the ICIJ says. “The cache of 11.5 million records shows how a global industry of law firms and big banks sells financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars.”
Although it’s not illegal to have an offshore holding company or assets that are held in foreign accounts, most countries require politicians and other public figures to declare their holdings. It’s not clear how many of the accounts involved were previously unknown.
According to the ICIJ the leaked files show that Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and his wife secretly owned an offshore firm that held millions in Icelandic bank bonds while the country was in financial turmoil. The prime minister walked out of an interview when the topic was brought up.
The documents also show that the family of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev used offshore corporations to hold secret shares in gold mines and London real estate, the ICIJ says.
While not all of the accounts are illegal or engaged in shady activities, the ICIJ investigation showed that plenty are: The organization said the documents include “at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they’d been involved in wrongdoing, such as doing business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations.”
One of the companies listed among the shell corporations in the Panamanian records apparently supplied fuel for the aircraft that the Syrian government used to bomb and kill thousands of its own citizens, the ICIJ says.
The ICIJ notes that the leaked files show the Panamanian law firm routinely offered to backdate financial and corporate documents to help its clients—a service that became so commonplace that an email exchange shows employees of the firm talking about charging $8.75 for each month farther back in time a document had to be backdated.
The organization also points out that a number of the officials involved in the document leak have campaigned publicly on anti-corruption and anti-tax-avoidance platforms. Offshore companies are linked to the family of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and to the father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has pushed for tax-haven reform in the United Kingdom.