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What the Pandora Papers Reveal

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FILM CLIP / WILL FITZGIBBON:

We arrived at the conclusion pretty quickly that this was going to be bombshell material. Bank accounts of politicians that showed tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets that had never been publicly associated with these politicians or public figures before.

FILM CLIP / GREG MILLER:

When somebody has that many shell companies, it raises a lot of questions right away. What are they for? How is he using them? That's where the hunt begins.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:

In October of 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — with news organizations across the world, including FRONTLINE — began publishing the results of an investigation into a massive leak of secret offshore financial records.

FILM CLIP / FITZGIBBON:

Very quickly, we established a pattern, which was that hundreds and hundreds of politicians, from heads of state to ministers to diplomats, were active participants and beneficiaries of this offshore system.

ARONSON-RATH:

The leaked files, known as the Pandora Papers, expose a financial system that shields the deals and assets of some of the world's richest and most powerful people. The revelations have reverberated across the globe.

FILM CLIP / NEWSREEL:

A collection of nearly 12 million files —

FILM CLIP / NEWSREEL:

— the biggest leak of financial records in history —

FILM CLIP / NEWSREEL:

— detailing how some of the world’s wealthy, from world leaders to celebrities, hide their assets from authorities and tax collectors.

ARONSON-RATH:

With me now are FRONTLINE producer Evan Williams, and ICIJ reporter Will Fitzgibbon. to discuss some of the key findings of the investigation. I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, and this is the FRONTLINE Dispatch.

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ARONSON-RATH:

Evan and Will, so glad you can join me on the Dispatch.

EVAN WILLIAMS:

Thanks so much, Raney. Good to be here.

FITZGIBBON:

Great to be here.

ARONSON-RATH:

So, Will, I have to start with you. Tell me about when you first became aware of the Pandora Papers, and what was going through your mind when you learned about how many documents you were receiving?

FITZGIBBON:

Well, how long have you got Raney?

ARONSON-RATH:

[Laughs]

FITZGIBBON:

I mean, this is always super exciting. I've been with ICIJ for a few years now. And we've done a number of these kinds of investigations, but we've never had something on this scale. I feel like I have a double personality when I start these kind of projects, because on the one hand, you're super excited, right? Especially when within the first hour, you're finding the passports of presidents, kings, criminals … But then, the other part of my personality is going, "Oh, my god. How am I gonna make sense of this?" Because of course, these documents aren't easy to understand. They don't really tell a story, in and of themselves.

ARONSON-RATH:

How does it all begin for you, though? Can you tell us any of the minutiae of how a big leak like this happens?

FITZGIBBON:

So, I can't go into the details of how ICIJ received or obtained the material. That's something even, really, I don't know the ins and outs of. What happens though, is ICIJ's director received this information. And then ICIJ has a very talented team of technicians. And what they do is they take these 12 million records, and they make them all searchable on a secretive database and search engine that ICIJ builds. And we build that search engine, and then give access to it to the 600 journalists who work around the world on the project. So that means — it doesn't matter if you're in Tokyo, Japan, or, you know, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or Lagos, Nigeria — if you work on the project, you can search this database, and really just go crazy. Have at it.

ARONSON-RATH:

Talk to me about how you all build the collaborative strategy from that moment forward. How do you start to think about, "Okay, ICIJ has this, but then who else are we going to share this with?"

FITZGIBBON:

It's a really important question, and also a very delicate approach, right? The basic principle of ICIJ really is one of journalistic equality, I think? Recognizing that the smartest reporter in New York City or Washington D.C., is never going to have the experience or the ability to find a story in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in the Philippines, right? And that's why we provide access to the data and bring on reporters from more than 100 countries. Because we know that, hidden in these documents, are only stories the reporters from those countries can tell.

That, of course, is a huge exercise of trust, right? I can't tell you how many times I wake up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat, wondering if the journalist who we just provided the Pandora Papers to really can be trusted. But I think luckily — and also just by design — ICIJ has been doing this for a long time now. The Pandora Papers wasn't our first rodeo. We've done these collaborations before. And that means we have a really strong collective of reporters who we know we can trust, and who recognize the value of collaboration.

ARONSON-RATH:

Evan, I want to know about how you first heard of this. What was the first phone call you got? And what did you hear?

WILLIAMS:

It was because of the previous collaboration that we, as FRONTLINE, had done with BBC Panorama, originally. James Oliver — the producer, in particular — called me and said, ”There's something going on you might be interested in.” And, uh. [Laughs] They've got to be very careful, because at that early stage, there's only so much people are talking about until we've really got full access to the documents.

And then of course, it's sort of step by step, really. And the first thing I heard, I think, from James, and from Will, and from the ICIJ was, "Listen, this is probably bigger than anything we've done before." Which, you know, I've got to say, caught my interest. And I think I remember getting in touch with you, Raney, and saying, "Listen, I think we — this is something we want to continue." And we start looking at it, and going, "Okay, well, what then is potentially the actual stories that might emerge from this? How far can we go?"

ARONSON-RATH:

And one of the things we started to learn right away is stories about Vladimir Putin. Let’s listen for a moment to Luke Harding from The Guardian, um, shed some additional light on the issue with Russia.

FILM CLIP / LUKE HARDING:

I kind of know these guys. I spent four years in Moscow as The Guardian’s bureau chief there, and one thing I do know about them is they are very secretive, especially when it comes to money. But also they're rather paranoid. What’s happening is that Putin and his friends, his inner circle, particularly friends from St. Petersburg, have become extremely rich, mainly on the back of state resources — oil, gas, things like that — and that they've created these colossal offshore structures where their assets are being hidden.

ARONSON-RATH:

Tell me about what you were starting to see inside the documents, Will, as it pertains to Putin himself?

FITZGIBBON:

Well, I think when journalists get a data trove of this size, one of the first things we do is search for all the most obvious political names, right? We wanted to find Donald Trump, we wanted to find Hillary Clinton, we wanted to find Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, the offshore world generally doesn't work like that. Few politicians — especially the biggest politicians in the world — are kind of careless enough to have their own names appear in these kinds of documents. So we didn't find them directly.

But, you know, my experience is that there's nearly always someone close to the real political power player, who potentially is working or existing in the place of that person. And I think that's one of the hypotheses of reporters — and many of the experts we spoke to — when it comes to Vladimir Putin. Rumors have existed for decades now that he has a huge, huge financial empire.

So what that means is reporters start focusing on other names: people close to him, according to media reports and other things. And of course, in this case, reporters, fairly early on, stumbled across the name of an alleged girlfriend to Vladimir Putin. And that was one of the first entrees really into Putin's inner circle.

WILLIAMS:

And that's why the collaboration is so important, because you might find somebody in there and you, you can then go to a journalist who knows that story, knows that person or that country. So in the case of Svetlana Krivonogikh, uh, the woman, it was actually because of other reporting that then fed into the investigation. A Russian investigative website, Proekt, went public with an investigation into Svetlana Krivonogikh, saying she was the alleged mistress of Vladimir Putin. And that months after her alleged affair with him, they allegedly had a child. She started to become one of the wealthiest women in Russia, with assets worth some $100 million in Russia alone.

So one of the journalists in the collaboration, Luke Harding at The Guardian, typed her name into the ICIJ database. And it was revealed that she was the secret owner of these offshore companies. And then they found out there was one reference to Monaco. And so the journalist then searched the property records of those shell companies that she now owned in the documents. And it found out that those companies owned this rather nice apartment on the harbor in Monaco. That's how it actually worked. The documents give you that 10%, 20%, maybe 30% of information. You've then got to go and do the legwork to make it part of a story.

ARONSON-RATH:

Right, I mean, the scenes from Monaco in the Pandora papers are so vivid in that you're just, all of a sudden, able to see the wealth up close. And that's something about filmmaking that, you know, seeing is really believing. When you went to Monaco, Evan, talk to me about what you were seeing, and what you were hearing from Luke and others that you were meeting with there?

WILLIAMS:

Well, to answer your earlier question properly. [Laughs] In fact, what then happened was we found that the company that set up Svetlana Krivonogikh's offshore companies had also set up offshore companies for two other individuals that are publicly associated as part of President Putin's inner circle: Gennady Timchenko, and a man called Peter Kolbin. Gennady Timchenko, runs a multibillion dollar oil company and a large part of his business goes through these offshore companies. Then we worked out that it was seen that the same company, Moores Rowland in Monaco, had set up shell companies for another man who had been a childhood friend of President Putin.

This all started leading everybody — including Greg Miller at the Washington Post, and Luke at The Guardian, and the ICIJ, and ourselves to say, "Okay, this is about a woman that's reportedly very close to President Putin. Two men that have been sanctioned by the US State Department for their closeness to President Putin. Is there something else going on here?" And what it looks like is that this Monaco firm had been setting up shell companies for people that — at the very least, we can say — are members of President Putin's inner circle, and have become incredibly rich from in two cases, very — modest backgrounds, that's Svetlana and Peter in particular.

So the question is, "Is this actually their money? Are these people actually what they call 'wallets?' Are they people hiding money for President Putin?" Very hard to prove. We didn't get the smoking gun. We don't have proof of that. But it's interesting, and it, it looks like there's something going on there, which is worthy of more investigation.

ARONSON-RATH:

Evan, tell me, what did we hear from the Kremlin?

WILLIAMS:

The only statement from the Kremlin has been that the allegations are false. Of course, we approached Svetlana Krivonogikh, uh, in fact, three times through our collaborators, and ourselves. There was no response from her at all. And Gennady Timchenko, the oil billionaire, he said that he's always conducted his business through legal means. And there's been no undue course of action in any way. For Peter Kolbin, the other individual, he's unfortunately passed away. And so the estate did not respond to us. So really no response that gave us any information about what's going on with the properties.

And, as we know — also, I mean, just to pay tribute to our Russian colleagues here — anybody reporting on President Putin inside Russia we know comes under enormous pressure. And there's a real crackdown on independent journalism within Russia, which really, I think, enhances the value of this sort of international collaboration, as well. Because we're all going out together at the same time. And it's very easy for an authoritarian government to crack down on an independent journalist in their country. But if the story is being carried globally — by something, you know, with such weight and credibility, as FRONTLINE, and BBC, and ICIJ, and The Guardian, The Post — it's much harder for them to actually deny that completely.

ARONSON-RATH:

Will, I would love for you to just expand on that, especially as we're looking around at the increase of crackdowns on independent journalists. Look at Maria Ressa, was just given the Nobel Peace Prize for that reason. And, of course, her Russian colleague. I would love to hear more from you about the importance of these global collaborations with that in mind.

FITZGIBBON:

That's really one reason that ICIJ does what it does, and that's why we exist. Recognizing that, in some ways, the crooks are winning. That for decades now, criminals and powerful politicians have been using the offshore financial system and hiding details from the public. And it's now up to journalists to catch up and to collaborate in the same ways. As many people smarter than I say, you know, if money and criminality knows no boundaries, then why should journalism?

And that's one of the fundamental principles of ICIJ, recognizing that so few stories these days are bound by national borders. You know, that money especially is always going to be flying off to another part of the world, and therefore, working with reporters in a different part of the world can help paint a fuller picture.

Of course, when it comes to protection of journalists, we found through many, many years of experience that there are going to be countries where journalists can't publish stories. In the Pandora Papers there were journalists in a number of countries who originally agreed to participate in this project, actually later pulled out, and they told us at ICIJ, "Look, my family won't survive. I won't be able to stay out of jail, if I go anywhere near the Pandora Papers. If my name is anywhere near it." And that's chilling. That's horrifying. Those kinds of cases really make journalists like Evan and I, who are in a position to put something out there, even more determined to do so.

ARONSON-RATH: We’ll be right back.

[BREAK]

ARONSON-RATH:

One of the things I was thinking about is, you know, the circles around Putin, and as you start to understand them in a more sophisticated way. Will — and this is just to you, really, about ICIJ's mission, is — what are you getting at here? Why is this important?

FITZGIBBON:

Certainly for me — as I spent the last two years of my professional life looking at the Pandora Papers — something that always struck me, and occasionally would outrage me, was just how much wealth is being hidden through tax havens. Experts have long said that every dollar that passes through Monaco, the British Virgin Islands, or new tax havens like South Dakota, for example, that's potentially a dollar that isn't being taxed in a way that can help countries. And what that means, of course, is that the inequality that we see on the front pages of newspapers, that that we see on the news every night, is being aggravated by what is really a two-tier financial system.

There's a financial system that you and I live in, Raney, in which we pay our taxes. But, of course, what the Pandora Papers show consistently is if you're wealthy enough — and if you've got the political contacts, often — you can kind of choose the financial rules that you play by.

ARONSON-RATH:

Speaking of people who have political connections and such, let's talk about the king of Jordan, and what you all were able to find about him.

FITZGIBBON:

Well, the king of Jordan emerged pretty quickly in the Pandora Papers, because we actually had his passport there. And I can't tell you how exciting it is to get a passport of a king. Especially one who is incredibly protective of his privacy. And the Pandora Papers show that very clearly. There are email exchanges from his private wealth managers and lawyers, saying, "Please, please don't share this passport with anyone who doesn't need to see it."

And what the Pandora Papers showed was really kind of a hidden face to the king of Jordan. This is a king who presents himself as a progressive, who's the ruler of an important U.S. ally in the Middle East. Jordan is a country that receives a lot of money in U.S. aid. And in the Pandora Papers, really shows how this same king — who publicly talks about transparency and accountability — has amassed a huge, secretive property empire through offshore shell companies. That includes luxury homes in the United Kingdom, but also, as we found, a trio of very fancy mansions on the coast of California in Malibu. A lot of these properties were actually bought in the United States in the same year that Jordanians were protesting in the streets about governance in Jordan.

ARONSON-RATH:

What was the conversation like with him and his advisors or people close to him? Did they respond? What did they say about our reporting?

FITZGIBBON:

Yeah, the comment seeking period is really important in this kind of journalism, as you would know. We usually try and give one month — in some cases, even two months — to people like the king of Jordan to respond, because we want to learn more. And the documents don't tell us everything that we want to know. You know, it'd be a different story if one of these luxury Malibu mansions had been, for example, regularly used to host diplomats. Then it becomes a state property, rather than just a nice pad with a heated swimming pool.

So, of course, we spent I think about a month interacting with the king through his London lawyers. So there was a robust engagement. In their defense, you know, they answered our questions. They told us, for example, that, "Look, the king of Jordan is a sovereign. He doesn't have to pay taxes. So any questions you're asking about possible tax avoidance just don't apply." You know, they said, "Look, the king — being a sovereign, living and coming from the Middle East — has legitimate safety issues for him and his family. So therefore, he doesn't disclose publicly where he lives in every case."

They said that in one of the cases, he actually rented out one of the properties to make rental income. So we did learn some interesting tidbits from the exchanges with the lawyers. And let me tell you, that's actually a rarity. In most of these cases, with most of the politicians I tried to speak to about Pandora Papers, they either shout at me and threaten me, or they just never reply at all.

WILLIAMS:

I think on the king of Jordan, as well, I'd like to just add — I mean, it's interesting, because, because we went out a few weeks after the the main launch, Raney, the Hashemite palace in Amman, Jordan issued a statement after the ICIJ launched, the global launch. Previous statements from the king, indicated that these properties were used for private use, it was all family, it was all security, etcetera. And a statement some days after the launch indicated, well, actually some of these properties, you know, they're sort of used for official uses.

WILLIAMS:

So there was a bit of a change of tone —

ARONSON-RATH:

[Laughs]

WILLIAMS:

[Laughs] — which I thought raised more questions than answers, actually. [Laughs] Because it was like, "Well, hang on, guys. It's either an official residence, or they're not. Which one is it? As Will says, you know, a state property used to entertain guests — everybody could understand. I mean, that's his prerogative.

ARONSON-RATH:

I want to talk about South Dakota. So, Will: let's, let's start with you on South Dakota. Tell me about what's it like when you, you started to learn about the depths of what's happening there. And were you surprised?

FITZGIBBON:

I was really excited by this project, because the Pandora Papers put some meat on the bones of this rumor around South Dakota. You know, if you're a tax haven nerd, you've heard rumors that the United States — and in particular, South Dakota — is a bit of a tax haven. But frustratingly, there really hadn't before the Pandora Papers been any specific reporting on that.

And luckily for us, the Pandora Papers included one firm, Trident Trust, that specializes in creating offshore structures for wealthy individuals. And they have an office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. So, as soon as I knew that, I just started searching in this database of 12 million files every reference to Sioux Falls or South Dakota that I possibly could. And over the months, with the help of Debbie Cenziper at The Washington Post, built up this database of quite controversial international clients, who in very recent years had moved their assets to South Dakota.

That “recent years” reference, I think, is important. Because it shows that as traditional tax havens have been closing down, or have come under scrutiny, it's the United States that has actually emerged to take the place of these tax havens. So if you're thinking about offshore and tax havens as palm trees and white beaches? Scrap that and start thinking about, you know, two-story high Sioux Falls, with coffee shops, and, you know, hotdogs in each corner.

ARONSON-RATH:

I mean, it's really, it was phenomenal when we heard about that. Actually, let's listen to Debbie for a moment talk to us about this. And importantly, she talks about the stakes here.

FILM CLIP / DEBBIE CENZIPER:

We already found evidence of people credibly accused of crimes and other wrongdoing breaching the U.S. financial system. What about terrorists? What about drug traffickers? What about dictators or their associates? We just don't know. Because though we had almost 12 million documents, that's just this little tiny glimpse into this thriving industry in the United States.

ARONSON-RATH:

You know, the files also showed that some of the foreign money being held in the U.S. trust is tainted. What are some of those issues that you all found surrounding these controversial clients?

FITZGIBBON:

Well, we found in the Pandora Papers that a number of individuals from overseas, especially in Latin America, had been setting up secretive offshore arrangements in South Dakota. These included, for example, a Brazilian businessman who, many years ago, was forced to pay a fine within the United States, by a federal agency here. There was a pair of Ecuadorian brothers, who are perhaps some of the most famous — or infamous — bankers in Ecuador. And there are thousands of creditors and victims there, who still to this day, claim that the bankers owe them money. Those bankers, uh, deny wrongdoing.

And then we focused also on the former vice president of the Dominican Republic, someone who was the head of really the country's most powerful company, a sugar cane company. And that company's been alleged to have really been responsible for serious human rights violations for years and years. And his family too, in recent years, has moved to set up a trust in South Dakota. You know, there was a Colombian businessman who the US government forced to hand over $20 million a number of years ago, as part of a money laundering and drug trafficking ring.

And my initial thought was, "Hang on a minute. If I can find out about this Colombian just within 30 seconds of a Google search, did South Dakota bankers know what was happening here? And if they did, how and why did they decide that that was the kind of money that South Dakota wanted to welcome into the state?"

WILLIAMS:

I think the important thing was that this reveals — in the words of Craig Kennedy, one of the former state senators — this reveals a situation where a state legislature has been, in his words, captured by the trust industry. And I found this absolutely fascinating, because you can see what's happened. Over the years, you've got this trust industry insiders, they're on what's called the trust task force of the state. And they're basically insiders writing their own rules for their own industry. [Laughs]

And we're not talking here — it's very important here — we're not talking about proceeds of criminal activity, which is actually illegal. We're talking about money where people are involved in all sorts of activities, which are sort of gray. And the issue is, a lot of these people parked millions of dollars into South Dakota because of the secrecy laws around that state. So there's obviously something going on there, which raises real questions into what is now a $360 billion industry in South Dakota alone.

ARONSON-RATH:

Evan, on South Dakota: was there any response from, um, any regulators there?

WILLIAMS:

The oversight body — which is meant to be overseeing, overseeing the trust industry — say that they, of course, they do audit. Um, they conduct audits on the trust companies, they make sure that everybody's complying to state rules. And that of course, nobody's, uh, nobody's taking any, uh, proceeds of criminal wrongdoings, which, of course, would be illegal. And they say that they do conduct proper audits and oversight of the companies, and make sure that they're auditing the individuals who are investing in the trust companies. Of course, that's the question that we've raised in the piece, as to how deep that goes within those companies themselves. But that's been the response.

FITZGIBBON:

And I think our reporting really showed also that there just isn't enough transparency around this process. And one of the things we're hearing, in response to the Pandora Papers' revelations, is that the US Department of Treasury and FinCEN, the Treasury Department's watchdog, are actually now more likely to include trusts — including South Dakota — as part of a new framework they've got, that would require owners of companies to disclose their ownership, and that would be a huge deal moving forward.

ARONSON-RATH:

Well, I mean, in that vein, what has the impact been so far? And, again, I felt like we're just now scratching the surface. But what's next?

FITZGIBBON:

Well, one of the real distinguishing factors of the Pandora Papers, compared, say, to previous investigations on similar topics, is the U.S. has actually been one of the most active countries responding to the Pandora Papers. I really think, in many ways, lawmakers in the U.S., at least of, at a federal level have been so embarrassed by the Pandora Papers' revelations, about South Dakota, for example, that they have responded.

So we saw just a week, I think, after the Pandora Papers came out — a bipartisan bill in Congress introduced that would increase monitoring basically, and requirements around trust companies, lawyers, real estate agents: all of these so-called 'middle men and women' who help wealthy foreigners benefit from the offshore financial system. And this has the potential, experts say, to be really one of the most significant overhauls of U.S. anti-money laundering laws in recent times, since 911.

Globally we've seen a number of politicians in hot water. The President of Chile was impeached by the lower house. The president in Ecuador is facing huge pressures and investigations there. Of course, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic — one week after the Panama Papers — lost a very narrow election, close election, that he was actually expected to win.

And really, we're still just talking within the first few weeks of the Pandora Papers. When it comes to 12 million documents, there's no way we can tell all of the stories at once. And that's both very exciting and also terrifying, you know? No journalist wants to miss the biggest story of their lifetime, just because they didn't stay up until 12:04 A.M., reading through millions of documents.

WILLIAMS:

Will, I know, you stay up to 12:04, and I stay up to 12:03, Raney, just for the record.

ARONSON-RATH:

[Laughs] Well, we really don't sleep, and I appreciate that. What an effort by the ICIJ, and by all the journalists. From where I sit, and so many of us, it's so inspiring to see everybody, you know, working together like that, and see the minutiae of it then come out, and have that kind of impact is terrific. So, Evan and Will, I can't thank you enough for coming on the Dispatch, and we'll talk soon. There's more to come.

FITZGIBBON:

Looking forward to it.

WILLIAMS:

Thank you so much.

ARONSON-RATH: ​​

To stream Pandora Papers now, go to frontline.org, where you can read, watch, and listen, to all of our original reporting on this film, and many other stories.

Our podcast producers are Erika Howard and Miles Alvord, with production support from Megan McGough-Christian. Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. Frank Koughan is senior producer. Lauren Ezell is senior editor. Andrew Metz is our managing editor. I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE. Music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

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