U.S. President Barack Obama put secrecy jurisdictions at the center of the political debate as early as 2008 when, as a then-senator, he declared shell companies created in the Cayman Islands as the “biggest tax scam” on record.
More recently, tax havens became a specific issue in the 2012 U.S. presidential fight, in large part because of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s use of a Cayman Island tax shelter.
But how many people really understand the range of issues at stake here?
The U.S. presidential race was just one reason why the ICIJ is trying to shine light on a mysterious global system that is exploited almost exclusively by one element of society to the detriment of another.
The issues of tax havens go far beyond monetary evasion. The secrecy they promote creates an environment that allows a litany of evils to flourish: fraud, evasion of financial regulations, arms dealing, child pornography, insider trading, embezzlement, political bribery and money laundering.
Thanks to loose laws of incorporation in many jurisdictions, it's easy for offenders to remain anonymous. And the entities can often be formed in less than 24 hours using online facilities.
It is not just criminals that take advantage. The secret service arms of governments use tax havens to create covers for their networks of spies and many small-time dictators use tax havens to strip the assets of their people.
A global service industry has developed where major banks, respected law practices and giant accounting firms provide secretive offshore structures to their tax-avoiding clients.
The list of banks accused in recent years of laundering foreign transactions totaling billions of dollars is growing, and most can be traced through tax havens.
The author Nicholas Shaxson is right when he says offshore tax havens are part of a universe that the public rarely gets to see.
We feel that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – with 160 top investigative reporters in more than 60 countries – is in a unique position help to rectify that.
We are applying specialist software to crunch through literally hundreds of thousands of offshore entities to look for patterns that might later be turned into stories.
We are marrying our findings with old-fashioned shoe leather and interviews from key insiders who can provide further context on this little known and loosely regulated world.
Shaxon is part of the advocacy group the Tax Justice Network that estimates half of all global trade now passes through tax havens and one third of world wealth now resides there.
We are confident of shining new light into the illicit networks that exist in these places. And we expect to reveal for the first time many of the real players in this shadowy world.
The public can help us in this critically important work in two ways:
- The first is to feed us leads that point us to things that might be important.
- The second way to help is to consider becoming a financial donor to ICIJ to help us cover all the ground that needs to be covered.
A team of ICIJ journalists around the world is now working on an investigation of tax havens and offshore finance. If you have story tips, documents or other information about these issues, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.