By Ben Blanchard and Lisa Jucca
Authorities across the globe have opened investigations into the activities of the world’s rich and powerful after a cache of leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm showed possible wrongdoing using offshore company structures.
The “Panama Papers” have cast light on the financial arrangements of high profile politicians and public figures and the companies and financial institutions they use for such activities. Among those named in the documents are friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin and relatives of the leaders of China, Britain, Iceland and Pakistan, and the president of Ukraine.
Leading figures and financial institutions responded to the massive leak of more than 11.5 million documents with denials of any wrongdoing as prosecutors and regulators began a review of the reports from the investigation by the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other media organizations.
Following the reports, China has moved to limit local access to coverage of the matter with state media denouncing Western reporting on the leak as biased against non-Western leaders.
France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands are among nations that have commenced investigations, and some other countries, including the United States, said they were looking into the matter.
Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the leaks, has set up more than 240,000 offshore companies for clients around the globe and denies any wrongdoing. It calls itself the victim of a campaign against privacy and claims media reports misrepresent the nature of its business.
In a printed statement given to Reuters by a staff member at Mossack Fonseca’s Hong Kong office on Tuesday, the firm said it has never been charged with or formally investigated for criminal wrongdoing in its nearly 40 years of operation.
“We do not advise clients on how to operate their businesses. We don’t link ourselves in any way to companies we help incorporate,” the firm said in the statement.
“Excluding the professional fees we earn, we don’t take possession of clients’ money, or otherwise have anything to do with any of the direct financial aspects related to operating these businesses.”
Mossack Fonseca also said it supports international initiatives requiring greater transparency of newly incorporated companies and trusts and has implemented such measures as part of its own due diligence. The staff at the office declined to answer questions. The Hong Kong government said in a statement that its Inland Revenue Department has taken note of the recent release of the documents and will take “necessary actions” based on any information it gets. It will not comment on individual cases or disclose the course of action because of secrecy provisions in Hong Kong tax law, the government said.
Credit Suisse and HSBC, two of the world’s largest wealth managers, on Tuesday dismissed suggestions they were actively using offshore structures to help clients cheat on their taxes.
Both were named among the banks that helped set up complex structures that make it hard for tax collectors and investigators to track the flow of money from one place to another, according to ICIJ.
Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam, who is aggressively targeting Asia’s wealthiest for growth, said his bank was only after lawful assets.
Speaking at a media briefing in Hong Kong, he acknowledged the bank uses offshore financial structures, but only for very wealthy customers with assets in multiple jurisdictions and did not support their use for tax avoidance or allow them without knowing the identities of all those concerned.
“We do not condone structures for tax avoidance,” he said. “Whenever there is a structure with a third party beneficiary we insist to know the identity of that beneficiary.”
Separately, HSBC said the documents pre-dated a thorough reform of its business model.
Both banks have in recent years paid large fines to US authorities over their wealth management or banking operations.
Credit Suisse agreed in 2014 to pay a $2.5 billion fine for helping rich Americans evade taxes. HSBC agreed in 2012 to pay $1.92 billion in fines, mainly for allowing itself to be used to launder Mexican drug money.
The reports on leaks also pointed to the offshore companies linked to the families of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other powerful current and former Chinese leaders.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, when asked if the government would investigate tax affairs of those mentioned in the Panama Papers, told reporters at a daily news briefing the ministry would not comment on “these groundless accusations”.
Searches for the word “Panama” on Chinese search engines bring up stories in Chinese media on the topic, but many of the links have been disabled or only open onto stories about allegations directed at sports stars.
China’s Internet regulator did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, suggested in an editorial on Tuesday that Western media backed by Washington used such leaks to attack political targets in non-Western countries while minimizing coverage of Western leaders.