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A day after the release of the Pandora Project, the fallout is still threading its way around the globe. The Washington Post and other news organizations exposed the involvement of political leaders, examined the growth of the industry within the United States and demonstrated how secrecy shields assets from governments, creditors and those abused or exploited by the wealthy and powerful.
The findings were drawn from a trove of confidential information, the largest of its kind, that was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which organized the investigation involving 600 journalists around the world.
On Sunday, my colleagues charted how King Abdullah II of Jordan spent more than $100 million, in secret, on luxury homes in various parts of the United States. They also exposed a waterfront home in Monaco acquired by a Russian woman who gained considerable wealth after she reportedly had a child with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Other financial records linked to more than 300 current and former politicians and public officials from around 91 countries and territories are part of the ICIJ’s investigation. In its wake, authorities in Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Pakistan, Panama, Spain and Sri Lanka have already announced probes into the new findings.
Among the political elites implicated in the documents are leaders who rose to power vowing to curb corruption and boost transparency in their own countries, yet appear to have secreted money and assets away through shell companies and offshore tax havens. “Many of the power players who could help bring an end to the offshore system instead benefit from it — stashing assets in covert companies and trusts while their governments do little to slow a global stream of illicit money that enriches criminals and impoverishes nations,” noted the ICIJ in an introduction to the findings.
Some are now weathering a political storm. Most immediately in the hot seat is Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who, documents reveal, purchased in 2009 a $22 million chateau near Cannes, France, with a cinema and two swimming pools, using shell companies. Babis denied wrongdoing and said the funds were sent from a Czech bank and appropriately taxed at the time.
But as Babis vies for reelection this week, the optics are horrendous. Opposition parties have seized on the revelations as a mark of the populist leader’s hypocrisy and venality.
“For him, it is a big problem,” said Milos Brunclik, a political analyst at the Czech Republic’s Charles University, to my colleagues. “After all, he repeatedly portrayed himself as a fighter against nontransparent offshore business.”
Ivan Bartos, chairman of the Pirate Party, said on Czech television Sunday night, “This is showing signs of corruption to the core.”
The chairman of the right-wing Civic Democratic Party, Petr Fiala, called it “a giant international scandal” and “a huge problem that the prime minister will have to explain.”
Babis lashed out at the news, describing its emergence as the work of the Czech “mafia” and tarring the Guardian — the British newspaper, that along with The Post and dozens of other outlets, sifted through the documents — as an institution with a “left-wing, neo-Marxist and pro-migration” agenda bent on undermining his nationalist rule.
Numerous other leaders of diverse political persuasions and geographies find themselves in a similar position. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta not long ago proclaimed “the centrality of transparency, accountability and good governance as the anchors of sustainable development” in his bid to roll back corruption in the country. But, according to ICIJ, he and his family “have for decades shielded wealth from public scrutiny through foundations and companies in tax havens, including Panama, with assets worth more than $30 million.”
Such practices arguably cause the most harm in developing countries. “Tax havens cost governments around the world $427 billion each year,” Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, told the Economic Times, an Indian daily. “Developing countries are being hardest hit, proportionately. Corporations and the wealthiest individuals that use tax havens are outcompeting those who don’t. Tax havens also help crime and corruption to flourish.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan launched an entire movement animated by widespread populist grievance with the endemic graft that long bolstered the country’s almost feudal political elites. Now, the leaks have exposed the dealings of prominent ministers in his cabinet, donors to his political party and family members of several high-ranking figures in the military top brass, to which Khan is closely allied. The prime minister vowed action, but he also urged the international community to tackle global tax avoidance with the same zeal as climate change.
That may be an awkward metaphor, given the complexity and general creakiness of international efforts around climate action. The Biden administration is pushing for a stricter global regime of corporate taxation, while President Biden and numerous other U.S. politicians have denounced wealthy businesspeople funneling away cash to offshore tax havens. But the new documents show the extent to which countries including the United States and Britain remain prominent destinations for billions of dollars of hidden foreign money.
Meanwhile, politicians implicated in the Pandora Papers are, in some instances, insisting that they did nothing wrong. Take the case of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a wealthy business mogul who turned leader of a failing state. As my colleagues reported, the new findings revealed that a Monaco-based company owned by Mikati helped facilitate operations of Hessville Investment, an offshore company in Panama also owned by Mikati. In 2008, the Pandora Papers found, Hessville Investment bought property in Monaco for more than $10 million.
In a statement shared with Al Jazeera, Mikati said the company and all its subsidiaries have upheld a separation between what is public and what is private, consulted auditors regularly and that Mikati’s assets had been disclosed to the Lebanese Constitutional Council.
“Regrettably, the underlying logic behind the ‘Papers’ drifted toward transforming most, if not all, of those mentioned into ‘suspicious’ individuals and/or companies, by the mere fact of being listed in there,” the statement read, “a logic that goes against the free-market business practices and good governance, in liberal economies, principles that the Mikati family defends.”