U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and a key ally to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are among the 120 rich and powerful people who are mentioned in the Paradise Papers, a new release of data about offshore tax havens and obscure financial dealings.
The Paradise Papers are a massive trove of 13.4 million records — many of which were leaked from the offshore law firm Appleby, which was founded more than 100 years ago and operates in places ranging from Bermuda and the Cayman Islands to the Isle of Man, Mauritius, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Reflecting millions of loan deals, financial statements, emails and other documents, the data reveals how specialty firms handle the money of wealthy individuals, families and corporations.
Some 380 journalists collaborated to unravel the connections in the Paradise Papers’ nearly 1.5 terabytes of data. The trove was acquired by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which says the records show how the wealthy and powerful sometimes duck taxes, regulations, sanctions and “at least their social responsibility.”
Wilbur Ross “was a major client of Appleby,” the ICIJ says, saying that the law firm administered more than 50 companies and partnerships linked to investments on behalf of his private equity firm, W.L. Ross & Co, LLC.
“Ross divested himself of most of his business interests when he joined the Trump Cabinet in February 2017,” the group says. “But he kept a stake in the shipping company Navigator Holdings through a chain of companies in the Cayman Islands, Appleby’s files and public records show.”
Discussing Ross’s Paradise Papers file with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, reporter Jon Swaine of The Guardian said Ross’s investments link him to Navigator — which is in turn linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law.
“Navigator is paid about $20 million dollars a year to ship gas out of Russia for a Russian company named Sibur,” Swaine said on Morning Edition. “And Sibur is co-owned by Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov.”
In an interview with the BBC, Ross said on Monday, “There is nothing whatsoever improper about Navigator having a relationship with Sibur.”
Ross said that Sibur wasn’t under sanctions when the deal was made, and that it’s not under sanctions now. But critics of the arrangement note that in addition to Shamalov, another of Sibur’s co-owners is Gennady Timchenko, who is currently under U.S. sanctions because of his close ties to Putin.
As for the money generated by the deal, Swaine says, “Navigator’s brought in about $68 million in revenue since 2014 from the deal. The contract is worth at least $200 million a year, and it’s scheduled to continue for about a decade.”
Referring to Sibur, the commerce secretary said, “The fact that it happens to be called a Russian company does not mean that there’s any evil in it.”
Referring to his financial disclosure form 278 that was filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Ross said, “Where there is evil is the misstatement that I did not disclose those holdings in my original form.”
Another high-profile figure named in the papers is Queen Elizabeth, who reportedly had around 10 million pounds (some $13 million) of her money offshore, the BBC says. The queen’s investments included a previously undisclosed stake in a Cayman fund in control of a rent-to-own company called BrightHouse, which as The Guardian reports, has been criticized “for exploiting thousands of poor families and vulnerable people.”
The Guardian notes that Elizabeth’s estate, the Duchy of Lancaster, says it was unaware of the holding prior to being contacted by news agencies. The ICIJ notes, “the queen voluntarily pays tax on income received.”
Other notable names include tech giants Facebook and Twitter — which the news site Reveal says benefited from large investments that were indirectly made by “two Russian government-owned firms known as vehicles for the Kremlin’s politically sensitive dealings.”
Those investments — reportedly $191 million, in the case of Twitter — were used to buy early stakes in Twitter and Facebook via the investment firm DST Global, according to Reveal, which adds that DST’s founder, Yuri Milner, and others made profits of more than $1 billion when it sold some holdings after the two social media giants took their stocks public.
Those revelations come as Russia’s attempts to use social media to influence the 2016 U.S. election remains a hot topic. Both tech firms and members of President Trump’s inner circle have faced scrutiny; the Paradise Papers add to that conversation.
“More recently, Milner invested $850,000 in Cadre, a real estate firm co-founded by Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner,” the ICIJ reports.
The ICIJ adds, “Milner is a Russian citizen who lives in Silicon Valley. His ties to Twitter, Facebook and Kushner’s firm have been previously disclosed. But his links to the Kremlin financial institutions weren’t known.”
Many of the deals and documents cited in the Paradise Papers have to do with avoiding taxes — and that’s the focus of reports on Apple, the most valuable publicly traded company in the world.
Recording billions in profits, Apple began to look for a new way to shelter itself from taxes after Ireland toughened its stance on international corporations in late 2013. That prompted Apple to make a plan with Appleby to use subsidiaries to park money in Jersey, a tax haven in the English Channel, according to the ICIJ.
As The New York Times reports, “Apple has accumulated more than $128 billion in profits offshore, and probably much more, that is untaxed by the United States and hardly touched by any other country. Nearly all of that was generated over the past decade.”
Another Trump Cabinet member, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is mentioned in the documents as a former director of a Bermuda company named Marib Upstream Services Co., which the ICIJ says was “created to conduct oil and gas operations” in Yemen. Tillerson reportedly served on Marib’s board for roughly a year, from 1997 to 1998.
The report also highlights two Democrats who are not currently in government. Former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is seen transferring shares of two companies into a limited liability corporation that’s referred to as being “owned by trusts that are for the benefit of Penny Pritzker’s children,” the ICIJ says, citing Appleby documents. The move was made just after Pritzker was confirmed; the report says she later filed ethics paperwork in which the holdings were “simply listed as having been sold.”
In a shorter entry, former presidential candidate Wesley Clark is mentioned for his ties to Amaya, an online gaming company that is now called the Stars Group.
The Paradise Papers are the fruit of a new branch of the work that brought the Panama Papers to light in 2015 and 2016. Those leaked documents caused embarrassment among the elites in several countries, from the U.K. to the Ukraine; they also resulted in the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan leaving office.
The leaked Appleby records that are at the heart of the Paradise Papers detail more ties to the U.S. than to any other nation, according to the ICIJ.
“At least 31,000 of the individual and corporate clients included in Appleby’s records are U.S. citizens or have U.S. addresses, more than from any other country,” the ICIJ said in a statement about the release. “Appleby also counted clients from the United Kingdom, China and Canada among its biggest sources of business.”
In Canada, the CBC reports that the names of more than 3,000 Canadian citizens, companies, and other entities appear in the Paradise Papers, including three former prime ministers — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin.
Also mentioned is Stephen Bronfman, a key fundraiser for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Noting that Trudeau has mentioned tax fairness as a priority, the CBC says that Bronfman, a Seagram family heir, and his investment company, Claridge Inc., “were key players linked to a $60-million US offshore trust in the Cayman Islands that may have cost Canadians millions in unpaid taxes.”
More revelations seem likely to come from the Paradise Papers — so far, we’re seeing only a sampling of the documents, as the stories that were launched by dozens of collaborating media outlets on Sunday reflect only the data’s highlights. A member of the ICIJ’s data team says the group will release “the full structured data from the Paradise Papers investigation in the coming weeks.”
As for the timeline described in the leaked documents, the ICIJ says the records date back to 1950 and run forward to 2016.
In response to the reports, Appleby released a statement saying in part, “The journalists do not allege, nor could they, that Appleby has done anything unlawful. There is no wrongdoing. It is a patchwork quilt of unrelated allegations with a clear political agenda and movement against offshore.”
The law firm added, “We wish to reiterate that our firm was not the subject of a leak but of a serious criminal act. This was an illegal computer hack.”
News of offshore accounts and tax havens has been grabbing headlines since it broke on Sunday. But the ICIJ warns against assuming the guilt of anyone mentioned in its reporting. Noting that there are “legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts,” the group says, “We do not intend to suggest or imply that any people, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was founded in 1997, as part of the Center for Public Integrity; it became an independent organization early in 2017.