Panama Papers goes online as NZ named 'tax haven'

PANAMA CITY • The Panama Papers scandal promises to deepen around the world when a journalists' group with access to the digital cache of documents is to put many of them online.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was to release the documents in a searchable database at 6pm GMT yesterday (2am Singapore time today), accessible to the public.

The US-based organisation said the release "will not be a 'data dump'" of the sort that WikiLeaks is known for. But it will reveal names and data on 200,000 offshore entities set up by wealthy individuals around the world.

The documents are from 2.6 terabytes of data given to German paper Sueddeutsche Zeitung over a year ago by an anonymous source using the name "John Doe".

The data came from nearly four decades of digital archives of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that specialises in creating and running offshore entities which says its computer records were hacked from abroad.

The German newspaper gave access to the trove to the ICIJ, and through it to hundreds of journalists in different countries.

Mossack Fonseca last Thursday issued a "cease and desist" letter to the ICIJ, saying putting up the information publicly would violate attorney-client privilege.

But there is no sign of the ICIJ calling off the online database.

It said it is important the public be able to look at information on any offshore company in the Panama Papers. "We think that information about who owns the company should be public and transparent," Ms Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the ICIJ, told CNN. She stressed, however, that "this is not disclosing private information en masse".

Global governments have begun probing possible financial wrongdoing by the rich and powerful after the leak.

A report yesterday, based on more than 61,000 Panama Papers documents analysed by New Zealand's media relating to the country, said wealthy Latin Americans are using secretive, tax-free New Zealand shell companies and trusts to help channel funds around the world.

Mossack Fonseca actively promoted New Zealand as a good place to do business due to its tax-free status, high levels of confidentiality and legal security, said the joint report by Radio New Zealand, TVNZ and investigative journalist Nicky Hager that ratcheted up the pressure on Prime Minister John Key to take action.

Mr Key said it was "utterly incorrect" that New Zealand was a tax haven, adding he was open to changing rules around foreign trusts if advised by a review or the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"If there's any need for change in this area, the government will consider it and if necessary, take action," he told reporters. The government was asking the Ministry of Justice to move quickly on rules already under consideration to tighten anti-money laundering requirements for lawyers, real estates and accountants, he added.

In another fallout from the leak, Mossack Fonseca has written an apology to a Chinese banking client in response to queries from the bank over compliance with global financial standards, according to a copy of the undated letter to the mid-tier Shanghai-based lender, signed by the law firm's regional general manager.

In it, the firm said it "deeply regrets" any misuse of its services or the companies it set up, and apologised for inconvenience caused by "the unauthorised illegal leaks" from its servers.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Panama Papers goes online as NZ named 'tax haven''. Print Edition | Subscribe