This weekend, Fusion and more than 100 other media organizations started publishing the Panama Papers, a global investigation into the secrets of offshore finance. So far it has yielded huge revelations about heads of state and politicians around the globe. Some of the biggest names to come out of the files include close friends and associates of Vladimir Putin, as well as the prime minister of Iceland, the president of Argentina, and the family of Chinese president Xi Jinping. But we haven’t seen a lot of high-wattage U.S. names in the headlines.
So far, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has only been able to identify 211 people with U.S. addresses who own companies in the data (not all of whom we’ve been able to investigate yet). We don’t know if those 211 people are necessarily U.S. citizens. And that figure covers only data from recent years available on a Mossack Fonseca internal database — not all 11.5 million files from the leak.
In other words, that 211 number comes from just a small sliver of the data. “It’s a complete underestimate,” says Mar Cabra, head of the data and research unit at the ICIJ. Finding a precise number of Americans in the data is difficult.
Not surprisingly, though, a lot of people are asking: If this is the biggest data leak in history – and our biggest window ever onto the offshore world – where are all the Americans? After all, an estimated $150 billion in potential U.S. tax revenues disappears into offshore tax schemes each year, according to a 2014 Senate subcommittee report. We asked top experts in offshore finance to break down the American-related aspects of the Panama Papers leak.
Those experts were:
Jack Blum, Washington lawyer and expert in offshore activities
James Henry, economist and senior advisor to the Tax Justice Network
Don Semensky, retired chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Office of Financial Operations
Jason Sharman, co-author of Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism
Shima Baradaran Baughman, Professor, University of Utah, College of Law
Some answers edited for length.
1. Why aren’t we seeing more Americans in the files?
Jack Blum: Every news entity that works on it has to go through the material and figure out what’s in it, and this is such an enormous database, it will take some time.
Don Semensky: Americans may have figured out a way to add another soft party who has a different nationality or identity. Let’s say [Mossack Fonseca] had a lot of American account holders or clients. It took [the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act] over five years to get into place, which gave everyone plenty of time to close accounts and move their money—open up new corporations that didn’t look like they were held by Americans.
Shima Baradaran Baughman: Americans can form shell companies right in Wyoming, Delaware or Nevada. They have no need to go to Panama to form a shell company to use for illicit activities.
2. Does this mean that Americans don’t use the offshore world?
James Henry: Americans clearly use offshore all the time. They were some of the first early users of offshore. Back in the 1970s there was something called the Castle Bank & Trust case, out the Bahamas, that exposed 200 prominent Americans who were rock stars, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain, the Cleveland mafia. All these people were using offshore trusts.
What’s happened is that they [Americans] discovered that they really don’t need to go to Panama. Delaware has trusts. Forty-nine states now offer LLCs… Basically, we have an onshore haven industry in the US that is as secretive as anywhere.
The big picture is, this is a global network, and this is one particular law firm. This is an extraordinary revelation.
‘It’s nothing less than our democratic process at stake.’
Jack Blum: My expectation will be that the most likely kinds of places in this database where Americans will show up is where there’s involvement in stock fraud, stock manipulations, and questionable hedge fund operations… I think that’s where the action will be.
Jason Sharman: One of the forms of companies that’s even more secret than, say, a British Virgin Islands company is a company incorporated in almost any U.S. state. If you form a British Virgin Islands company you have to declare who you are to the person forming the company for you; if you form in Nevada, for example, you don’t… So Nevada is great because it’s much more secret than the British Virgin Islands.
3. Does this mean that Americans are cleaner than the rest of the world?
Jack Blum: No. Absolutely not. We are, as a country, no more honest than anyone else, I dare say.
Shima Baradaran Baughman: Not necessarily. In fact, some research I have done demonstrates that American incorporation services are some of the most noncompliant with international transparency regulations.
Don Semensky: No, not necessarily.
‘Americans will show up… where there’s involvement in stock fraud, stock manipulations, and questionable hedge fund operations… I think that’s where the action will be.’
4. Where else might Americans go “offshore”?
Shima Baradaran Baughman: Anywhere in the world. I have demonstrated in my research that you can form a shell company in almost any country in the world. These transactions are easily done online.
James Henry: Each and every year, decade over decade, we have discovered variations on the same basic theme. Americans were recruited by the largest Swiss banks just three and four years ago – tens of billions in assets just from UBS and Credit Suisse.
5. What are the implications of the leak for the United States?
Jack Blum: What should be one of the more shocking aspects of the documents is that Mossack Fonseca had a subsidiary to create American offshore corporations in Nevada, and it is a fact that the U.S. government has been talking about on and off over the years, about forcing U.S. corporations to disclose their beneficial ownership. It is a depressing fact that several administrations now have refused to make that a requirement… What’s happened is, some of the sleaziest offshore lawyers are now using American corporate shells to hide foreign corrupt activity. You’d think – you’d hope — that the U.S. government would crack down on this and do the right thing to force people to make public the beneficial ownership of corporation.
Shima Baradaran Baughman: The extent of money laundering and tax evasion demonstrated by the Panama papers is alarming for the entire world, including citizens and policy makers in the U.S. It is also relevant because it should make Americans look internally to see what kinds of corporate illegalities we are allowing within our own borders.
James Henry: The big thing we should be concerned about is, there is onshore haven behavior in the United States, and it is undermining our own tax compliance and tax citizenship. I mean, if ordinary people are the only ones paying taxes, then you’ll have a tax revolt on your hands…We depend for our tax system and for our democracy on ordinary people paying their taxes. If they go on strike, it’s going to be a serious problem. It’s nothing less than our democratic process at stake.