Journalist Explains How Panama Papers Opened Up The World’s Illicit Money Networks


Fresh Air/NPR (11/20/17)

Reporter Jake Bernstein helped break the story of the Panama Papers, the leaked documents that detail the offshore tax havens of the super rich. His new book is Secrecy World.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Before Donald Trump was elected president, some of his business partners on Trump-branded hotels and condos and the Miss Universe pageant were oligarchs from Russia and former Soviet bloc countries who kept a lot of their money hidden in the secret world of shell companies. Those business partnerships are the subject of the final chapter of my guest, Jake Bernstein’s new book, “Secrecy World.”

The book is about illicit money networks and the global elite. A lot of the book is based on the Panama Papers, the 11.5 million documents leaked to journalists from a law firm in Panama that created shell companies in which large corporations and wealthy individuals from around the world parked their money out of the view of their governments and their governments’ tax collectors. To dig through and report on these pages, a group of 300 reporters from six continents worked together through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Bernstein was a senior reporter with the Consortium, and before that worked at ProPublica. This month, the Consortium broke another story, the so-called Paradise Papers. These are leaked documents from a law firm in Bermuda that created shell companies. Among the people whose offshore interests are revealed in these documents are 13 Trump administration members, advisers and major donors.

Jake Bernstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let’s start by just pulling back a little bit. What’s the purpose of the offshore accounts that have been revealed in the Paradise and Panama Papers?

JAKE BERNSTEIN: I mean, ultimately the purpose is secrecy. The purpose is to hide your activities or your money and to take advantage of certain benefits that you get from having stuff offshore, having anonymous companies. These are – there are tax benefits. There are benefits that one gets from being able to move money around in sort of secret ways. And so that’s – ultimately, it’s about tax avoidance or tax evasion and keeping your activities – your business activities – secret.

GROSS: Especially if they’re illegal activities.

BERNSTEIN: Yes – very helpful to keep those secret. …

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