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Secret Shell Game: A global investigation of offshore companies

Offshore corporations: The secret shell game

Offshore corporations have one main purpose - to create anonymity. Recently leaked documents reveal that some of these shell companies, cloaked in secrecy, provide cover for dictators, politicians and tax evaders.
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Offshore corporations have one main purpose - to create anonymity. Recently leaked documents reveal that some of these shell companies, cloaked in secrecy, provide cover for dictators, politicians and tax evaders.

The Miami Herald spent months investigating how people accused of wrongdoing abroad used offshore shell companies to buy South Florida real estate.

“Secret Shell Game” was based on an analysis of 11.5 million secret files from inside Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm.

For decades, the world’s wealthiest and most politically connected people have asked Mossack Fonseca to create offshore companies and other opaque corporate entities.

Confidential sources leaked the MF files to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared the records with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The leaked records have been dubbed the “Panama Papers.”

ICIJ partnered with more than 100 news organizations around the world. The Miami Herald, its parent company McClatchy and the television networks Fusion and Univision were the only U.S. media outlets to help analyze the documents. The leaked records provide little indication that Mossack Fonseca asked questions about those who wanted offshore corporations. Although there are legitimate reasons to set up such companies, they can also facilitate asset stashing, money laundering and tax evasion. The investigation even found some companies had been used to procure oil and gas for the air force of Syria’s brutal Assad regime.

Among those who owned offshore companies set up by MF: 12 heads of state, 61 of their relatives and associates, 128 current or former politicians and public officials, and 29 Forbes-listed billionaires.

Mossack Fonseca’s roster also included organized-crime figures, global soccer stars, judges, fugitives, cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fraudsters and a convicted pedophile.

Nearly 400 journalists around the world worked on the project for a year.

11.5 millionNumber of secret offshore files leaked to the Miami Herald and ICIJ

They sorted through records of nearly 215,000 corporate entities — including offshore companies, trusts and private foundations — set up for more than 14,000 clients in 21 offshore havens around the world.

The leaked documents include emails, passports, corporate registries, shareholder agreements and client background checks. They span the period from 1977 to 2015.

Further analysis of the files is expected to produce more stories of greed and wrongdoing.

ICIJ and its global partners have reported other data dumps in the past, including a major leak of documents from the Swiss subsidiary of British banking giant HSBC. The “Swiss Leaks” investigation showed how HSBC profited by helping its clients evade taxes.

Secret Shell Game was the Miami Herald’s first collaboration with ICIJ.

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