US launches criminal investigation into Panama Papers claims

Crusading Manhattan attorney to look into revelations contained within the Panama Papers

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 20 April 2016 12:50
Map showing countries with most companies named in Panama Papers
Map showing countries with most companies named in Panama Papers

The “crusading” US attorney for Manhattan has launched a criminal investigation into possible international tax avoidance that may have been revealed by the Panama Papers leak.

Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the area including Manhattan and Wall Street, has written to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped break the Panama Papers story, requesting a meeting.

In his letter, reprinted in the Guardian, which also helped reveal the leak of 11.5 million files from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, Mr Bharara writes: “The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has opened a criminal investigation regarding matters to which the Panama Papers are relevant.

“The Office would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak as soon as possible with any ICIJ employee or representative involved in the Panama Papers Project.”

The launch of the criminal investigation comes after President Barack Obama described global tax avoidance as “a huge problem”.

Any tax avoiders who have Mr Bharara on their tail are also likely to find him an extremely dogged opponent.

Since becoming the US attorney for Manhattan in 2009, he has charged at least 96 Wall Street executives with offences connected to insider trading. By the end of last year, the New York Post was referring to him as “crusading” and claiming he had engaged in a “six-year battle against Wall Street.”

In 2011 he warned Wall Street that none of its largest firms were "too big to prosecute", and he has certainly shown little fear of confronting banking giants like Citibank, which in 2012 paid $158 million (£110 million) to settle claims its mortgage unit fraudulently misled the government into insuring risky loans.

His opening of a criminal investigation into the Panama Papers also comes after he was involved in charging the Wall Street financier Benjamin Wey with securities fraud in connection with alleged “reverse merger” transactions between Chinese companies and US shell companies.

Announcing the indictment against Mr Wey, the chief executive of New York Global Group, in September Mr Bharara claimed: “Ben Wey fashioned himself a master of industry, but as alleged, he was merely a master of manipulation.”

What are The Panama Papers?

According to the Guardian, the Panama Papers leak showed that Mr Wey had dealings with Mossack Fonseca.

Mr Wey, however, denies the charges against him, and Mossack Fonseca has strenuously denied any illegality, saying it has “a strong compliance record”.

The launch of the criminal investigation comes after President Obama made a rare unscheduled appearance in the White House Press briefing room to describe the revelations in the Panama Papers leak as “important stuff.”

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In his unscripted remarks earlier this month, Mr Obama told reporters: “There is no doubt that the problem of global tax avoidance generally is a huge problem.

“The problem is that a lot of this stuff is legal, not illegal.

“We shouldn’t make it legal to engage in transactions just to avoid taxes. A lot of these loopholes come at the expense of middle-class families, because that lost revenue has to be made up somewhere.

“Alternatively, it means that we’re not investing as much as we should in schools, in making college more affordable, in putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, creating more opportunities for our children.”

He was backed by Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, who said last week that widespread global tax avoidance was a “great, great concern.”

Opening the Spring Meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, he said: “When taxes are evaded, when state assets are taken and put into these havens, all of these things can have a tremendous negative effect on our mission to end poverty and boost prosperity.”