Hollywood stars descended on the Venice Film Festival at the weekend for the opening of The Laundromat. Featuring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas, the film tells the story of the Panama Papers, the biggest data leak in history.
The 11.5 million documents, taken from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, were leaked by an anonymous whistleblower nicknamed John Doe to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) in 2015.
Along with the Paradise Papers and other offshore leaks, the Panama Papers are controlled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington (ICIJ) which has done a great job of processing the data, sharing it with select media partners and publishing bits of it on its Offshore Leaks database.
But the ICIJ is keeping the bulk of the tax haven secrets to itself. On its website, it suggests the data is “publicly-available” (sic) and asks for donations. But it is neither publicly-available (sic) or publicly available (friendly note to ICIJ; you don’t hyphenate adverbs).
If the data were to be publicly available, a world-wide army of data-boffins would trawl through it. Enormous tax avoidance would be unearthed. It would shed light on on the key perpetrators of multinational tax avoidance such as large law firms and the Big Four global accounting firms: EY, Deloitte, PwC and KPMG. Yet these four players, perhaps the most powerful institutions in the world, remain protected from serious scrutiny.
A simple search of the ICIJ’s public interface shows PwC is connected to just six offshore entities in the database, and KPMG 34, whereas an Edward B Turner – to select just one unknown minnow – is connected to 70 entities.
A response by the ICIJ to questions about concealing the data was that ICIJ already had its media partners and that it had done a great job of disseminating the information. Indeed it has. Its public interface is terrific, what it does reveal that is. Its media partners have delivered results; enforcement by regulators and a swathe of media stories. A statement from ICIJ director, Gerard Ryle, is appended below.
In the interests of disclosure, this website has made a number of approaches to gain access to the data, arguing the data is getting stale and media coverage, although prolific, has mostly ignored the engineers of multinational tax avoidance, the Big Four, while preferring to focus on celebrities such as Jeffrey Epstein, Nicole Kidman and The Queen.
The other issue with the ICIJ media strategy is that its global media partners – in Australia these are Australian Financial Review, Guardian and ABC – don’t have the resources to pick through the data. It takes time and significant expertise in tax and corporate structuring. It also takes the will to publish, and the will to publish can be compromised by corporate relationships.
While Offshore Leaks is a first-rate resource, it reveals perhaps just one per cent of the total data controlled by ICIJ; troves of emails, bank statements, accounts and other documents contained in Bahamas Leaks, the Paradise Papers and Swiss Leaks. This is data which whistleblowers have delivered at great personal risk, in the public interest, and yet it is not public.
ICIJ director Gerard Ryle told a colleague and data expert who works with michaelwest.com.au that he, personally, had veto over who could access this data. In response to further questions, Ryle said, “My path, my call”.
The Packer connection
The data available on the ICIJ’s excellent public interface can be tricky to navigate. This, and the fact that the mainstream media has little expertise in tax avoidance and is sometimes compromised by corporate relationships, has meant that even public information has been sitting there untapped.
According to an investigation for michaelwest.com.au conducted by another data expert, the Packer family’s corporate empire has more than 40 tax haven links to the Bahamas, Bermuda and Barbados.
The Packer family is but one of Australia’s many wealthy families and a host of well known corporations whose corporate associations can be found in Offshore Leaks – and we are suggesting no impropriety on the part of the Packers – but the data expert chose this example to demonstrate that the ICIJ data, even the public data, has not been thoroughly covered by the corporate media. ICIJ is certainly not to blame for this.
Some highlights: the investigation shows that Kerry Packer’s former tax advisor John Cherry is recorded in the Paradise Papers as a director of one of the Packer companies. There is no suggestion of impropriety at all vis-a-vis John Cherry or the Packers. It is perfectly legal to set up offshore structures.
It was John Cherry, coincidentally, who sold his farm Cherrydale in the Bylong Valley to the infamous Eddie Obeid (whose trial is pending). It was this farm, after the sale to Obeid, which is at the heart of corruption allegations.
Yet the substantial story angle here is that these networks would not have been found by a simple search of the Offshore Leaks database. It required the help of a data expert with sophisticated software and search techniques.
Here are the companies:
C. P. INTERNATIONAL SECURITIES LIMITED
C.P. INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENTS LIMITED
C.P. INTERNATIONAL MANAGEMENT SERVICES LIMITED
C.P. INTERNATIONAL RESOURCES LIMITED
C.P. STRATEGIC LIMITED
CAIRNTON HOLDINGS BAHAMAS LIMITED
CONPRESS INTERNATIONAL (NETHERLANDS ANTILLES) II N.V.
CONPRESS INTERNATIONAL (NETHERLANDS ANTILLES) N.V.
CONSOLIDATED CUSTODIANS INTERNATIONAL LIMITED
CONSOLIDATED PRESS INTERNATIONAL HOLDINGS LIMITED
CONSOLIDATED PRESS INTERNATIONAL LIMITED
CPH BARBUDA HOLDINGS LIMITED
CPIL Two Limited
ECORP HOLDINGS LIMITED
ECORP INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENTS LTD.
ECORP INTERNATIONAL LIMITED
FXF HOLDINGS BAHAMAS LTD.
JASOPT INVESTMENTS BAHAMAS LTD.
MAGENTA INVESTMENTS LIMITED
MRED HOLDINGS LIMITED
NINE NETWORK INTERNATIONAL TELEVISION (SA) LIMITED
Northkom Bahamas Limited
NOVA ONE LTD.
NOVA TWO LTD.
Nova Three Ltd.
Palidye Bahamas No. 1 Limited
Palidye Bahamas No. 2 Limited
PBL INTERNATIONAL LEISURE LIMITED
PUBLISHING AND BROADCASTING INTERNATIONAL HOLDINGS LIMITED
PUBLISHING AND BROADCASTING INTERNATIONAL LIMITED
PUBLISHING AND BROADCASTING ONLINE ONE LIMITED
PUBLISHING AND BROADCASTING ONLINE TWO LIMITED
Sandpiper Bahamas Limited
TICKETEK INVESTMENTS LTD.
WAKEFIELD BAHAMAS LTD.
SUNNINGDALE INVESTMENTS LIMITED
SUNNINGDALE HOLDINGS LIMITED
LENVOKA PTY LTD
ROSGROVE PTY LIMITED
HOYTS CINEMAS AMERICA LIMITED
HOYTS CINEMAS CHILE LIMITED
HOYTS EMERGING TERRITORIES LIMITED
HOYTS CINEMAS ARGENTINA LIMITED
It appears that when the ICIJ massaged the Offshore Leaks data it appeared not to be clear which companies were linked to Australia.
“They didn’t connect all Australian entities because they have taken on board structured data, unstructured data and semi-structured data but have not been able to extract all the connections between all corporate relationships because data is in different forms. This requires further examination,” one data expert said.
“The starting point for the network is in the Bahama’s leaks. Edward B. Turner, a Bermuda-based lawyer who is still in operation today, was the intermediary for a number of companies (mentioned above).
“The exact number of companies is not clear and that is curious in itself. The ICIJ website says Turner is linked to 70 companies. Only 40 or so are listed though, and some of these are duplicates. (Probably just a glitch?) Most of these companies were set up in the 1990’s and it’s possible that some a still in operation.”
Response by ICIJ director Gerard Ryle
We have used the material given to me, and then later to us by others, to conduct the biggest cross border investigations in journalism history – repeatedly, starting with OffshoreLeaks in 2013, then ChinaLeaks, LuxLeaks, SwissLeaks, Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Africa Leaks and, most recently, Mauritius Leaks. Tens of thousands of stories have been written, in nearly every language in the world. The impact and stories continue each day.
For instance, today’s story in the NYT about Epstein:
Our work has led to changes in laws in more than 52 countries. It led to dozens of investigations, all across the globe. More than a dozen people were jailed. The second biggest bank in the world was raided by 150 police officers. Tax avoidance is now on the international agenda everywhere, including OECD. And this is just the tip of the impact. Panama Papers alone recovered $1.2 billion for tax authorities. Multinationals like Nike face having to potentially pay billions of dollars in back taxes.
Our work helped prompt more than 90 governments to share details of an estimated 47 million offshore accounts holding $5.5 trillion, more than the gross domestic product of Japan. Our LuxLeaks investigation was the first to really nail PWC, one of the big four. Our other stories did major work to uncover the activities of the Big 4, in a way that set the agenda for everyone else who is now following.
Two world leaders were forced to resign. One is now in jail. The Panama Papers documentary by Alex Winter gives us credit for a whole lot more, including the fall of Cameron in Britain. Putin was reportedly so pissed off with Panama Papers that he interfered with the US election.
You will see the Hollywood version of Panama Papers, staring Meryl Streep, later this year.
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Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.