Likely largest journalism collaboration in history

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists today launches the next part of a multi-year project aimed at stripping away the biggest mystery associated with tax havens: the owners of anonymous companies.

audioListen to the press conference given by ICIJ director Gerard Ryle, deputy director Marina Walker Guevara, and senior editor Michael Hudson, about the investigation.

secrecy for saleDrawing from a trove of 2.5 million secret files, ICIJ led what may be the largest cross border journalism collaboration in history. 

ICIJ’s investigation opens the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts and nearly 130,000 individuals and agents, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con artists, and the mega-rich in more than 170 countries.

Secrecy For Sale: Inside The Global Offshore Money Maze is ICIJ’s largest investigative reporting project in its 15-year history.

It lifts the curtain on the offshore system and provides a transparent look into the secret world of tax havens and the individuals and companies that use and benefit from them.

The files identify the individuals behind the covert companies and private trusts based in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, Singapore and other offshore havens. They include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as Russia corporate executives, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Wall Street fraudsters, international arms dealers and families and associates of long-time dictators.

Among the key findings:

  • Government officials and their families and associates in Azerbaijan, Russia, Canada, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Mongolia and other countries have embraced the use of covert companies and bank accounts.
     
  • The mega-rich use complex offshore structures to own mansions, yachts, art masterpieces and other assets, gaining tax advantages and anonymity not available to average people.
     
  • Many of the world’s top’s banks – including UBS, Clariden and Deutsche Bank – have aggressively worked to provide their customers with secrecy-cloaked companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore hideaways.
     
  • A well-paid industry of accountants, middlemen and other operatives has helped offshore patrons shroud their identities and business interests, providing shelter in many cases to money laundering or other misconduct.
     
  • Ponzi schemers and other large-scale fraudsters routinely use offshore havens to pull off their shell games and move their ill-gotten gains.

 

While reporting by ICIJ and its partners shows that many users of offshore are engaged in legitimate transactions, the project team’s investigations raise questions about the lack of transparency, lax law enforcement and illegal practices that are prevalent in the offshore world.

The collection of information, totaling more than 260 gigabytes of data, includes corporate files, emails, account ledgers, and other records that show cash transfers, incorporation dates and links between individuals and companies. It is believed to be one of the largest collections of leaked data gathered and analyzed by journalists.

The files illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy to avoid taxes, fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations. The current banking crisis in Cyprus is one example of how the offshore system can impact an entire country’s financial stability. 

The ICIJ worked with 86 investigative journalists from 46 countries and used data mining software and old fashioned shoe leather reporting to unveil the previously hidden but thriving world of fraud, tax dodging and political corruption. 

To analyze the documents, ICIJ collaborated with journalists from The Guardian and the BBC in the U.K., Le Monde in France, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Norddeutscher Rundfunk in Germany, The Washington Post, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and 31 other media partners around the world.

The reporters and editors on the project team thoroughly fact-checked the data and cross-referenced it with other information, including court records, government reports and financial databases. Team members interviewed hundreds of experts, government officials, attorneys, offshore clients and other sources around the world.

We are in a unique position to undertake this work. Our global network of investigative reporters spans more than 60 countries.

This has been the purpose of ICIJ since it was founded in 1997 as a project of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington DC-based non-profit.

One of the main investigative tools we are using – and which was donated to us free-of-charge – is specialist software from the Australian-based company NUIX.

NUIX is a worldwide provider of information management technologies and its technology allows for the processing, managing and searching of large volumes of unstructured data.

Reporters do not, at least until now, typically use the software. According to NUIX, it is used by law enforcement agencies, corporate regulatory bodies and government departments.

The public can help us in this critically important work by feeding us further leads about the offshore world that point us to things that might be important. 

If you have story tips, documents or other information about this issue, contact us at investigations@icij.org.

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