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Panama and ‘Panama Papers’ law firm under the media’s lenses

April 4, 2016

PANAMA CITY, Panama — The law firm at the heart of the “Panama Papers” scandal was on lockdown on Monday, with private security guards keeping a small but growing pack of news photographers and cameramen at bay.

The bland, mirrored exterior of the building housing the Mossack Fonseca firm in Panama’s main banking zone sits back upon a tidy lawn.

Half a dozen journalists trained lenses on it from the sidewalk. There were no police officers in sight.

Revelations from a massive dump of leaked data from Mossack Fonseca’s servers detailing how the world’s wealthy — politicians, footballers and some criminals — used its lawyers to set up offshore companies is sending shock waves around the world.

One of Mossack Fonseca’s two founders, Ramón Fonseca, told AFP on Sunday that the leak of 11.5 million documents from his firm was the result of a “limited hack.”

But he said publishing the information from it was a “crime” because “each person has a right to privacy, whether they are a king or a beggar.”

He also claimed it was an attack on Panama, “because certain countries don’t like it that we are so competitive in attracting companies.”

Panama ‘regret’ over leak

Panama’s foreign minister and vice president, Isabel De Saint Malo, said on her Twitter account Monday as she was visiting Italy: “We regret (the) news at a global level that is affecting Panama.”

Her government has sought to rid the Central American nation of a reputation as a hub for shady transactions helping money launderers and tax avoiders.

The government has vowed to cooperate “vigorously” with any judicial requests that might emerge from the scandal.

But while Panama has managed to get off an international money-laundering blacklist, its foot-dragging over lifting banking secrecy and automatically exchanging client financial information has kept it in the sights of other nations, particularly the U.S. and in Europe.

De Saint Malo reiterated that her country had taken “drastic” steps to improve transparency and put some restrictions on the creation of offshore companies.

Reforms include cracking down on the use of bearer bonds — shares that are owned by whoever physically holds the paper — as well as regulating free-tax zones, casinos, property, construction and  money-change firms.

OECD pushes Panama

But the Organization for Economic Cooperations and Development (OECD) says Panama has not gone far enough in meeting international standards on reporting financial information to other jurisdictions.

The head of the OECD’s tax policy center, Pascal Saint-Amans, said on Sunday that “Panama has become the most opaque place on earth.”

On Monday, the OECD’s secretary general, Angel Gurria, said: “The ‘Panama Papers’ revelations have shone the light on Panama’s culture and practice of secrecy. Panama is the last major holdout that continues to allow funds to be hidden offshore from tax and law enforcement authorities.”

Gurria, a Mexican economist, noted that, while the leaked data exposed “nefarious activities,” they also showed a decline in the use of offshore companies and bearer bonds, which he attributed to the OECD’s campaign against tax havens.

He said a G20 meeting of finance ministers from the world’s top economies in London next month “will be critical” in eradicating banking secrecy and tax evasion.

 

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