The Pandora Files are the largest ever ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) investigation into the world of offshore companies, revealing the financial secrets of politicians, billionaires and the global elite.
By Fergus Shiel, ICIJ
The investigation, which we called the Pandora Papers, sheds light on political power’s global commitment to secret offshore finance.
It is based on the largest ever leak of offshore documents around the world and reveals the secret deals and hidden assets of more than 330 politicians and high-ranking government officials, including 35 state leaders from more than 90 countries and territories.
The files include ambassadors, mayors, ministers, presidential advisers, generals and a central bank governor.
ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a non-profit news organization and network of journalists headquartered in Washington, D.C., received over 11.9 million financial documents containing 2.94 terabytes of confidential information from 14 offshore service providers. These are companies that create and manage shell companies and trusts in tax havens around the world.
The files lift the veil on the secret offshore holdings of more than 130 billionaires from 45 countries, including 46 Russian oligarchs. According to Forbes, in 2021 the total wealth of a hundred of these billionaires is estimated at over $ 600 billion. Among the other offshore clients are bankers, major donors to politicians and parties, arms dealers, international criminals, pop stars, spy bosses and sports giants.
ICIJ shared the files with 150 media partners, launching the most comprehensive collaboration in the history of journalism.
ICIJ organized and led this investigation, which lasted almost two years. More than 600 journalists from 117 countries and territories worked on it. Reporters followed in clues that reached a huge mansion built on a rocky California coast, a sugar plantation in the Dominican Republic, a factory in Italy that pollutes the environment, skyscrapers in Dubai and a Turkish hospital whose employees say they are victims of harassment.
The first documents date back to half a century ago, most of which were created between 1996 and 2020. These include information on more than 29,000 beneficiaries, ultimate owners of offshore assets. That’s more than double the number of owners found five years ago in an investigation called the Panama Papers, which was based on a leak of information from a single law firm.
Just as it is true that owning an offshore company is legal, it is also true that offshore companies provide secrecy that makes it possible to conceal illegal cash flows, bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, terrorist financing and human trafficking and other human rights violations, experts say. The Pandora files shed new light on a number of international corruption scandals, including the massive bribery operation of Brazilian giant Odebrecht S.A., the international soccer scandal known as FIFAGate (FIFAGate) and the alleged looting of Venezuelan public assets.
Poorer nations suffer more damage from hoarding wealth in tax havens because it damages their coffers and deprives them of funds to build and repair roads, schools and hospitals. The investigation called The Pandora Files reveals that instead of tackling tax avoidance through offshore companies, political leaders around the world have secretly moved money and assets beyond the reach of tax and law enforcement agencies as citizens of their countries struggle to survive.
Among the current and former leaders highlighted by the investigation as owners of secret companies and trusts are King Abdullah II of Jordan, the prime ministers of Côte d’Ivoire and the Czech Republic, the presidents of Ecuador, Kenya and Gabon, and former presidents of El Salvador, Panama, Paraguay and Honduras.
The files also shed light on the financial dealings of Chavista in Venezuela, hiding religious cult leaders and their followers, kleptocrats and their families, neo-Nazis, a mineral water trader convicted of orchestrating the murders of a judge and prosecutor, a fugitive pedophile millionaire and terrorist funders.
The global “team” of the Pandoras Files also includes a “bitcoin boss” convicted of money laundering in connection with the largest cyber robbery in history. Offshore investments have led to Bollywood actors, soccer stars, corrupt sports officials, a royal lover, rival princesses, film directors and stars, supermodels, leading designers and world-famous singers.
We called the project The Pandora-Papers because the current journalistic partnership builds on the legacy of the Panama and Paradise Papers, and the ancient myth of Pandora’s box still evokes associations with the outpouring of trouble and evil upon humanity.
Journalistic reports reveal that the United States, in particular, is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for hiding wealth, even as it and its Western allies regularly point their fingers at smaller countries for allowing the flow of money and assets related to corruption and crime.
The Pandora files include documents from 206 U.S. trusts in 15 states and Washington, D.C., as well as 22 U.S. trust funds.
The documents provide details of the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars from offshore zones in the Caribbean and Europe to South Dakota, a sparsely populated U.S. state that has become a major destination for foreign money.
The revelations by ICIJ and partner media shatter the offshore industry’s myths and claims that offshore service providers screen their clients in great detail and seek to act within the law, and point to the price society pays when the rich and powerful are allowed to hide their wealth from that same law.
The investigation shows how the largest law firm in the United States, Baker McKenzie, helped create the modern offshore system and how another law firm, Alcogal in Panama, played a huge role in maintaining this network.
It also sheds light on how little-known corporate service providers have aided the financial maneuvers of people who are the subject of criminal investigations or costly civil lawsuits, including a Belgian chemical company executive accused of environmental crimes and an accomplice to the Colombo crime family, which is based in Florida.
The investigation also shows how offshore companies are used to hide art objects and antiques. Our journalistic team found that dozens of antiquities are still on display in world-famous museums, although they are associated with a famous collector who was later suspected of smuggling on a particularly large scale.
A particularly daunting aspect of the investigation leads to secret investors in one of the largest corporate landlords in the United States. They profit from evicting tenants in the midst of a global pandemic. Among them is the Legion of Christ, a Roman Catholic religious order disgraced by an international sexual violence scandal.
Among the 14 offshore service providers whose documents compile the Pandora-Files dataset, there are three companies owned by former government officials. They operate in jurisdictions such as England, Belize, Singapore, Switzerland, Panama, Barbados, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles and Vietnam and attract customers from more than 200 countries and territories.
Documents show links to more than 30,000 companies and are in a variety of languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Greek and Russian. The beneficiaries owners are associated with 27,000 companies.
Documents include spreadsheets, tax returns, invoices, PowerPoint presentations, emails, and company records listing directors and shareholders. There are also suspicious activity reports, sanctions lists, due diligence reports, know-your-customer forms, passports, utility bills and photos.
They reveal details of international energy, technology and property holdings and transactions, as well as complex succession arrangements.
The journalism team searched and unraveled complex networks of ownership behind countless companies, foundations and trusts. The documents and results were shared in a secure database built by ICIJ and called Datashare and through a secure platform called Global iHub.
The publication of the revelations from the Pandora Files comes amid a critical global debate about the fairness of the international tax system, the role of Western professionals in the shadow economy and the failure of governments to stem the flow of dirty money into hidden companies and trusts.
It is expected that the Pandora Files will present new revelations for years to come.
ICIJ Media Partners for the Pandora Files:
- BIRN (Albania)
- Twala (Algeria)
- Diario La Nación (Argentina)
- elDiarioAR (Argentina)
- Infobae (Argentina)
- Hetq (Armenia)
- ABC (Australia)
- Australian Financial Review (Australia)
- ORF (Austria)
- PROFIL (Austria)
- Belsat (Belarus)
- De Tijd (Belgium)
- KNACK (Belgium)
- Le Soir (Belgium)
- OCCRP (Bosnia, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States)
- Ink Center for Investigative Journalism (Botswana)
- Agência Pública (Brazil)
- Metrópoles (Brazil)
- Poder 360 (Brazil)
- Revista Piauí (Brazil)
- BIRD (Bulgaria)
- L’Economiste Du Faso (Burkina Faso)
- VOD (Cambodia)
- The Museba Project (Cameroon)
- CBC/RADIO CANADA (Canada)
- Toronto Star (Canada)
- Ciper Chile (Chile)
- Fundación Periodística LaBot (Chile)
- CONNECTAS (Colombia)
- El Espectador (Colombia)
- National Magazine Comores (Comoros)
- Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP) (Costa Rica, Colombia)
- Costa Rica Noticias, Canal 13 (Costa Rica)
- Eburnie Today (Cote d’Ivoire)
- L’Elephant Dechaine (Cote d’Ivoire)
- Proyecto Inventario (Cuba)
- Czech Center for Investigative Jounralism (Czech Republic)
- Berlingske (Denmark)
- Danish Broadcasting Corporation (Denmark)
- Politiken (Denmark)
- Noticias SIN (Dominican Republic)
- Diario El Universo (Ecuador)
- Mada Madmasr (Egypt)
- El Faro (El Salvador)
- Diario Rombe (Equatorial Guinea)
- EESTI PÄEVALEHT (Estonia)
- Yle – Finnish Broadcasting Company (Finland)
- Le Monde (France, Cameroon)
- Premières Lignes (France)
- Radio France (France)
- iFact (Georgia)
- NDR (Germany)
- Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany)
- WDR (Germany)
- Ghana Business News (Ghana)
- ZAMIREPORTS (Ghana)
- Plaza Pública (Guatemala)
- Contracorriente (Honduras)
- Stand News (Hong Kong)
- Direkt36 (Hungary)
- Reykjavik Media (Iceland)
- Stundin (Iceland)
- Indian Express (India)
- Tempo (Indonesia)
- The Irish Times (Ireland)
- Shomrim (Israel)
- L’ESPRESSO (Italy)
- Asahi Shimbun (Japan)
- Kyodo News (Japan)
- ARIJ (Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Yemen)
- Africa Uncensored (Kenya)
- The Elephant (Kenya)
- Re: Baltica (Latvia)
- Daraj Media (Lebanon)
- Daily Observer Newspaper (Liberia)
- Front Page Africa (Liberia)
- Africa Report (Libya)
- Siena.lt (Lithuania)
- Reporter.lu (Luxembourg)
- Nation Publications LTD (Malawi)
- Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ-Malawi) (Malawi)
- Malaysiakini (Malaysia)
- Malian Network of Investigative Journalists (Mali)
- Times of Malta (Malta)
- L’Express (Mauritius)
- Proceso (Mexico)
- Quinto Elemento Lab (Mexico)
- MANS (Montenegro)
- Le Desk (Morocco)
- The Namibian (Namibia)
- CIJ Nepal (Nepal)
- Kantipur Daily (Nepal)
- Het Financieele Dagblad (Netherlands)
- Platform Investico (Netherlands)
- Trouw (Netherlands)
- NZME (New Zealand)
- TVNZ (New Zealand)
- Confidencial (Nicaragua)
- L’Evenement (Niger)
- Premium Times (Nigeria)
- Aftenposten (Norway)
- E24 (Norway)
- The News (Pakistan)
- Grupo ABC Color (Paraguay)
- Convoca (Peru)
- IDL-Reporteros (Peru)
- Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism (Philippines)
- Rappler (Philippines)
- Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland)
- EXPRESSO (Portugal)
- Centro De Periodismo Investigativo (Puerto Rico)
- Rise (Romania, Moldova)
- istories (Russia)
- Impact.sn (Senegal)
- KRIK (Serbia)
- OŠTRO (Slovenia, Croatia)
- amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism (South Africa)
- Carte Blanche (South Africa)
- Newstapa (South Korea)
- El País (Spain, Mexico)
- La Sexta (Spain)
- SVT (Sweden)
- TAMEDIA (Switzerland)
- Jamii Media (Tanzania)
- Isra News Agency (Thailand)
- De Cive (Le Citoyen) et La Lettre Agricole (Togo)
- Flambeau des Democrates (Togo)
- L’Union pour la Patrie (Togo)
- Quoditien Liberte (Togo)
- Inkyfada (Tunisia)
- Deutsche Welle (Turkey)
- NMG Uganda (Uganda)
- Slidstvo (Ukraine)
- BBC (United Kingdom)
- Finance Uncovered (United Kingdom, Kenya)
- PBS FrontLine (United Kingdom)
- Private Eye (United Kingdom)
- The Guardian (United Kingdom, Australia, United States)
- El Nuevo Herald (United States)
- McClatchy (United States)
- Miami Herald (United States)
- Spotify (United States)
- The Washington Post (United States)
- The Wire China (United States)
- Univision (United States, Mexico)
- Semanario Búsqueda (Uruguay)
- Armando.info (Venezuela)
- Makanday Media (Zambia)
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