Major new leak of confidential law firm documents

In a coordinated news event reminiscent of last year’s Panama Papers exposé, media organisations around the world on Sunday reported details of another major leak of confidential, and reportedly revealing, documents from an offshore law firm – this time, Bermuda’s Appleby.

As was the case on Sunday 3 April, 2016,   the Paradise Papers leak was rolled out globally by media organisations affiliated with the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which included the BBC and The Guardian newspaper in the UK, and The New York Times in the US. The BBC’s Panorama programme dedicated 30 minutes to the Paradise Papers on Sunday evening, with a second part due to air on Monday night.

Altogether, some 380 journalists from more than 90 media organisations located in 67 countries spent months examining the latest set of leaked documents, which – as was the case with the Panama Papers last year – initially surfaced at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and from there was shared with the ICIJ, according to the  reports.

As was the case last year, the Paradise Papers exposé is being framed as a window into the world in which trillions of US dollars’ worth of investment money is being moved, and hidden, in offshore “tax havens”, except that this time, the “tax haven” in question is Bermuda, rather than Panama.

Appleby is also possibly better-known than the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca was last year before it found itself at the centre of the Panama Papers story. Based in Bermuda but with outposts in such key financial services centres as Jersey, Guernsey, Hong  Kong, the Seychelles, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Mauritius and the Isle of Man, the firm known today as Appleby can trace its roots back some 119 years, and today caters to major corporate clients as well as high-net-worth individuals.

Sunday’s roll-out of the full “Paradise Papers” exposé came almost two weeks after initial publishedreports  that Appleby had been hit by a data leak, and that it had formally warned its clients that they could find themselves subject to exposure, as the data had been passed to media outlets that were members of the ICIJ.

Although the details of the 13.4 million documents that comprise the so-called Paradise Papers were still emerging on Sunday evening, and as with the Panama Papers, were receiving media attention proportionate to the individuals and corporate entities named, key revelations included:

  • Claims that the Queen of England has invested around £10m (US$13m) of her own money offshore, including into funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda; although, as the BBC noted, “there is nothing illegal in the investments and no suggestion that the Queen is avoiding tax, but questions may be asked about whether the monarch should be investing offshore”;
  • News that Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur L Ross Jr, is shown to have a stake in a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that has  links to a Russian energy company, Sibur, whose owners include “a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law”, according to The New York Times;
  • Two Russian billionaires allegedly used a “complex web” of offshore entities to buy stakes in two major UK football clubs, Arsenal and Everton;
  • Evidence that, according to BBC investigators, Tory donor Lord Ashcroft exercised control over a Bermuda-domiciled trust in which he had deposited “hundreds of millions of dollars” in 2000, which control should have been left to the trustees, and which could now leave him at risk of a challenge by HM Revenue & Customs.  (Lord Ashcroft’s spokesman, Alan Kilkenny, is quoted in The Guardian as saying Lord Ashcroft had never engaged in tax evasion, abusive tax avoidance or tax avoidance using artificial structures).

In one of several articles it published on Sunday on the subject of the “Paradise Papers”, The New York Times  observed that the “predominantly elite clients of Appleby” contrasted with those of the Panama Papers’ law firm, Mossack Fonseca, “which appeared to be less discriminating in the business it took on”.

“Much of the material makes for dull reading,” it added, noting  that the records date as far back as 1950, and up to 2016.

“Spreadsheets, prospectuses and billing statements abound.

“But amid these are documents that help reveal how multinational companies avoid taxes and how the super-rich hide their wealth.”

To read that piece on The New York Times‘s website, click here. 

To read the main BBC story on the Paradise Papers, click here. 

To read the main Guardian article on the Paradise Papers, which contains links to the publication’s other coverage of the leak, click here.

To read the ICIJ’s own coverage of its Paradise Papers exposé, click here. 

To watch the 30-minute BBC Panorama expose on the Paradise Papers, which aired on Sunday evening, click here. (UK viewers only.) Part two is due to air on Monday night. A news story based on that coverage is here. 

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