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Panama Papers: Why the Biggest Leak in History Still Matters

On April 3, 2016, Fusion, along with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 other news organizations, released the Panama Papers, a series of investigations into offshore finance. The project was born of a massive leak of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialized in creating shell companies in tax havens around the globe.

The files revealed a parallel universe of anonymous offshore finance where the ultra-rich and powerful could hide their wealth, along with tax cheats, fraudsters and thieves. In 2012, the Tax Justice Network released a study estimating that between $21-32 trillion of private wealth is stashed offshore, but the true number is tough to calculate given the secretive nature of the industry. Among the names found in the over 11.5 million leaked documents, were those of the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family members, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

In the immediate aftermath of the Panama Papers release, protesters demanded the resignation of Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, who ran on a platform of banking reform meant to help the average Icelander. The documents showed that his wife was the owner of an offshore company. In failing to disclose this publicly, Gunnlaugsson arguably violated Icelandic ethics rules. He claimed that since the company was not commercially active, it did not need to be reported.

Panamanian authorities raided Mossack Fonseca’s headquarters within a few weeks of the investigation, and since then, 150 investigations in 79 countries have ultimately led to the recuperation of at least $110 million dollars in unpaid taxes.

Most recently, the founders and namesakes of the firm, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, were arrested by Panamanian authorities in early February on charges relating to money laundering. The country’s attorney general, Kenia Porcell, called the firm a “criminal organization,” in a statement released at the time of their arrest. The two men are currently being held without bail and maintain that their arrest was unjustified.

But what about here in the U.S.? Around 200 people with U.S. addresses were found in the leaked documents, and the firm operated two offices in Florida and Nevada. On the anniversary of the Panama Papers release, Fusion’s Natasha del Toro returned to an anti-money laundering conference in Miami, Florida, where she learned about a new set of treasury rules meant to enhance previous anti-money laundering regulation. But with states still controlling how companies are incorporated, it remains unclear whether enough transparency exists to truly track down financial criminals.

Fusion was the only U.S. media partner to produce a documentary in English. You can watch a sneak peek here.

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