As masked police officers in three countries conducted raids on the offices of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm behind the unprecedented leak of offshore financial information, Europe’s five richest countries agreed to work together to deliver “a hammer blow against those that would illegally evade taxes and hide their wealth in the dark corners of the financial system,” said British Finance Minister George Osborne.
“The recent extensive leaks from Panama show the critical importance of the fight against tax evasion, aggressive tax planning and money laundering. . . Criminals continue to find ways to exploit the cracks in the current system, setting up complex structures in various and often multiple locations to hide their activities . . . This requires a global response,” wrote the finance ministers of the U.K., France, Germany, Spain and Italy in an open letter late Thursday.
“This new initiative will take a significant step forward in improving the transparency of beneficial ownership information and in removing the veil of secrecy under which criminals operate,” the letter stated.
While Canada had announced that it would spend almost half a billion dollars beefing up the Canada Revenue Agency’s resources to pursue tax dodgers, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau promised to address financial secrecy at home, the finance ministers of Europe’s five biggest economies pushed all G20 members to share tax information and collectively crack down on tax cheats.
“Strong words of condemnation are not enough; populist outrage doesn’t by itself collect a single extra pound or dollar in tax or put a single criminal in jail,” said Osborne. “What we need is international action now, and that’s precisely what we are doing today with real concrete action in the war against tax evasion.”
The G20, for its part, singled out tax havens after a meeting in Washington on Friday and threatened unspecified “defensive measures” if they didn’t start co-operating with foreign tax authorities.
Large demonstrations last week forced the ouster of Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson. This week, public pressure pushed British Prime Minister David Cameron to admit he had profited from offshore investments, compelled a Spanish cabinet minister to resign and prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to confess the Panama Papers revelations were real.
During a televised question and answer session on Thursday, Putin admitted that the details linking him to more than $2 billion in payments to anonymous offshore companies are true, but said that he’s done nothing illegal.
“However strange it may seem, the information is correct,” Putin said before suggesting the leak was a western plot to besmirch Russia’s reputation.
Putin’s close friend Sergey Roldugin, who was revealed by the documents to control $100 million in offshore assets, spent “all the money he acquired” on musical instruments, Putin said.
“Sergey Pavlovich (Roldugin) already has nothing left. He spent even more money on buying all these instruments than he had, and even owes money to the foundations which he paid for them through,” Putin said.
The investigations into the Panama Papers have revealed dozens of abuses of offshore finance, running from the breach of international embargoes to the plundering of African resources, money laundering for drug dealers and tax avoidance on a global scale.
Amid a growing wave of public outcry, authorities have been scrambling to take visible action against those who have been keeping their wealth offshore and beyond the reach of tax collectors.
France put Panama back on its blacklist of tax havens, while the OECD convened an emergency meeting in Paris to push new global anti-tax-evasion rules.
“(The Panama Papers have) breathed new life into the tax evasion crackdown; they have accelerated the process. What has become clear is that we need complete cross-border transparency and international tools to deal with the problem,” said French Finance Minister Michel Sapin on Wednesday.
Investigations have been launched in dozens of countries across Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, leading to raids on Mossack Fonseca offices in Peru, El Salvador and, most recently, at the firm’s headquarters in Panama, where investigators spent 27 hours combing through documents and digital databases.
Tax authorities in 23 countries, including Canada, have approached the media organizations that partnered with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in the Panama Papers investigation, asking for access to the leaked documents. The ICIJ’s policy restricts partners from sharing the leaked information with authorities.
In May, the ICIJ will publish an online database of all 214,388 offshore companies and 360,816 directors and shareholders found in the leaked documents. The emails and other documents, however, will not be made public because they contain private information of people who may have done nothing wrong.
Author: Marco Chown Oved