On April 03, 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists [ICIJ] started publishing almost twelve million files of leaked documents revealing the details of tax havens sheltering more than one trillion dollars from legitimate governing taxing authorities. On April 05, 2016, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland, was the first government leader to fall in the wake of these revelations. Eventually over 200 government leaders in 50 countries were named as participating in these tax shelters.

The files had been leaked to Bastian Obermayer of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung [SZ] in 2015. The documents, which came to be known as the Panama Papers, contained financial information for more than 200,000 offshore entities. The papers were leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca which specialized in the creation and management of shell companies and tax havens.

Obermayer and SZ, realizing that they could not process such staggering amounts of data/information, joined with ICIJ to establish an unprecedented collaboration among journalists from 107 media organizations working in 80 countries to collate and examine on a local level the data in the leaked documents. This collaboration of journalists, with in-depth knowledge of local and regional matters, on a global issue of transnational importance marked a turning point in investigative journalism.

The publication of the Panama Papers rapidly led to an avalanche of additional massive leaks of confidential information concerning off-shore accounts of the super rich. Through ICIF over 300 journalists now joined forces to examine these leaks and their relevance to their local political and economic contexts. The results have shaken the social foundations of several nation-states and have called into question the capabilities of democracies to investigate and regulate the transnational economic forces that control their economies and often their governments.

The ICIF journalists examined and published the Paradise Papers in 2017: 13.4 million documents leaked from the Bermuda law firm Appleby. In 2021 they published the Pandora Papers: 11.9 million documents from various off-shore law firms, revealing the tax haven accounts and hidden assets of politicians, celebrities, drug lords, war lords, and other “stars” on the international money networks.

Again, this examination and publication of massive amounts of data required the extraordinary collaboration of the global/local resources of independent journalists, civic activists, and media throughout the world. Why? Because neither local, nor national, nor regional media or governmental agencies had the resources or the political will to properly assess the data.

That the super rich hide their wealth in an intricate web of shell companies and tax shelters to avoid taxes is not news to most people. So: why should I care and how does this hidden wealth affect me? Tax revenues lost from these tax shelters would go a long way to providing health care and education for the peoples of their respective nations – not to mention the vital infrastructure delivering clean water and nutritious food it could supply, especially to developing nations.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that over 7 trillion US dollars representing 8% of the world’s economy are hidden in these off-shore accounts. The various sovereignties of the United Kingdom are the number one tax havens for the super rich. The United States is number two.

For example, in order to attract business, the State of Nevada passed legislation making it easy and inexpensive for businesses to register in the state. Almost overnight, Nevada became a favorite place for registering off-shore businesses – many of which are Russian. To date, more than 10 thousand businesses have registered; these businesses hide their true owners through privacy shield laws.

Not all tax havens and off-shore accounts are illegal by definition or created to hide illegally gained monies. But, to date, these leaks demonstrate that the overwhelming volume of the creative banking and accounting vehicles for hiding and protecting wealth are precisely what they seem to be: illegal tax dodges and money laundering mechanisms for dirty money.

In 2021 a “dirty money” law was passed by the US congress with bi-partisan support to compel the publication of the true owners of all businesses registered in the USA. Today, the Republican controlled House of Representatives is trying to repeal or neuter that bill.

These hidden funds corrupt civil society and compromise the power of democratic institutions.

The drug lords of Mexico have compromised the basic institutions of that country. They silence or murder honest politicians and journalists. As Melissa Del Bosque and Katherine Corcoran have reported on the murders of Mexican journalists Miroslava Breach and Regina Martínez Pérez, once these journalists linked dirty money to politicians their death sentences were signed.

On October 16, 2017 dirty money killed the independent investigative Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who on a daily basis through her blog exposed the corruption of the government officials in her country. Her examination of the Panama Papers confirmed her assertation that dirty money controls her country.

Malta is just one of many small countries and regional governments compromised by dirty money.

The one bright spot for me in all this maze of dark money is the brilliant light of the local/global collaboration of journalists worldwide who risk their lives to recover the civic hope that civil society is worth the effort and that truly independent media is worth supporting.

Our society generates the economic resources to keep our nation well educated and in good health, to re-build our infrastructure, to prepare us for our best future.

The money is out there …
Published: Windy City Times Media 30 April 2023
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; president of Chicago Network JP; member, Writers in Prison, San Miguel PEN; member, TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.

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