Panama Papers Probes Opened, China Limits Access to News on Leaks

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Mossack Fonseca law firm sign is pictured in Panama City, April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Ben Blanchard and Lisa Jucca

HONG KONG/BEIJING April 5 – Authorities across the globe have opened investigations into the activities of the world’s rich and powerful after a cache of leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm showed possible wrongdoing using offshore company structures.

The “Panama Papers” have cast light on the financial arrangements of high profile politicians and public figures and the companies and financial institutions they use for such activities. Among those named in the documents are friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin and relatives of the leaders of China, Britain, Iceland and Pakistan, and the president of Ukraine.

Leading figures and financial institutions responded to the massive leak of more than 11.5 million documents with denials of any wrongdoing as prosecutors and regulators began a review of the reports from the investigation by the U.S.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other media organizations.

Following the reports, China has moved to limit local access to coverage of the matter with state media denouncing Western reporting on the leak as biased against non-Western leaders.

France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands are among nations that have commenced investigations, and some other countries, included the United States, said they were looking into the matter.

Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the leaks, has set up more than 240,000 offshore companies for clients around the globe and denies any wrongdoing. It calls itself the victim of a campaign against privacy and claims media reports misrepresent the nature of its business.

DENIALS AND BACKLASH

Credit Suisse and HSBC, two of the world’s largest wealth managers, on Tuesday dismissed suggestions they were actively using offshore structures to help clients cheat on their taxes.

Both were named among the banks that helped set up complex structures that make it hard for tax collectors and investigators to track the flow of money from one place to another, according to ICIJ.

Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam, who is aggressively targeting Asia’s wealthiest for growth, said his bank was only after lawful assets.

Speaking at a media briefing in Hong Kong, he acknowledged the bank uses offshore financial structures, but only for very wealthy customers with assets in multiple jurisdictions and did not support their use for tax avoidance or allow them without knowing the identities of all those concerned.

“We do not condone structures for tax avoidance,” he said. “Whenever there is a structure with a third party beneficiary we insist to know the identity of that beneficiary.”

Separately, HSBC said the documents pre-dated a thorough reform of its business model.

Both banks have in recent years paid large fines to U.S. authorities over their wealth management or banking operations.

Credit Suisse agreed in 2014 to pay a $2.5 billion fine for helping rich Americans evade taxes. HSBC agreed in 2012 to pay $1.92 billion in fines, mainly for allowing itself to be used to launder Mexican drug money.

The reports on leaks also pointed to the offshore companies linked to the families of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other powerful current and former Chinese leaders.

China’s government has yet to respond publicly to the allegations.

Searches for the word “Panama” on Chinese search engines bring up stories in Chinese media on the topic, but many of the links have been disabled or only open onto stories about allegations directed at sports stars.

China’s Internet regulator did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, suggested in an editorial on Tuesday that Western media backed by Washington used such leaks to attack political targets in non-Western countries while minimizing coverage of Western leaders.

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