The Panama Papers explained in six simple steps

Posted on Apr 19th, 2016 | Tax

In the most substantial information leak in history, 11.5 million confidential files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca were publically exposed earlier this month.

Data stretching back to the 70’s has shone a light on how the firm has historically helped hundreds of clients (including some of the world’s most powerful people) hide their money in offshore tax-havens.

The scandal has unsurprisingly whipped the world’s media into a frenzy of complex analysis – but if you need a quick-fire roundup of what all the fuss is about, look no further.

Where did the leak come from?

We don’t currently know. German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung obtained the 2.6TB of data from an anonymous source using the pseudonym “John Doe” in April of 2015.

The volume of contracts, transcripts, scanned documents and emails was so huge that the publication have enlisted 400 journalists from 100 different media organisations to try and make sense of it all.

How did Mossack Fonseca react?

The organisation says it has never been accused or charged with criminal activity in 40 years, reportedly claiming that blaming them for any wrongdoing would be like blaming a carmaker if the car was used in a robbery.

Mossack Fonseca claimed on its website that the nature of its work had been misrepresented as a result of “supposition and stereotypes”. In this statement they maintained that the organisation “conducts due diligence on clients at the outset of a potential engagement and on an ongoing basis”.

Has everyone who was named broken the law?

No. The use of offshore business entities is not illegal in itself, but often comes under enormous ethical criticism, particularly where those implicated are responsible for their countries’ economies. However, the leaked records unveiled how the company has allowed various clients to launder money and dodge sanctions. The Panama offices of Mossack Fonseca were raided by police on 12th April 2016.

Jennie Granger, a spokesperson for HMRC, said they had received “a great deal of information on offshore companies, including in Panama, from a wide range of sources, which is currently the subject of intensive investigation”.

How were the clients able to do this?

Clients were registering under ‘shell companies’, who did not conduct any actual business, but just served as a corporate name allowing them to hold and move cash without international tax authorities knowing who it belongs to.

Who has been implicated?

The leak has caused huge embarrassment to a wide range of public figures across the globe, with politicians, monarchs, footballers and celebrities all being dragged into the debate.

What’s next?

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists plan to publish a full list of companies involved early next month. In a coincidence befitting a big budget season finale, this is also when Prime Minster David Cameron (who despite not personally being named has not escaped controversy) is scheduled to host an anti-corruption summit in London. It seems this scandal is just getting underway. Hold onto your hats!

This video gives a very good two minute overview of the situation and is worth a look.

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Written by Tom West

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