On This Day:
2016 – The Panama Papers, a leak of legal documents, reveals information on 214,488 offshore companies.
The Panama Papers are 11.5 million leaked documents that detail financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The documents, which belonged to the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, were leaked in 2015 by an anonymous source, some dating back to the 1970s.
The leaked documents contain personal financial information about wealthy individuals and public officials that had previously been kept private. While offshore business entities are legal, reporters found that some of the Mossack Fonseca shell corporations were used for illegal purposes, including fraud, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions.
“John Doe”, the whistleblower who leaked the documents to German journalist Bastian Obermayer from the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), remains anonymous, even to the journalists on the investigation. “My life is in danger”, he told them. In a May 6 statement, John Doe cited income inequality as the reason for his action, and said he leaked the documents “simply because I understood enough about their contents to realise the scale of the injustices they described”. He added that he has never worked for any government or intelligence agency. He expressed willingness to help prosecutors if immune to prosecution. After SZ verified that the statement did come from the Panama Papers source, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) posted the full document on its website.
Because of the amount of data, SZ asked the ICIJ for help. Journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed documents detailing the operations of the law firm. After more than a year of analysis, the first news stories were published on April 3, 2016, along with 150 of the documents themselves. The project represents an important milestone in the use of data journalism software tools and mobile collaboration.
The documents were quickly dubbed the Panama Papers. The Panamanian government strongly objects to the name; so do other entities in Panama and elsewhere. Some media outlets covering the story have used the name “Mossack Fonseca papers”.
In addition to the much-covered business dealings of British prime minister David Cameron and Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the leaked documents also contain identity information about the shareholders and directors of 214,000 shell companies set up by Mossack Fonseca, as well as some of their financial transactions. Much of this information does not show anything more than prudent financial management. It is generally not against the law (in and of itself) to own an offshore shell company, although offshore shell companies may sometimes be used for illegalities.
The journalists on the investigative team found business transactions by many important figures in world politics, sports and art, and many of these transactions are quite legal. Since the data is incomplete, questions remain in many other cases; still others seem to clearly indicate ethical if not legal impropriety. Some disclosures – tax avoidance in very poor countries by very wealthy entities and individuals for example – lead to questions on moral grounds. According to The Namibian for instance, a shell company registered to Beny Steinmetz, Octea, owes more than $700,000 US in property taxes to the city of Koidu in Sierra Leone, and is $150 million in the red, even though its exports were more than twice that in an average month 2012–2015. Steinmetz himself has personal worth of $6 billion.
Other offshore shell company transactions described in the documents do seem to have broken exchange laws, violated trade sanctions or stemmed from political corruption, according to ICIJ reporters. For example:
Uruguay has arrested five people and charged them with money-laundering through Mossack Fonseca shell companies for a Mexican drug cartel.
Ouestaf, an ICIJ partner in the investigation, reported that it had discovered new evidence that Karim Wade received payments from DP World (DP). He and his long-time friend were convicted of this in a trial that the United Nations and Amnesty International said was unfair and violated the defendants’ rights. The Ouestaf article does not address the conduct of the trial, but does say that Ouestaf journalists found Mossack Fonseca documents showing payments to Wade via a DP subsidiary and a shell company registered to the friend.
Named in the leak were 12 current or former world leaders, 128 other public officials and politicians, and hundreds of other members of the elites of over 200 countries.
See also: United States as a tax haven and Panama as a tax haven
From a leaked internal memorandum
Ninety-five per cent of our work coincidentally consists in selling vehicles to avoid taxes.
Customers may open offshore accounts for any number of reasons, some of which are entirely legal but ethically questionable. A Canadian lawyer based in Dubai noted, for example, that businesses might wish to avoid falling under Islamic inheritance jurisprudence if an owner dies. Businesses in some countries may wish to hold some of their funds in dollars also, said a Brazilian lawyer. Estate planning is another example of legal tax avoidance.
American film-maker Stanley Kubrick had an estimated personal worth of $20 million when he died in 1999, much of it invested in the 18th-century English manor he bought in 1978. He lived in that manor the rest of his life, filming scenes from The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut there as well. Three holding companies set up by Mossack Fonseca now own the property, and are in turn held by trusts set up for his children and grandchildren. Since Kubrick was an American living in Britain, his estate would otherwise have had to pay taxes to both governments and might have been forced to sell the property to have the liquid assets to do so. Kubrick is buried on the grounds along with one of his daughters and the rest of his family still lives there.
Other uses are more ambiguous. Chinese companies may incorporate offshore in order to raise foreign capital, normally against the law in China. In some of the world’s hereditary dictatorships, the law may be on the side of the elite who use offshore companies to award themselves oil contracts, or their children gold concessions, but such dealings are sometimes prosecuted under international law.
While no official definition exists, the The Economist and the International Monetary Fund describe an offshore financial center, or tax haven, as a jurisdiction whose banking infrastructure primarily provides services to people or businesses who don’t live there, requires little or no disclosure of information when doing business, and offers low taxes.
“The most obvious use of offshore financial centers is to avoid taxes”, The Economist added. Oxfam blamed tax havens in its 2016 annual report on income inequality for much of the widening gap between rich and poor. “Tax havens are at the core of a global system that allows large corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying their fair share,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, “depriving governments, rich and poor, of the resources they need to provide vital public services and tackle rising inequality.”
International Monetary Fund (IMF) researchers estimated in July 2015 that profit shifting by multinational companies costs developing countries around US$213 billion a year, almost two percent of their national income. Igor Angelini, head of Europol’s Financial Intelligence Group, said that shell companies “play an important role in large-scale money laundering activities” and that they are often a means to “transfer bribe money”. Tax Justice Network concluded in a 2012 report that “designing commercial tax abuse schemes and turning a blind eye upon suspicious transactions have become an inherent part of the work of bankers and accountants.”
Money-laundering affects the first world as well, since a favored shell company investment is real estate in Europe and North America. London, Miami, New York, Paris and Vancouver have all been affected. The practice of parking assets in luxury real estate has been frequently cited as fueling skyrocketing housing prices in Miami. “There is a huge amount of dirty money flowing into Miami that’s disguised as investment,” according to former congressional investigator Jack Blum. In Miami, 76% of condo owners pay cash, considered a red flag for money-laundering.
Real estate in London, where housing prices increased 50% from 2007 to 2016, also is frequently purchased by overseas investors. Donald Toon, head of Britain’s National Crime Agency, said in 2015 that “the London property market has been skewed by laundered money. Prices are being artificially driven up by overseas criminals who want to sequester their assets here in the UK”. Three quarters of Londoners under 35 cannot afford to buy a home. Andy Yan, an urban planning researcher and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, studied real estate sales in Vancouver—also thought to be affected by foreign purchasers—found that 18% of the transactions in Vancouver’s most expensive neighborhoods were cash purchases, and 66% of the owners appeared to be Chinese nationals or recent arrivals from China. Calls for more data on foreign investors have been rejected by the provincial government. Chinese nationals accounted for 70% of 2014 Vancouver home sales over $3 million Canadian. On June 24, 2016 China CITIC Bank Corp filed suit in Canada against a Chinese citizen who borrowed 50 million yuan for his lumber business in China, but then withdrew roughly $7.5 Canadian from the line of credit and left the country. He bought three houses in Vancouver and Surrey, British Columbia together valued at $7.3 million Canadian during a three-month period in June 2014.
Born On This Day:
1778 – Pierre Bretonneau, French doctor who performed the first successful tracheotomy (d. 1862)
Pierre-Fidèle Bretonneau (3 April 1778 – 18 February 1862) was a French medical doctor.
Born in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher, in the Loir-et-Cher département. His father was a surgeon. He studied with his uncle, the vicar at Chenonceaux (Indre-et-Loire) department along with the children of the Chenonceau château. Madame Dupin, the grandmother of George Sand, financed his medical studies in Paris.
He married Madame Dupin’s lecturer and settled in Renaudière in Chenonceaux (the Renaudière is currently a restaurant and hotel). Very curious and clever, he had a laboratory at his disposal and occupied himself with gardening and other manual labours in his spare time.
He was the mayor of Chenonceaux from 1803 to 1807. He spent 15 years at Chenonceaux gaining experience, wrote his thesis in medicine in 1815 and then became medical director at the hospital in Tours; which currently bears his name. He continued his study of disease and founded the medical school at Tours.
Bretonneau died in 1862 in Paris. He is buried in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, near Tours.
Significance to medicine
Bretonneau is one of the pioneers of modern medicine. He believed in “morbid seeds”  that spread specific diseases from person to person. He identified typhoid fever and named diphtheria. His students included Alfred-Armand-Louis-Marie Velpeau, and Armand Trousseau.
He performed the first successful tracheotomy in 1825, distinguished between scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1826. He studied disease in detail and was the first to think that disease was caused by bacteria in 1855, however, a microscope was not available to him and he was unable to confirm his hypothesis. He also discovered that the same illness could manifest itself differently in different patients. It was the beginning of scientific medicine: where careful observation is used to find cures for sickness and solutions to problems.
The faculty of medicine in Tours is decorated with three large bronze medallions representing Bretonneau, Velpeau and Trousseau.
His bust is on display at the city hall in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher.
The Grévin Museum in Tours has created a reenactment of an anatomy lesson given by Bretonneau, Velpeau and Trousseau.