For each name found, a detailed research process was initiated that posed the following questions: what is this person’s role in the network of companies? Where does the money come from? Where is it going? Is this structure legal?
Generally speaking, owning an offshore company is not illegal in itself. In fact, establishing an offshore company can be seen as a logical step for a broad range of business transactions. However, a look through the Panama Papers very quickly reveals that concealing the identities of the true company owners was the primary aim in the vast majority of cases. From the outset, the journalists had their work cut out for them. The providers of offshore companies – among them banks, lawyers, and investment advisors – often keep their clients’ names secret and use proxies. In turn, the proxies’ tracks then lead to heads of state, important officials, and millionaires. Over the course of the international project, journalists cooperated with one another to investigate thousands of leads: they examined evidence, studied contracts, and spoke with experts.
Among others, Mossack Fonsecas’ clients include criminals and members of various Mafia groups. The documents also expose bribery scandals and corrupt heads of state and government. The alleged offshore companies of twelve current and former heads of state make up one of the most spectacular parts of the leak, as do the links to other leaders, and to their families, closest advisors, and friends. The Panamanian law firm also counts almost 200 other politicians from around the globe among its clients, including a number of ministers.
The company at the center of all these stories is Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian provider of offshore companies with dozens of offices all over the world. It sells its shell firms in cities such as Zurich, London, and Hong Kong – in some instances at bargain prices. Clients can buy an anonymous company for as little as USD 1,000. However, at this price it is just an empty shell. For an extra fee, Mossack Fonseca provides a sham director and, if desired, conceals the company’s true shareholder. The result is an offshore company whose true purpose and ownership structure is indecipherable from the outside.
Mossack Fonseca has founded, sold, and managed thousands of companies. The documents provide a detailed view of how Mossack Fonseca routinely accepts to engage in business activities that potentially violate sanctions, in addition to aiding and abetting tax evasion and money laundering.
About Süddeutsche Zeitung
Headquartered in Munich, Süddeutsche Zeitung(SZ) is one of Germany’s leading newspapers. SZ has a total readership of 4.4 million for its print and online media. Its investigative journalism team counts five people, three of which are members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The Süddeutsche Zeitung has won a number of prestigious awards for its research work. Its team has cooperated with other media organizations on a number of projects, including Offshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks, and Lux Leaks, which ICIJ coordinated. At the beginning of 2015, an anonymous source began sending the Süddeutsche Zeitung data from Mossack Fonseca, a provider of offshore companies. This marked the beginning of the Panama Papers project.