The largest data leak from offshore tax havens has shed light on the secret financial dealings of royalty, world leaders and 130 Forbes billionaires.
Published on Sunday (3 October), the ‘Pandora Papers’ includes 11.9 million financial records leaked from 14 law firms and offshore services providers from places such as the British Virgin Islands (BVIs), Panama and Belize.
The documents reveal how King Abdullah of Jordan owned 14 luxury homes in the U.K. and the U.S. worth around $106 million, which he purchased through offshore accounts in the BVIs. One house in Malibu reportedly has seven bedrooms, a gym, cinema and swimming pool.
Also buying property through BVI shell companies was the former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, who bought a £6.5 million ($8.8 million) office in London from Zayed bin Rashid Alzayani, a Bahraini minister.
Using offshore companies to buy or sell assets is a legal and common process among the wealthy. Many high profile individuals use them to hide their identities. King Abdullah’s attorneys told ICIJ that there was nothing improper about the transactions. Cherie Blair told the Guardian there was “nothing unusual or underhand in any of this.”
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However, the tax benefits they offer are frowned upon. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which, alongside other media outlets, handled the data leak, estimates the Blairs saved £312,000 ($423,800) in property taxes by using an offshore company. King Abdullah is not required to pay any taxes, but in June last year launched a crackdown on hidden wealth.
Corruption in the BVIs is known to be widespread. In January, the country’s then-governor, Gus Jaspert, summoned a British judge to investigate “growing evidence of serious organized crime.“
A number of trusts in U.S. states, such as South Dakota, Florida and Delaware, where billionaires can hide their assets, were also mentioned in the documents.
Among the billionaires from the U.S. mentioned in the Pandora Papers were private equity billionaire Robert F. Smith and his financier Robert Brockman. Last year, Smith agreed to a $139 million settlement regarding a tax probe and Brockman was indicted by a grand jury for tax fraud. Smith declined to comment to the ICIJ and Brockman has pleaded not guilty.
But the vast majority of billionaires mentioned in the documents come from Russia, including former senator and oil tycoon Leonid Lebedev. After the 52 Russians mentioned were 15 billionaires from Brazil, 13 from the U.K. and 10 from Israel.
Other documents show how the family of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta used a law firm in Panama called Aleman, Cordero, Galindo & Lee (Alcogal), to manage a pot of wealth nearing half a billion dollars. Fellow African leaders, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, used similar structures.
In Europe, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš used a BVI company to buy a $22 million chateau in the South of France. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky used companies set up in Cyprus and Belize to buy London real estate. And Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family bought nearly $700 million of property in London, including a 19th century pub.
The data leak comes at an awkward time for politicians. Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš is running for re-election this week. Kenya’s elections will take place next year, and have in the past attracted widespread violence.
It is embarrassing for the U.K. as well. London property has long been associated with money laundering and foreign wealth. While laws have been established to counter the amount of illicit wealth that flows through expensive townhouses in London, the investigation shows little has changed.
Asked by the BBC why London is the tax avoidance capital of the globe, chancellor Rishi Sunak said, “It is a global problem, there’s a global dimension to it and we need other countries to cooperate with us to tackle this.”
The U.K. has pressured its crown dependencies Jersey and Guernsey, both popular locations for offshore wealth management, to publish a beneficial ownership database, which will provide names of the ultimate owners of companies registered there. The BVIs says it will commit to such a database by 2023, while Panama has passed a law allowing for the publication of such information.
There are always other offshore tax havens where the rich and powerful can make secret transactions and avoid tax payments. But the Pandora Papers show that the loopholes for discrete wealth management are closing.