In collaboration with Digg, Alice Brennan, Catherine Dunn and Adam Weinstein from Fusion’s investigative unit answered reader questions on Wednesday about their reporting on the recent Panama Papers leak.
Just tuning in? Here’s a handy video explainer:
Here are some of the best things you asked us on Digg:
Heiriku: Hello, I’d like to know why isn’t there any American name on the Papers? It’s kinda hard to believe that there not one single american envolved [sic] with MF.
Alice Brennan: This is one of my favorite questions! When we first got the data we searched and searched and searched for more U.S. names—and we didn’t come up with the same huge bombshells as our European partners. One very simple explanation for why there aren’t more U.S. names in the data is that they don’t need to go to Panama! We have our very own tax havens here in the U.S. in Nevada, Wyoming and Delaware. In fact Mossack Fonseca has offices in the U.S. and some of their biggest scandals have used companies registered in these states. …One of our academic experts also mentioned that many of the super-rich Americans actually take their assets straight to Swiss banks and they don’t need Panama.
Joe Tonelli: Seems like its super easy to set up a shell company in Delaware, is there any evidence that a lot of illegal shit is happening there too? Any past investigations from other news outlets?
Alice Brennan: Yes indeed! In fact some academic papers have said that the U.S. is the third largest tax haven in the world. Nevada, Wyoming and Delaware are three states that have relatively lax legislation around owner identification. I think one fifth of Delaware’s revenue comes from company incorporation? We set up a shell company there with no ID in FIVE MINUTES. You could do it in less time over the www though! This is a big part of our investigative hour to be released on the 17th of April. Carl Levin has been fighting this battle for years.
Nathan Hulick: How about some transparency from the journalists reporting this leak, will you guys release all the documents and if so when?
Adam Weinstein: Fair question—but ICIJ director Gerard Ryle has said before that the consortium doesn’t plan to release *all* the docs; as he told Wired, the trove “would expose the sensitive information of innocent private individuals along with the public figures on which the group’s reporting has focused.” That said, it’s possible that over time, the trove could be released publicly as it goes through some kind of a redaction process, similar to the way Wikileaks eventually released its war logs after some initial missteps.
Andrew Chernoble Soep: How do we differentiate between those who are using this pathway for illegal activity, versus those who are trying to protect their privacy or are not violating the law. As we know, having an offshore entity is not necessarily illegal. Is there an attempt by the press to protect those, especially in the public sphere, from being unfairly mischaracterized and ruining their reputation?
Alice Brennan: Good question! We are very very careful in our research not to characterize people who may be using these companies for perfectly legitimate purposes. That is why the ICIJ, and most of us, have concentrated on companies or people who have track records of wrongdoing. For example, if you see the ICIJ’s story about sanctioned companies that is a good indication of how we all strive to go about out research.
Ginger: I’m sure there are a lot of surprising things in this leak, but what, for each of you, was the most shocking thing to discover?
Catherine Dunn: One of the more shocking things to me were the email discussions among the senior partners and employees of the firm when—time after time—they discovered serious red flags only after they had already taken on a client. We start our story with one such episode, and the ICIJ’s story on companies that were sanctioned and blacklisted by the U.S. government is another dramatic example.
Adam Weinstein: From a professional standpoint, the Iceland PM’s family holdings were a bit of a shock to me, given the country’s reformist bent and his progressive self-stylings. From a personal perspective, the fact that Stanley Kubrick’s family used an offshore for his property was a little eye-opening. [Editor’s note: the Kubrick family did not respond to requests for comment from Fusion and the ICIJ.] The scope of these structures is unreal. And these are just some of the dealings of one firm out of many that manages anonymous shells.
Alice Brennan: The most surprising thing for me to discover was the sheer enormity of this industry. It was something we’d suspected was going on, but these files proved to us what the real scope was. Like many of the experts have said to us, “it’s like a parallel universe for the rich and powerful”
Nathan Hulick: How were the documents distributed to the journalists? Did all journalists have access to all documents?
Adam Weinstein: Once given secure credentials, we each had access to the documents (the ones that were OCR’d by then, at least—that was an immense ongoing operation), but more important, we had access to each other: It was a truly collaborative process in which journos communicated directly and securely with each other on what they’d found—we shared leads and added background to docs that other folks had surfaced. In truth, it was pretty cool—and pretty unique in this industry.
Catherine Dunn: Fun question! The journalists had access to one database where they could search all the documents, and another platform where they could share leads and tips they found with one another—kind of like a Facebook platform for everyone working on the project in different countries.
Robin Sloan: What’s the most awesomely banal name for a shell company you came across in your reporting? 😎
Will Fitzgibbon (ICIJ): Money Gain Limited didn’t strike me as particularly deep…
Alice Brennan: I still love the Icelandic PM’s “Wintris”…We also set up our own in Delaware called “She Sells Sea Shells LLC”
Adam Weinstein: Controlled by a cat, no less!
You can check out the conversation in its entirety over on Digg. And you can read Mossack Fonseca’s response to the Panama Papers here.