WASHINGTON (AP) – Calls grew on Monday for an end to financial secrecy that has allowed many of the world’s richest and most powerful people to hide their wealth from tax collectors.
The outcry came after a report exposed how world leaders, billionaires and others have used shell companies and offshore accounts to keep billions of dollars out of public treasuries over the past quarter of a century. , limiting resources to help the poor or fight climate change.
The report of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists brought promises of tax reform and requests for resignations and investigations, as well as explanations and denials from those targeted.
The investigation, dubbed Pandora Papers, was released on Sunday and involved 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries.
Hundreds of politicians, celebrities, religious leaders and drug traffickers have used shell companies or other tactics to hide their wealth and investments in mansions, exclusive beachfront properties, yachts and other assets, according to a review of nearly 12 million files obtained from 14 companies located around the world.
“The Pandora Papers relate only to individuals using secret jurisdictions, which we would call tax havens, when the goal is to evade tax,” said Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute of left on taxation and economic policy in Washington. .
Tax evasion can be legal.
Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies income inequality and taxes, said in a statement that a solution is “obvious”: Ban “shell companies – companies without economic substance, whose sole purpose is to avoid taxes or other laws. ”
“Legality is the real scandal,” activist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow wrote on Twitter. âEach of these arrangements is laughable fiction: a shell company is a business, a business is a person, that person resides in a desk drawer of a bank official on a distant treasure island. “
The more than 330 current and former politicians identified as beneficiaries of the secret accounts include King Abdullah II of Jordan, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso , and associates of two Pakistanis Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some of those targeted strongly denied these allegations.
Oxfam International, a UK consortium of charities, applauded the Pandora Papers for exposing brazen examples of greed that have deprived countries of tax revenue that can be used to fund programs and projects for the greater good.
“This is where our missing hospitals are located,” Oxfam said in a statement. “This is where the salaries of all the teachers, firefighters and extra civil servants we need are found.”
The European Commission, the executive body of the 27-country European Union, said in response to the revelations that it was preparing new legislative proposals to improve tax transparency and strengthen the fight against tax evasion.
The Pandora Papers follow a similar project released in 2016 called âPanama Papersâ compiled by the same journalistic group.
The latest bombshell is even bigger, drawing on data leaked by 14 different service providers doing business in 38 different jurisdictions. Records date back to the 1970s, but most date from 1996 to 2020.
The investigation explored accounts registered in familiar offshore havens, including the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles, Hong Kong and Belize. But some were also in trusts set up in the United States, including 81 in South Dakota and 37 in Florida.
The mine of documents reveals how powerful people are able to deploy anonymous shell companies, trusts and other contrivances to cover up the true owners of corrupt or illicit assets. Legally sanctioned trusts, for example, can be subject to abuse by tax evaders and fraudsters who seek the privacy and autonomy they offer from traditional business entities.
Shell companies, a preferred vehicle for tax evasion, are often layered in complex webs that conceal the identity of the beneficial owners of assets – those who ultimately control or benefit financially from an offshore company or other asset, while the names of other people are listed on registration documents. The report says, for example, that an offshore company was used to buy a $ 4 million Monaco apartment for a woman who allegedly had a secret relationship with Putin.
Although a beneficial owner may be required to pay taxes in the home country, it is often difficult for authorities to discover that an offshore account exists, especially if offshore governments do not cooperate.
A Treasury Department agency working on new regulations for a U.S. beneficial ownership directory debated whether to include partnerships, trusts and other business entities. Transparency advocates say they must or else criminals will design new types of paper companies to slip through the cracks.
International bodies like the G7 richest group of countries and the Financial Action Task Force have launched initiatives in recent years to improve ownership transparency, but efforts have progressed at a modest pace.
Highlighting the secrecy behind many tax dodges, some critics are calling for a global wealth registry that would make fictitious investments in shell companies public, embarrassing politicians or celebrities worried about their reputations.
In the United States, the House passed legislation this summer that would require multinational corporations to publicly disclose their tax payments and other key financial information on a country-by-country basis. Anti-money laundering and corporate transparency measures have been incorporated into the legislation funding the Ministry of Defense; it has yet to be implemented by the Treasury Department.
The Biden administration is also pushing for U.S. banks to be required to report customer account information to the IRS as part of the $ 3.5 trillion economic and social spending program presented to Congress. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other officials say it is an important way to prevent tax evasion by high net worth individuals and businesses, but it has drawn strong opposition from banking industry groups and corporations. Republican lawmakers, who argue it would violate privacy and create unfair liability for banks.
Tax havens have already come under scrutiny this year.
In July, negotiators from 130 countries agreed to a global minimum tax of at least 15% to prevent large multinational corporations from minimizing taxes by shifting profits from high-tax jurisdictions to low-tax jurisdictions such as the Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. The details of the plan for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, headquartered in Paris, have not yet been worked out; it is expected to come into force in 2023.
And while the plan would cover huge multinational companies, it would not include the shell companies and other entities behind the schemes described in the Pandora Papers.
Associated Press editors Stan Choe in New York and John Rice in Mexico City contributed to this report.