Monday, December 11, 2017

Calculated Thought: Offshore banking back under scrutiny

November 15, 2017 by Sean Annable, contributing writer

Remember the Panama Papers? Named for the country of Panama, where law firm Mossack Fonseca (MF) operates, the Panama Papers are 11.5 million MF documents leaked in 2015 that detail offshore financial dealings of wealthy businesspeople and political figures.

The leak was significant because many political leaders were found to be hiding wealth from the public. Protests in Iceland led to the ousting of prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson after the leak showed he held investments offshore that were not declared when he was elected. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified in July of this year for concealing assets his family held that were exposed by the papers.

Calculated Thought is a column dealing with student finances that is featured in every issue of Nexus.

As well, the leak brought attention to complex offshore structures that allow people and businesses to avoid paying tax to their resident countries on income from investments and businesses.

Now we have the Paradise Papers: again, a massive leak of some 13 million documents, this time sourced from Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm that specializes in offshore legal services. A statement from the Appleby website says this was not a leak from an employee, but an “illegal computer hack.” The firm denies any wrongdoing and claims that this is politically motivated journalism against the offshore industry.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which has led the reporting on both leaks, states on its website that there are “legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any people, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”

Herein lies a problem. As Barack Obama put it when speaking on tax reform and global tax avoidance when the Panama Papers leaked: “The problem is that a lot of this stuff is legal, not illegal.”

What the Panama Papers—and now the Paradise Papers—are trying to bring to light are the consequences of our business leaders and politicians using offshore accounts to pay less tax and hide wealth from the public, which can lead to questions of fairness and conflicts of interest.

At the time of writing, the biggest Paradise Papers revelation for Canadians is that three former prime ministers—Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and Brian Mulroney—have been found to have offshore dealings that have raised questions.

Also of particular scrutiny is the fact that the federal Liberal Party’s former chief fundraiser, Stephen Bronfman, has been named in the papers as having moved millions of dollars to offshore companies owned by his godfather—and former fundraiser for the Liberals—Leo Kolber. Bronfman has denied any wrongdoing.

In April of this year, the ICIJ was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its work on the Panama Papers. Triumph turned to tragedy in October when Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist and blogger, was killed by a car bomb in Malta after years of reporting on the Panama Papers and their possible ties to corruption in the Maltese government.

As the Paradise Papers are sifted through, there are sure to be more controversial stories.

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