The Pandora Papers brought out last Sunday call for an end to financial secrecy surrounding many of the world’s richest and most powerful people hiding their wealth from tax collectors.
The report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a network of more than 600 journalists including Indian, revealed the way world leaders and billionaire business people have used shell companies and offshore tax havens to park undeclared wealth. Among the 300-odd Indians who figure in the report are Anil Ambani who had declared bankruptcy in a British court but holds assets worth millions in 18 offshore entities, and Nirav Modi who transferred money in his sister’s name before fleeing India. Some have set up offshore trusts or have transferred funds through an impenetrable maze of companies in order to insulate themselves from their creditors. The Central Board of Direct Taxes has announced a multi-agency probe to investigate these cases.
The Pandora Papers are all about individuals using secrecy jurisdictions, popularly called tax havens when the goal is to evade taxes. Its report has identified 330 former and current politicians as beneficiaries of secret accounts. King Abdulla II of Jordan had secretly acquired property worth 70 million pounds in the UK and the USA. Russian President Vladimir Putin was found to have secret assets in Monaco. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and associates of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also figure in the report.
Unlike the earlier Panama and Paradise Papers which dealt with offshore entities set up by individuals and corporates, the Pandora Papers reveal how businesses have created a new norm in conjunction with offshore companies for the sole purpose of holding investments and other assets for families and ultra-rich individuals. Trusts can be set up in tax havens like Belize, British Virgin Islands, Panama, Samoa or in New Zealand or Singapore which offer relative tax advantages.
A trust is a fiduciary arrangement where a third party, called a trustee, holds assets on behalf of individuals or organisations that are to benefit from it. Oxfam International, the British consortium of charities, complemented the Pandora Papers for exposing brazen examples of greed that deprived countries of tax revenue that could be used to finance programmes and projects for the greater benefit of the people.
The Pandora Papers are the latest in a series of ICIJ disclosures of financial documents that began with LuxLeaks in 2014 and were followed by the Panama Papers. The investigation dug into documents registered in familiar offshore havens like British Virgin Islands, Seychelles, Hong Kong and Belize. The documents reveal how powerful people can deploy anonymous shell companies, trusts and other artifices to conceal the true owners of corrupt and illicit assets.