Banana protests, paltry fines and a PR problem

Iceland

Of all the world leaders shamed over hidden wealth stashed offshore, none was more unfortunate than Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. The hapless prime minister of Iceland was caught on camera desperately trying to work out how to explain the presence of his signature on the documents of Wintris Inc, a company in the British Virgin Islands that held shares in one of the country’s failed banks.

As many as one in 10 Icelanders protested in front of the Alþingi, the national parliament, demonstrating their anger through the time-honoured tradition of hurling Icelandic yoghurt and waving bananas. Gunnlaugsson eventually resigned – and in so doing, launched a year of political upheaval; this month, the Pirate party was invited to form a government.

Pakistan

Three-time Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif has spent the whole year trying to face down the discovery that his children had raised loans against multimillion-pound properties on Park Lane in London, owned through offshore companies.

“He is in trouble. I think he is going to find it impossible to govern Pakistan,” opposition leader Imran Khan told the Guardian in April. In November, Khan’s plan to “lock down” the capital Islamabad with a coordinated protest by thousands of his supporters was called off after the supreme court ordered a corruption inquiry. That the revelation prompted so much public anger is all the more striking in light of the fact that Sharif was first linked to the property 16 years ago.

Stolen art

Seated Man with a Cane, an £18m painting by Modigliani, has for years been at the centre of a legal battle between the Nahmads, a family of New York art dealers, and the descendants of Oscar Stettiner, the Jewish gallery owner from whom the painting was seized by the Nazis in 1940.

The Nahmads have long insisted that they don’t own the painting because the International Art Center, a company incorporated in Panama, bought it at auction. But the Panama Papers revealed the Nahmads to be the owners of the company, and within days the Modigliani, which had been languishing in a tax-free Geneva warehouse known as a “freeport”, was seized by Swiss police. The dispute continues.

Australia

About 170kg of silver bullion and $150,000 of coins were among the items seized by Australian police in Camp Mountain, Queensland, earlier this year after they conducted raids against suspected tax evaders based on analysis of the papers. More than $2.5bn was reportedly connected to the 1,000 Australians that appeared in the files, with 100 facing compliance action as a result of the revelations.

UK

HMRC has a miserable record of pursuing offshore tax malfeasance, with just a single tax evader prosecuted after it was handed a disc of data naming thousands of British clients of HSBC Private Bank Suisse. So a swiftly created Panama Papers taskforce, set up by Downing Street to “deal with any wrongdoing” brought to light by the investigation, was looked upon by many with a degree of scepticism.

But a statement by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to parliament in November suggests that, staggeringly, action is being taken: 22 people are now under suspected investigation for tax evasion; 43 high net worth individuals (the super-rich to you and me) are under examination over their links to Panama; two properties have been connected with a National Crime Agency inquiry, and 26 offshore companies with property ownership are considered by the NCA to be “suspicious”.

Panama

While the rest of the world focused on the leaked files’ revelations of massive wealth hidden offshore, potential sanctions-busting and the facilitation of grand corruption, the government of Panama called for attention to shift to a much more important problem: the name of the reporting series.

“Despite their name, the Panama Papers are not mainly about Panama,” wrote Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela in the New York Times. “It’s not about Panama, it’s about one company. Nobody called it the Texas fraud when Enron [went] bankrupt,” agreed Ivan Zarak, the vice-minister of the economy. “It’s unjust. You are holding accountable the whole country for the actions of one company.”

An attempt at crisis management involving an independent report to assess the transparency of the country’s financial system promptly fell apart after the government refused to commit to publishing the findings.

The cellist

Sergei Roldugin, a close friend of Vladimir Putin and an inexplicably wealthy musician, gave a performance in Palmyra in May after the ancient city was liberated from Islamic State control. Beyond simply a celebration of Russian success in the military response to Isis, the spectacle could be interpreted as a public display of the president’s continued affection for the cellist, despite all that offshore awkwardness that exposed Roldugin’s links to Putin’s hidden fortune. Isis was reported to have retaken the city early this month.

Arron Banks

At the time the Panama Papers were published, Ukip financier Arron Banks was having a jolly time campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union and wasn’t about to let journalists spoil his fun by reporting on PRI Holdings Limited. PRI Holdings? Nothing to do with me! You’ll be hearing from my lawyers, sir!

Banks later published a sort of self-congratulatory EU referendum diary, in which his entry for 5 April 2016 suggests that this steadfast denial might not have been entirely accurate.

“At first I denied having anything to do with it as it just didn’t ring any bells,” he explained. “However, I got someone at the office to look into it and discovered that we did actually use a law firm to set up a couple of companies for a project that didn’t end up happening.” Banks was “thousands of miles away on a boat in the British Virgin Islands” at the time, where it’s probably quite easy to forget about offshore companies.

David Cameron

The then prime minister’s four days of April prevarication over how to respond to the discovery of his father’s offshore fund in the Panama Papers was widely described as his “worst week ever”, which seems naive, post-everything else in 2016, but felt reasonable at the time.

In his rushed-out political memoirs, Cameron’s media adviser Craig Oliver revealed that he was worried the PM might have to resign over the scandal, and that Cameron had also invested “in something called the Vietnamese Enterprise Fund”. Oliver describes a remarkably chaotic press operation, with the Camerons spending hours on the phone with accountants and Oliver not actually discovering the PM had owned offshore shares until two days after the story first broke.

Mossack Fonseca

Mossack Fonseca, the offshore services firm at the centre of the entire scandal, continues to operate. The British Virgin Islands, where it incorporated most of its clients’ companies, administered a “record” fine of just under $500,000 (£404,000) and cheerfully allowed them to continue incorporating new shell companies.

However, the firm, which continues to insist it did nothing wrong, has had nine of its offices around the world, including in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, closed down. Several of its staff have been arrested, including one junior Venezuelan employee currently being held in a military prison in Caracas.

— source theguardian.com By David Pegg

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