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Europe calls on journalists' Panama Papers expertise

PANA Committee hearing

European parliamentarians met with journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its media partners on Tuesday in Brussels as the European Union seeks to develop plans to tackle widespread tax abuse through anonymous offshore companies. 

The year-long Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion (also known as the PANA Committee) was created in June following the release of the Panama Papers, the biggest-ever leak of financial information from a Panama-based law firm.

Tuesday’s event, the Committee’s first public hearing, heard from five journalists – Julia Stein and Jan Strozyk of Germany, Oliver Zihlmann of Switzerland, Minna Knus-Galán of Finland and Kristof Clerix of Belgium. German reporters Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, the journalists who originally received the Panama Papers documents and shared them with ICIJ, participated remotely via video link.

“What we did expose was essentially the biggest cache of inside information into the offshore system that anyone had ever seen,” said ICIJ’s director, Gerard Ryle, who delivered a pre-recorded message. “And now what we’re seeing is civil society reacting to our findings and this parliamentary hearing is one of those reactions. We very much welcome it.”

Journalists presented their findings to the European parliamentarians, highlighting the wrongdoing they had discovered. 

“I emphasized that the issue with offshore companies and tax havens is not only a matter of taxes but also – and probably even more importantly – is an issue of anonymity,” Belgian journalist and ICIJ member, Kristof Clerix, told ICIJ after the meeting. “Offshores allow people who set them up to stay under the radar. The way to end this is by transparency (corporate registries providing minimum levels of basic information) and info exchange.”

Journalists also underscored the part played by individuals and institutions, including major European banks and even European states with controversial tax policies, that facilitate tax abuses. The focus of any European response to the Panama Papers, suggested German journalist and ICIJ member Jan Stroyzk, “should be on the banks because they’re so deeply anchored in the system.”

Journalists also called for Europe to do more to protect whistle blowers.

Elsewhere, the fallout from Panama Papers continues. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had filed criminal charges against Chinese nationals for allegedly helping North Korea develop nuclear weapons, including a businesswoman who used shell companies registered through the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The Canadian Revenue Agency confirmed this week that it was reviewing 2,000 files linked to the Panama Papers and warned that the 85 Canadians currently under audit are unlikely to receive any leniency from the tax authority, according to CBC News.

In Australia, the Australian Financial Review reported that federal police had carried out 18 raids in early September and seized documents, electronic files and 170 kilograms of silver as part of its widening investigation into the Panama Papers revelations. In addition to the raids, another 100 Australians were notified of action to be taken against them. About $2.5 billion in cash transfers have been identified by Australia’s tax authority, which said its initial focus has been on investigating facilitators – including accountants and lawyers – and high net wealth individuals.

Beginning the Panama Papers session in Brussels, the committee’s chair also referred to Bahamas Leaks, a recent investigation by ICIJ and Suddeutsche Zeitung that involved dozens of international media organizations. The chairman announced he would expand the Committee’s work to include Bahamas Leaks, a cache of 1.3 million documents and shareholder lists from the Bahamian government’s registry of offshore companies that has now been made freely available for search on ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks Database.

The offshore links of former European Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes, is the highest-profile revelation from Bahamas Leaks. Kroes, who served as a senior European official from 2004 to 2014, failed to declare her former directorship of a company that was set up to explore acquiring more than $6 billion in assets from the energy giant Enron. The European Commission is currently deciding what, if any, action to take against Kroes.

The Committee’s next hearing is in October.

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