Politicians, celebs in spotlight over offshore accounts
BERLIN (AP) — The fallout from a massive leak of records on offshore accounts dragged a growing number of leaders and celebrities into the spotlight Wednesday, with a Bollywood actor, a race car driver and Ukraine’s president among those denying they evaded taxes.
The reports center on millions of documents detailing how the rich and powerful use shell companies in low-tax states like Panama or the Cayman Islands, sometimes giving them fanciful names like “Goldfinger” or “SkyFall.”
The suspicion that such accounts are used to skirt taxes prompted a rush of denials, statements and, in some cases, media blackouts.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was the latest high-profile politician to face scrutiny over the issue, denying he had meant to evade taxes by putting his candy company offshore.
Poroshenko had promised voters he would sell his business when he ran for office in 2014. But according to the reports, he merely moved it secretively offshore.
On Wednesday, he said he had done nothing illegal when he created the offshore holding company to put his business in a blind trust when he became president.
“This is absolutely normal procedure,” Poroshenko said during a visit to Tokyo. “If we have anything to be investigated, I am happy to do that. But this is absolutely transparent from the very beginning. No hidden account, no associated management, no nothing.”
Ukrainian opposition groups maintained the move could have cost the war-torn country millions of dollars in desperately needed tax revenues. But analysts said the Ukrainian leader does not appear to have broken the law — just suffered a blow to his image.
“You can believe the explanations of Poroshenko or not believe them, but from a formal point of view, he did not violate the law,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think-tank in Kiev.
The data leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca was reported on this week by an international group of media companies with the coordination of the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The leak has revived a global debate over the use of offshore accounts and companies.
When used legally, they can reduce a person or company’s tax bill. A company, for example, might route its revenue from multiple countries to one low-tax base. Critics argue that while that’s not illegal, companies and people should not be allowed to do so, but instead pay taxes where they earn their money.
Because offshore accounts can obscure the identity of the owner, they are often used illegally to hide money from the taxman or launder ill-gotten gains.
In a case of life imitating art, the leaked data showed a fondness for naming shell companies after James Bond films. Mossack Fonseca reportedly incorporated companies named Goldfinger, SkyFall, GoldenEye and Moonraker and was asked to set up a firm called Octopussy.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, one of the media companies with access to the leaks, said the law firm also incorporated companies named Blofeld and Spectre, after the classic Bond villain and his organization.
For politicians, using offshore accounts even in a strictly legal sense can be problematic because they are expected to be transparent about their interests and contribute to the country’s economy.
That’s what fueled outrage against Iceland’s prime minister, who became the first casualty of the so-called Panama Papers case on Tuesday.
Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson had faced opposition calls to resign over revelations he used a shell company to shelter large sums while Iceland’s economy was in crisis. He denied wrongdoing but after days of street protests he stepped aside, recommending that his deputy take over as prime minister for an unspecified period of time. A third day of demonstrations was called Wednesday to demand a new government.
Also dragged into the spotlight were:
— Formula One driver Nico Rosberg, whose lawyer said an offshore firm linked to him was created solely for liability reasons and to enable him to operate internationally.
German public broadcaster NDR reported that Mossack Fonseca set up a company called Ambitious Group Ltd that has a contract with Mercedes for Rosberg’s “driver services.”
Rosberg’s lawyer, Christian Schertz, said Ambitious Group, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands, wasn’t used for tax avoidance. Rosberg, who won Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, is registered in Monaco for tax purposes and receives all payments there, he said.
— Prominent Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan denied reports by The Indian Express newspaper that he was connected to four shipping companies registered in tax havens. “It is possible that my name has been misused,” Bachhan tweeted late Tuesday, adding that he has paid all the taxes he owed.
— Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar was reported to have canceled publicity events for his new movie “Julieta” following intense interest in the offshore company he owned with his brother years ago.
The Europa Press news agency said Almodovar canceled an appearance at a photo shoot and interviews ahead of the movie’s premiere in Madrid on Wednesday night.
— France’s far-right National Front party said it was filing law suits for defamation against media who imply that it or leader Marine Le Pen — who plans to run in the 2017 presidential race — may be implicated in the Panama Papers scandal.
The Paris daily Le Monde reported Tuesday on the offshore dealings of a longtime Le Pen acquaintance whose company provides publicity for electoral campaigns. The paper also examined potential but unproven offshore interests of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, via a former employee.
— Uruguayan lawyer Juan Pedro Damiani resigned Wednesday as an ethics judge for the world soccer body FIFA after being named in international media reports for his law firm’s links to Mossack Fonseca. He is alleged to have helped create offshore accounts and companies for three clients who have been indicted in the sprawling FIFA bribery investigation led by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.
David Keyton in Reykjavik, Iceland, Elaine Ganley in Paris, and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.