Investigation of the rich and famous: News group claims data on offshore accounts

German media says the "Panama Papers" may be the biggest leak journalists have ever worked on.

A security guard sit outside the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama City, Sunday, April 3, 2016. The law firm is the source of the leaked information, says a German newspaper.

UPDATE:

7:09 AM — REYKJAVIK, Iceland — The political future of Iceland’s prime minister is in danger because of his reported links to an offshore account in the British Virgin Islands.

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson faces a vote of no confidence in parliament Monday after news reports linked him and his wife to an account that was created with the help of a Panamanian law firm at the center of a massive tax evasion leak.

The revelation concerns offshore company Wintris Inc., which Gunnlaugsson allegedly set up in 2007 along with his wife Anna Sigurlaug Palsdottir.

The opposition has called for a vote against the center-right government.

Public protests are also scheduled outside parliament.

6:50 AM — MOSCOW, Russia — Russia says Putin is ‘main target’ in leaked documents reports; however he is not linked to offshore activity.

2:16 AM — SYDNEY, Australia — More than 800 wealthy Australians are under investigation by the Australian Taxation Office for possible tax evasion linked to their alleged dealings with a Panamanian law firm.

The agency says Monday it had identified the individuals in data published by an international coalition of media outlets as part of an investigation into the offshore financial dealings of the world’s wealthy elite.

Tax office Deputy Commissioner Michael Cranston says the agency was working with the Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission and the nation’s financial intelligence agency, Austrac, to cross-check data from the documents.

———-

BERLIN, Germany — An international coalition of media outlets says they have published on Sunday an extensive investigation into the offshore financial dealings of the rich and famous, based on a vast trove of documents provided by an anonymous source.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, says the cache of 11.5 million records detailed the offshore holdings of a dozen current and former world leaders, as well as businessmen, criminals, celebrities and sports stars.

The Associated Press wasn’t immediately able to verify the allegations made in articles that were published by the more than 100 news organizations around the world involved in the investigation.

However, the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which first received the data more than a year ago, says it was confident the material was genuine.

The Munich-based daily says it was offered the data through an encrypted channel by an anonymous source who requested no monetary compensation and asked only for unspecified security measures, says Bastian Obermayer, a reporter for the paper.

German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung says it received the data on the offshore accounts from an anonymous source. [File photo]
German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung says it received about 2.6 terabytes of data on the offshore accounts from an anonymous source. [File photo]
The data concerned internal documents from a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Founded by German-born Juergen Mossack, the firm has offices across the globe and is among the world’s biggest creators of shell companies, the newspaper says. Mossack Fonseca did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment.

ICIJ says the law firm’s leaked internal files contain information on 214,488 offshore entities connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories. It says it would release the full list of companies and people linked to them early next month.

Obermayer says over the course of several months Sueddeutsche Zeitung received about 2.6 terabytes of data — more than would fit on 600 DVDs. The newspaper says the amount of data it obtained is several times larger than a previous cache of offshore data published by WikiLeaks in 2013 that exposed the financial dealings of prominent individuals.

“To our knowledge this is the biggest leak that journalists have ever worked on,” Obermayer says.

The newspaper and its partners verified the authenticity of the data by comparing it to public registers, witness testimony and court rulings, he tells the AP. A previous cache of Mossack Fonseca documents obtained by German authorities was also used to verify the new material, Obermayer adds.

Among the countries with past or present political figures named in the reports are Iceland, Ukraine, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

World leaders respond

Panama’s president says his government will cooperate “vigorously” with any judicial investigation arising from the leak.

President Juan Carlos Varela says in a statement the revelations shouldn’t detract from his government’s “zero tolerance” for any illicit activities in Panama’s finance industry.

Ramon Fonseca, a co-founder of the law firm whose documents were leaked, tells Panama’s Channel 2 that the firm isn’t responsible for any criminal activity carried out with offshore vehicles created for clients.

The Guardian newspaper, which took part in the investigation, published a video on its website late Sunday showing an interview with Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson. During the interview with Sweden’s SVT television, the prime minister is asked about a company called Wintris. He responds by insisting that its affairs are above board and calling the question “completely inappropriate,” before breaking off the interview.

In Russia, the Kremlin last week said it was anticipating what it called an upcoming “information attack.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, tells reporters the Kremlin had received “a series of questions in a rude manner” from an organization that he said was trying to smear Putin.

“Journalists and members of other organizations have been actively trying to discredit Putin and this country’s leadership,” Peskov says.

The Kremlin says the leak of the "Panama Papers" is an attack aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin. [CBS News]
The Kremlin says the leak of the “Panama Papers” is an attack aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin. [CBS News]
The ICIJ says the documents included emails, financial spreadsheets, passports and corporate records detailing how powerful figures used banks, law firms and offshore shell companies to hide their assets. The data spanned a time frame of nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015, it says.

“It allows a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues,” the ICIJ says.

According to the media group’s website, global banks including HSBC, UBS, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and others have worked with Mossack Fonseca to create offshore accounts.

“The allegations are historical, in some cases dating back 20 years, predating our significant, well-publicized reforms implemented over the last few years,” HSBC spokesman Rob Sherman says in an emailed response to an AP request for comment.

“We work closely with the authorities to fight financial crime and implement sanctions,” he says.

UBS, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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