Information about the secret financial holdings of wealthy people -- including several world leaders -- has leaked, and the leak reveals some potentially serious corruption.
The no-longer-secret documents -- which belonged to a law firm in Panama by the name of Mossack Fonseca, and which have since been dubbed the "Panama Papers" -- cover a period spanning about 40 years, according to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper that first obtained the leaked materials over a year ago, and which analyzed them along with journalists from around the world.
The documents seem to detail how Mossack Fonesca utilized various "shell" companies to help wealthy people both hide their assets from government regulators and avoid paying taxes. According to the BBC, the leaked information in the report outs 72 current or former heads of state or government, including some who stand accused of illegally enriching themselves by looting the assets of the countries they were tasked to run: Vladimir Putin, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, and Muammar Gaddafi are all featured in the documents.
The leaked documents also detail a massive money laundering operation run by Bank Rossiya, a Russian bank presently subject to both U.S. and E.U. sanctions (due to Russia's annexation of Crimea), which funneled money through offshore entities, at least two of which were officially owned by a man believed to be one of Putin's closest friends.
The documents also seem to show that along with his wife, Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson bought an offshore company in 2007 that he illegally did not declare when entering parliament in 2009; the offshore company was allegedly later used to invest millions of dollars of inherited money. In an act that seems to show that he may have grown concerned about owning such a firm, according to the documents, Gunnlaugsson eventually sold his half of the company to his wife for $1. Gunnlaugsson was already facing calls for his resignation before the publication of the leaked information online today, but denies any wrongdoing.
The Panama Papers could spell trouble for many super rich people, and severely impact the offshore money-hiding industry for some time to come. "I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken because of the extent of the documents," said Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., which coordinated the reporting on the Panama Papers.
On the other hand, Mossack Fonseca, which warned its customers yesterday that a report about the leak was imminent, says it has always obeyed the law, and that it complies with standard international conventions to ensure that the entities that it creates for clients are used only for legal purposes.
The nature of the leak also raises other questions. Should journalists be allowed to review private documents that leak? Do stolen property laws apply? Does public interest override these?
While we will not be able to resolve these issues right now, it is clear that many super rich folks are going to be having other concerns over the upcoming weeks.