Panama Papers names to be made public tomorrow

They hoped to keep their business private, but some of the world's richest citizens will instead have their finances opened to prying eyes.

Confidential details of more than 200,000 offshore accounts in the Panama Papers — including the names of at least 625 Canadians — will be revealed tomorrow, in the hope that public scrutiny of the material will generate hundreds of tips about possible corruption and tax dodging..

The new information, to be released online at 2 p.m. ET in a searchable database, will list:

  • The name of anyone listed as a director or shareholder of an offshore company in the huge Panama Papers leak.
  • The names and addresses of more than 200,000 offshore companies, though in most cases, the ultimate owner is still shrouded in secrecy.
  • The identities of dozens of intermediary agencies that helped set up and run those accounts in tandem with Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm from which the records were leaked.

CBC News and the Toronto Star, who have exclusive access in Canada to the leaked data, will be publishing a series of stories on Canadians named in it. Those include an examination of a lawyer who was known as a "go to" for wealthy people hoping to move money offshore, and of a convicted fraudster who set up 60 corporations in various tax havens.

Until now, only select names of high prominence have been made public since a group of global media outlets, including CBC and the Star, broke news of the Panama Papers last month.

Panama Papers public database

The Panama Papers database being made public Monday allows searching for a person or offshore company by name and then mapping out links between people and offshore entities. (CBC)

"We think this is a logical next step in the investigation," said Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Washington-based organization that has been co-ordinating reporting on the records.

"We have 370 journalists around the world looking at the data, but it's so vast, I mean 11½ million documents," Ryle said. "We know we've missed things."

Private documents withheld

Among the 2.6 terabytes of information leaked from Mossack Fonseca, the CBC and the Star have identified around 625 Canadians whose names could be exposed.

The ICIJ has said all along it intended to publish the list of names and accounts in the Panama Papers — which it got from two German journalists who obtained the leak from a source — while withholding the actual documents. Those documents include everything from copies of people's passports to telephone numbers, Mossack Fonseca's internal emails and, in some cases, financial records.

Many prominent names have already emerged since news outlets began reporting on the leak early last month.

  • Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson stepped aside amid allegations he had had a secret offshore account that held bonds in his country's banks, which he failed to list in his parliamentary ethics disclosures. He denied any wrongdoing.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked  the data leak as an American plot when records showed his cronies had amassed nearly $2 billion through a miasma of transactions involving accounts and banks closely linked to him.
  • China suppressed internet sites mentioning the Panama Papers in connection with its leaders, after reports showed relatives of President Xi Jinping and of several other top officials had been hiding sometimes vast wealth in offshore companies. China's Foreign Ministry called the allegations "groundless."

It is not illegal for Canadians to have an offshore account, but any income must be reported for tax purposes, as well as any offshore assets totalling more than $100,000. Offshore jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man or Liechtenstein often have strict confidentiality rules for bank accounts and shell companies that make it easier to hide assets from tax authorities.

The ICIJ's Ryle said his organization hopes members of the public will scour the new Panama Papers data and flag any potential malfeasance they spot.

Gerard Ryle, director of the ICIJ

ICIJ director Gerard Ryle says 'overwhelming public interest' in the Panama Papers justifies publishing certain details. (CBC)

But he also said a deeper principle is at stake: that people shouldn't be able to disguise transactions like real-estate purchases or transfers of huge wealth through the opaque conduit of offshore corporations.

"Leaders of the world, including David Cameron, the British prime minister, have said this basic kind of information is the kind of information that should be made public," Ryle said.

Kim Marsh, a Vancouver-based expert on international financial crime who spent 25 years with the RCMP, said concerns over the anonymity of high-end property buyers in Canadian cities shows the issue cuts close to home.

"We only have to look at what's happening in the property market in B.C., Toronto, elsewhere.... They don't want their names associated with properties, so they'll set up a nominee situation," he said, referring to the registration of a corporation using a figurehead to disguise the real owners. "And there's lots of controversy about that."

Journalist group criticized

The effort to publish details from the Panama Papers is not without opposition. Last week in Miami, at an international conference on offshore havens where Ryle delivered a keynote address, his organization and its media partners were publicly chastised by a number of lawyers for dealing in "stolen" data and for cherry-picking stories from the Panama Papers that, the critics said, made offshore havens look especially nefarious.

In particular, Mossack Fonseca co-founder Ramon Fonseca said in a letter read out after Ryle's remarks that "thanks to people like him, privacy — a basic human right — is already on the list of species in danger of extinction."

Ryle shrugged off the critics.

"There's been overwhelming public interest in these documents, and I think that overwhelming public interest outrides anything that Fonseca is actually saying."

Contact the writer of this story at zach.dubinsky@cbc.ca

Panama Papers by-the-numbers graphic

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