LONDON — A huge leak of financial documents revealed by a group of about 100 media organizations on Sunday provided deep insights into some of the mechanisms used by top politicians and celebrities to escape paying taxes.
Offshore funds are often used to avoid paying high taxes, and their use is not necessarily illegal, though when they are being used by the same people who set those tax rates, it tends to raise eyebrows. The majority of the people featured in the leaks come from the United States, followed by Britain.
What do the 'Paradise Papers' reveal?
The concealing of the wealth of billionaires, politicians and at least one head of state in offshore accounts comes as a major embarrassment to the people included in the documents.
The material could also end up being used as evidence in investigations looking into links between members of the Trump administration and entities affiliated with the Russian government.
In Britain, the revelations could support accusations that the ruling Conservative Party indirectly benefited from some of the offshore tax haven funds it has publicly condemned, which could add to the mounting pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May, who has struggled to deal with multiple scandals recently.
Among the individuals or groups who are named in the 13.4 million documents is Queen Elizabeth II, whose private estate invested more than $12 million offshore, according to the reports. Other documents in the leak — published Sunday and Monday — refer to Trump administration officials, an aide of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a major donor to Britain’s Conservative Party, tech company Apple, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and a Russian oligarch.
Last year, the Panama Papers — revealed by the same consortium of journalists following a leak in Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca — exposed a number of companies, top officials, oligarchs and politicians that benefited from tax evasion. At the time, Mossack Fonseca was being portrayed by law firm industry representatives as an outlier. The companies from where most of the new leak’s documents originated are generally considered to be industry leaders, however, which exposes the extent to which questionable practices may still be the norm rather than the exception.
Where do the documents come from?
The 1,400 gigabytes of data were first leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared the documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium collaborates with hundreds of media partners around the world, which were subsequently involved in the research, including the New York Times and Britain’s Guardian.
About half of the leak’s documents are believed to have come from the Bermuda-based Appleby law firm and corporate services provider Estera, which recently became its own entity after having operated as a part of Appleby for years.
Appleby assists corporations or individuals with setting up companies offshore and is considered the world’s most important player in the field. Some of the documents date back to 1950, whereas others were modified as recently as last year.
Whom are the people the documents refer to?
Queen Elizabeth II:
Over $12 million of her private funds were invested offshore by the Duchy of Lancaster — a portfolio of assets that provides the queen’s income. Although a private estate by the same name may be the most well-known part of the portfolio, it also held funds in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands and invested in a company accused of shady lending practices.
Speaking to the BBC in response to the allegations, Chris Adcock, the chief finance officer of the estate, defended the investments, saying, “The duchy has only invested in highly regarded private equity funds following a strong recommendation from our investment consultants.”
The leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, appeared to suggest the queen should apologize in response to the revelations. “Anyone that is putting money into tax havens in order to avoid taxation in Britain, and obviously investigations have to take place, should do two things — not just apologize for it but also recognize what it does to our society,” Corbyn told Britain's Telegraph newspaper.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross:
The leaked documents reportedly show that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross holds business investments in companies tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, according to The Washington Post's Carol Morello, who put the revelations into context:
“The documents leaked as the administration faces several investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, including a probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that brought its first indictments last week. The reports said Ross has maintained a financial interest through offshore investments in a shipping company called Navigator Holdings. One of the firm’s largest clients is the Russian energy firm Sibur, a huge gas processing and petrochemicals company.
“Among the firm’s major stakeholders are Putin associate Gennady Timchenko, who individually is under U.S. sanctions, and Leonid Mikhelson, whom Forbes magazine lists as Russia’s richest man and whose company, Novatek, is under sanctions. Another shareholder in Sibur is Kirill Shamalov, who is married to Putin’s daughter. Neither Sibur nor Putin’s son-in-law are sanctioned.”
Yuri Milner, Facebook and Twitter:
Separately, the leak also appeared to show that a Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner, bought shares in American tech companies Twitter and Facebook. The purchases of Twitter and Facebook shares came from Russia’s VTB Bank and the state-led Gazprom company, which are both under U.S. sanctions. Milner has disputed that the two entities financed his purchases.
There is no evidence that shareholders have used their influence in Silicon Valley to undermine the U.S. electoral system, but the revelations follow new concerns that ads and fake accounts were used to sway voters in the run-up to last November's elections.
Top U.S. administration advisers and officials:
Other individuals directly or indirectly mentioned in the leaks include President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. A start-up company co-owned by Kushner and his brother received funding from Russian billionaire Milner in 2015.
The revelation is particularly relevant because Kushner later told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had never “relied on” Russian money to finance his private business dealings, according to The Post’s Carol Morello. Others named in the documents are chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Top officials elsewhere:
Other top political advisers or former officials the documents refer to include Stephen Bronfman, a key adviser to Trudeau, as well as Britain’s Lord Ashcroft, a top donor to Britain’s Conservative Party who fled to a bathroom while trying to escape questions about the issue. An offshore fund allegedly operated by Lord Ashcroft and revealed by the documents may have been worth over $330 million.
After the release of the documents, the Labour Party urged May on Monday to reveal what she knew about the origins of the money flowing into her Conservative Party's funds. In response to the criticism, May said she desired “greater transparency” for offshore investments. The prime minister did not encourage an inquiry into the allegations or any further major changes to existing laws, however.
In the United States, Canada and Britain, the web of complex offshore dealings appeared to extend far into the top ranks of politics, although it largely remained unclear to what extent the practices had been illegal or were conducted with the knowledge of some of the people named by the media outlets involved in the revelations.