April 5, 2016

THE PANAMA PAPERS: Big Leak, Big Corruption, Deep Rot.

The weekend’s biggest story by far: the leak of a massive trove of documents, over 2.6 terabytes of data, from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in creating offshore companies. The documents were handed over to the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung under mysterious circumstances. The paper shared the documents with an NGO called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which in turn unleashed 107 media organizations in 78 countries onto the find.
It’s unclear how the documents saw the light of day—disgruntled employee? black hat hackers? state-sponsored espionage?—but the haul, which was officially announced yesterday, is impressive.

About $2 billion appears to have been squirreled away by Russian President Vladimir Putin in various offshore vehicles. The broad outlines of the scheme and some of the players involved are already known. Western countries have already targeted sanctions against Putin’s buddy Yuri Kovalchuk and the shady Bank Rossiya, for example, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But the documents reveal in impressive detail how Putin’s childhood friend, professional cellist Sergei Roldugin, sits as proxy for the Russian President in various schemes. They also reveal how a Russian bank in Cyprus funneled large unsecured loans to the offshore vehicle linked to Putin for vague “consultancy” services, and for apparently fake share deals. Other Putin associates who appear in the papers but are not necessarily directly linked to schemes involving the Russian President include the Rotenberg brothers (Arkadiy and Boris) and Gennady Timchenko, all of whom are billionaire oligarchs.

Other world leaders shown to have offshore assets include former Prime Minister of Iraq Iyad Allawi, the King of Saudi Arabia, current President of Argentina Mauricio Macri, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, and Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. There is nothing inherently illegal in setting up offshore companies, and there are legitimate uses for them. Spokesmen for several of the leaders singled out have strongly denied any wrongdoing. Macri’s people, for example, said that, though he was listed as director of an offshore vehicle, he had no capital participation in the venture when he was forced to declare assets as Mayor of Buenos Aires.

Related: Clean Up The UN:

In addition to the Panama papers, there’s another big international scandal unfolding: the latest report of large-scale wrongdoing at the United Nations. . . .

These findings are another reminder that the ‘international space’ is poorly governed, and that the press doesn’t watch it as closely as it watches national politics. Organizations like FIFA, the IOC, and the various arms of the UN bring together people and interests from countries with many levels of public morality, some of which are kleptocratic sinkholes of rampant disregard for all standards of legality and decency. Because very large amounts of money are often involved, these organizations can make fantastic petri dishes for various criminal groups and activities. In the long run, much more aggressive international law enforcement is going to be needed; in the meantime, the U.S. Justice Department and other national organizations need to get more involved.

This will involve stepping on some toes—vast quantities of money slosh through the international system for programs that sound good but that can be very corruptly managed. Even the EU does such a bad job of handling its spending in member states that auditors routinely refuse to endorse its accounts; just imagine what goes on in UN and NGO-sponsored aid programs in some of world’s most corrupt countries.

Lots of unaccounted-for money, little accountability, plenty of opportunities for self-aggrandizement. It’s exactly what you would expect, and I’m not sure that it can be cleaned up. Though turning off some of the money spigots would help.

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