ICYMI...A decade of deceit, discovery and disclosure....the who, what, why of recent mass leaks of highly sensitive, largely illegal and hugely secretive international banking dealings...a handy who's what guide!
The Offshore Leaks of 2012 & 2013
This swiftly unravelling ball was set rolling with what was the largest exposé of international tax fraud at the time by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who published their findings between November 2012 and April 2013.
Over 2.5 million files containing more than 120,000 companies and trusts were made public. Among those named were multiple politicians, government officials and their families, all predominantly from Russia, the PRC, Canada, Thailand, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and the Philippines, albeit the named individual in this particularly case had died over 20 years previously!
The Luxembourg Leaks of 2014
This was a further investigation conducted by the ICJI and focused on how the financial and accountancy service provider, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), had assisted numerous large corporations in obtaining favourable tax rulings in Luxembourg between 2002 and 2010.
The main claim was that this saved multinationals billions in unrealised taxes. Various schemes were disclosed including some that lowered effective tax rates to less than 1% and the registration of multiple shell companies at the same Luxembourg address.
Whilst Pepsi, IKEA, GlaxoSmithKline, Walt Disney Corporation, AIG, Deutsche Bank and Skype were among those exposed, they all, somewhat predictably, denied any wrongdoing.
The whole thing became increasingly embarrassing for Jean-Claude Juncker who had been the Prime Minister of Luxembourg when it passed many of the prevailing tax provisions. The embarrassment stemmed largely from the fact that he had ascended to the Presidency of the European Commission just days before the leak and critics of the EU had a field day as a result.
The EU did investigate but to date have failed to pass any meaningful legislation for common tax law across the community.
The data was leaked by Antoine Deltour, a PricewaterhouseCoopers employee, who was assisted by another PwC employee, Raphael Halet. These two, along with journalist Edouard Perrin, were all charged in Luxembourg at the insistence of PwC and after lengthy legal proceedings Deltour received a suspended six month sentence, Halet a small fine and Perrin was acquitted.
The Swiss Leaks of 2015
This huge collaborative ICIJ investigation enlisted the help of a multitude of journalists across a host of countries with the main focus being on HSBC Private Bank (Suisse), a subsidiary of the then British based banking giant and was notable as the first occassion on which the lid had been lifted on transactions within a country where banking secrecy is famously strict.
The leaked documents implicated over 100,000 individuals and various legal entities, corporations and companies from more than 200 countries. Additionally, it was claimed that the HSBC subsidiary had serviced:
"those close to discredited regimes"
"clients who had been unfavourably named by the United Nations".
"arms dealers, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws"
It also cited the regimes of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former Tunisian President Ben Ali and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
HSBC admitted that their compliance and standards of due diligence had been lacking at the time.
The ICIJ obtained most of their information through a whistleblower, Herve Falciani, but not directly, he having supplied it firsthand to various European governments from 2008 onwards. Although Falciani was indicted in Switzerland and held briefly in Spain, he was later released.
The Panama Papers Leaks of 2016
These were largely considered to be the Rockstar of all leaks at the time...containing 1,500 times more data than the Wikileaks dump of diplomatic cables of 2010.
The Panama Papers came from an unknown source via reporters at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and included encrypted files from the law firm of Mossack Fonseca based in Panama, which specialized in setting up anonymous offshore companies.
The sheer size of the data dump led to the SZ journalists calling in the ICIJ and after more than a year of scrutiny and analysis they jointly published the Panama Papers on April 3rd 2016 with a database containing all the documents going online one month later.
So who was implicated this time...associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin who had moved vast sums of money around the world, the Prime Ministers of Iceland and Pakistan (both chose to walk or were fired) along with dozens of current or former world leaders, politicians, public officials and countless billionaires, celebrities and sports stars.
(The joke at the time was that many players in the lucrative EPL (English Premier League) were very concerned that their affairs were being looked into until someone explained this meant their financial affairs!).
Who dropped the data? To this day that still isn't clear although a month after the dump a manifesto was released by the claimed perpetrator which appears to portray a revolutionary of sorts! that manifesto !
Five months after the Panama Papers were released, the ICIJ published further revelations, this time from the Bahamas Corporate Registry, which provided information on the offshore activities of "prime ministers, ministers, princes and convicted felons".
The Paradise Papers Leaks of 2017
Another massive batch of documents which came mostly from the offshore law firm Appleby, as well as the corporate registries of numerous tax jurisdictions, revealed the financial affairs of multiple politicians, celebrities, corporations and business leaders.
These documents detailed investments made by the Queen's private estate, a tax avoidance scheme used by BBC employees, how Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton avoided tax on his new jet and how Apple protected its low-tax regime by using the Channel Island of Jersey.
The 13+ million files were originally passed to Süddeutsche Zeitung again and then shared with the ICIJ.
The FinCEN Leaks of 2020
The so-called FinCEN Files are the latest in a long series of secret banking file leaks, this time from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency (FinCEN), part of the US Treasury.
They detail the collective failures of the major banks to combat money laundering and the furtherance of financial crimes and are based on more than 2,000 'suspicious activity reports' or SARs filed by various financial institutions and also include 17,641 records obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and sundry other sources.
They expose how the UK has become a weak link in the global financial system and that London is awash with, largely Russian, laundered money.
The files are the latest in a series of whistleblowing-led investigations that have rocked the world of finance in recent times and once again involved the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
So where next? Well, given the 'shock to the system' provided by the Covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly shameless way politicians and major corporations have sought to openly (or not so openly) profit from this global disaster we should maybe hope that the next leak will be:
The Pandemic Papers of 2021
Well...we live in hope!