ICIJ https://www.icij.org International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Tue, 10 May 2022 15:33:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.9 https://media.icij.org/uploads/2020/06/cropped-Screen-Shot-2020-06-08-at-10.21.00-AM-32x32.png ICIJ https://www.icij.org 32 32 On the front line of the ‘battle for facts,’ with Maria Ressa https://www.icij.org/inside-icij/2022/05/on-the-front-line-of-the-battle-for-facts-with-maria-ressa/ <![CDATA[Scilla Alecci]]> Tue, 10 May 2022 15:33:27 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Asia-Pacific]]> <![CDATA[Behind the scenes]]> <![CDATA[Investigative journalism]]> <![CDATA[Meet the Investigators]]> <![CDATA[Press freedom]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22290 <![CDATA[In this month's Meet the Investigators podcast, Nobel Peace Prize-winning reporter and press freedom advocate Maria Ressa speaks about her career, about journalism and democracy, and about having courage in the face of constant intimidation.]]> <![CDATA[

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of these tireless journalists.

Ahead of Press Freedom Day we spoke with Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

Ressa is a co-founder and CEO of Rappler, an online news site in the Philippines, and a former CNN correspondent. In recent years, Ressa and Rappler have become the targets of numerous legal actions and threats from the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration. She has maintained her innocence and continues to fight back.

Maria’s new book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future” is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2022.

This interview was recorded prior to the federal election in the Philippines, which was won by Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

ICIJ’s award-winning Meet the Investigators series is emailed exclusively to ICIJ’s Insiders each month before being published on ICIJ.org, and is one of a number of ways we like to thank our community of supporters who are so integral to our independent journalism. You can join our Insiders community by making a donation to ICIJ. Thanks to all our ICIJ Members who have shared their stories with us, and to all our supporters for helping ICIJ continue its work.


Scilla Alecci: Hi everyone! Welcome to Meet the Investigators, a podcast by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

I’m your host, Scilla Alecci. Ahead of Press Freedom Day we spoke with a journalist and ICIJ member who won the Nobel Peace prize last year.

Maria Ressa: I’m Maria Ressa, I am one of the co-founders of Rappler, in the Philippines.

Scilla: Maria is a Filipino journalist who grew up in the United States where her family moved in 1973 after then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.

After more than a decade away from home, in 1986 she decided to go back to Manila and work as a producer, and then reporter, for CNN. In the following years, Maria opened CNN’s Manila bureau and the Jakarta bureau, covering everything from natural disasters to terror attacks in South Asia.

Maria: What motivated me during that time period was, frankly, learning. Learning, learning, learning. Learning the craft, going country to country. Learning to manage a bureau, learning to understand politician systems, learning to understand cultures.

And then, over time, it was not just learning that I began to realize that information is power, and that it is necessary to demand justice.

Now, in today’s context, with technology taking over the role of gatekeeper, the role of journalism goes back to its real basic assumption of journalism, which is that you’re not gonna lie and that the facts are not debatable.

This is a battle for facts. If we win the battle for facts, we then can do the rest of the part of being a journalist, but facts are the anchor of a shared reality.

Scilla: After spending many years overseas, in 2004, Maria went back to the Philippines where she headed the news division of one of the country’s largest broadcasting companies, ABS-CBN.

Maria: I wanted to go back and figure out what the future would be like, of news.

So I went from being a reporter handling a small bureau to handling a thousand journalists, handling our regional network group as well as the six overseas bureaus we had. I learned a ton being a news manager.

And I realized that the largest organizations were getting caught flatfooted, because here comes this Internet. And in ABS-CBN and most of the large organizations, you don’t put your best people on the Internet. You put your best people on your primetime news because that’s where the revenues come in, and you put your younger people and maybe your third string on the Internet at that point in time, right? And then I realized: ‘Oh my God, this is going to fundamentally change what we do!’

Scilla: That’s when Maria and three of her colleagues decided to set up their own news organization: Rappler.

Maria: We were like, ‘Oh well, we’ll try it. If it works well for a year, if it doesn’t work, then we’ll go back to what we were doing and if it does work…’

Who knew, right? We’ve kept it at about 100 people. It’s a very dynamic, creative destruction moment and I wanted to stay agile.

There’s three pillars of Rappler: Technology, Journalism, and Community. And it’s funny, you know, I am a journalist and, yet, I place technology as number one, because I think that’s the biggest game changer. The journalism, the standards and ethics and the mission doesn’t change.

And then, the last part is communities. So, when we raised the seed funds for Rappler the elevator pitch was: ‘We build communities of action. And the food we feed our communities is journalism.’

Building communities was built into the way we think about journalism. You need to know what your community needs. You’re not just putting stories in the black hole.

The technology today, what we’re doing is building our own tech. We started actually a decade ago; we built our platform, but I learned so much in the process.

In the end, the goal of journalism is not academic — the goal of journalism is to make the world better.

That technology is what will enable journalism because the tech will not only give you your platform, but it will also determine your distribution. And I think that’s the biggest shift.

In the end, the goal of journalism is not academic — the goal of journalism is to make the world better, right? And that’s kind of fun to be able to say at my advanced age, that is still the goal.

Scilla: And it’s interesting that technology ー which you say it’s one of the fundamental pillars of your organization ー is also one of your beats. Your organization has been one of the first, actually, deciding to cover tech from a different point of view, to understand the power they have in society and the impact they have on people. How did that happen? How did you decide to investigate tech companies?

Maria: In my last year with CNN, the last decade or so I was working on terrorism. So post 9/11 my home base was the world’s largest Muslim population is Indonesia.

And so I was looking at how the virulent ideology, how it could spread, and I used social network analysis to do that. How it’d radicalize, how does it go, how do you build this?

And when we started at the tail end of that, I was beginning to see that social media was being used this way, could be used. And so the idea for Rappler was deeply connected to what we saw that was being used for evil.

For example, on YouTube in 2011, we saw a Filipino speaking Arabic asking jihadists from around the world to come to the Philippines for jihad. And I did the story on him, but then I thought: ‘if you can spread this through social media, well, why could we not use social media for good?’

The idea is to look at information cascades as a way to see how society moves. That was the idea for the mood meter for example.

Scilla: Before Facebook introduced its emojis, Rappler’s site already had what they called a “mood meter.” After reading an article a reader could click on a happy or sad face based on the emotions triggered by the story.

Maria: The idea for the mood meter is to be able to see how a news piece travels through our society in moods. So we had that data and that was kind of fascinating.

It was a hop, skip and a jump to then study this shift in 2016, because it was a radical shift for us. When we began to see candidates — it was then Duterte — and their supporters begin to use anger and hate.

That was rare in the Philippines because the top mood in the Philippines is not anger. It’s ‘happy.’ Filipinos are happy. They click ‘happy.’

Image showing a network graph from Rappler's website
A screenshot from Rappler’s 2016 disinformation investigation. Image: Rappler.com

So, in 2016, that changed. It became anger, and that was when we began to see something is off, something is happening, something is being changed.

And then we began to map it.

And so, in 2016, when we saw anger and hate being whipped up by politicians, by government officials, who would normally want to be uniting society, we began to map information cascades.

And then we began to look at networks of disinformation, networks that spread lies. And then slowly we could track behavior over time of these networks of disinformation.

And if we can do this, obviously, Facebook can do this, Twitter can do this, YouTube can do this. Why are they being allowed to do it?

Scilla: Rappler’s investigation into social media and disinformation in the Philippines in 2016 was important to understand what led to the election of autocratic President Rodrigo Duterte.

Maria: Because it led us to where we are today, to show how we are being insidiously manipulated by power to maintain power and how it has weakened democracy.

It’s also led me to see that the inherent design of the social media platforms kill facts, actually spread the lies faster, and farther than facts, encouraged the worst of human behavior, has turned them into behavior modification systems.

And it is part of the reason democracy is weaker all around the world and, I would even say, is dying all around the world.

You look at Ukraine today and the lies that [President Vladimir] Putin, that the Russian media has used to justify the invasion of Ukraine — we saw this in 2014, the same bottom up attacks from fake accounts, and then the same things coming from, it was then the foreign minister of Russia at the UN. And nothing was done.

So now, with this happening, I think this is a pivotal moment globally. It will determine a look at the actions of nations, the actions of companies, the actions of social media.

This is a tipping point, I think.

Scilla: Duterte’s six-year term as president allowed by the constitution is over. And this month Filipinos are called to vote for the next president.

Maria: Right now the frontrunner in our presidential elections is Ferdinand Marcos Junior, the son of the dictator, who was ousted 36 years ago in a People Power Revolt that inspired people power movements all around the world.

[Editor’s note: Ferdinand Marcos Junior won the May 9 election, and will become the Philippines’ next president.]

Rappler has actually exposed Marcos’ disinformation network since 2019. In September 2020, Facebook took down information operations coming from China that were polishing the image of the Marcoses.

It is insidious manipulation and this is part of the reason it’s so hard to know what is fact and fiction. And if you don’t know, you cannot mobilize society.

In 2016, we were the first domino to fall with the election of Duterte. And then a little more than a month later, it was Brexit. And then you had Catalonia, you had down to like the U.S. presidential elections that brought [Donald] Trump in.

Scilla: For those of you who are familiar with the Philippines’s recent history the name Marcos will ring a bell. Ferdinand Marcos Junior – also known as “Bongbong Marcos” – is the son of the kleptocrat who ruled the country for about two decades until 1986. During the Marcos dictatorship, thousands of Filipinos were tortured, jailed without due process or murdered by the regime.

A government report later found that Marcos and his family had stolen between $5 billion–$10 billion from the Philippines’ Central Bank of the Philippines. More than three decades later the scion of the Marcos family is running for president.

Governor Imee Marcos, her brother Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr
Members of the Marcos family. From left, sister Imee Marcos, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr, mother Imelda Marcos, and sister Irene Marcos-Araneta.

Maria: Our future is at stake. And the irony is, it’s not just the future that’s at stake, it’s also our past because ー let’s make no mistake ー if Ferdinand Marcos wins, will we ever celebrate the People Power Revolt that ousted his family? Will we be able to get back all the wealth that still 36 years later this country still hasn’t got.

When you don’t have history, when it is being revised in front of your eyes, when, you know, Ferdinand Marcos, the father, is now buried in heroes’ grave…This is something that President Duterte enabled. Duterte was the first social media president of this country.

So, again, everything is connected. And I think the biggest problem really is that the laws in the real world are not reflected in the virtual world. So, that needs to change, in order to give democracies a fighting chance.

Scilla: After Rappler’s reporting on state-linked disinformation, Maria became the target of a vicious hate campaign on social media, and beyond. Last year a study by UNESCO showed that 60% of attacks were designed to undermine her credibility and reputation as a journalist; 40% of those attacks were targeted at her personally.

Maria is also the defendant in about 10 legal actions brought by the government and people close to President Duterte. As Rappler CEO she’s spent the last six years fighting bogus charges, including alleged tax evasion and cyber libel. Maria has denied wrongdoing.

Maria: The reality is that I would still go to jail for the rest of my life. In less than two years, I had to post bail 10 times and three of those 10 cases have already been dismissed. We still have seven cases left, and then we just, this week [of February], got 12 more complaints, in a Davao fiscal’s office.

Again, these are meant to just harass and intimidate us, but at this point in time I am almost like, ‘please’… you know?

I guess what I learned is: don’t get intimidated, don’t voluntarily give up your rights. In a strange way, I have president Duterte to thank for really forcing me to draw my own lines.

How far will I go to defend the truth? Well, I learned that I would go pretty far. After six years of this, I just wanted to be a good journalist, I want to do the right thing for this time.

What will happen next? I could go to jail for the rest of my life. So I don’t know, so I just throw it up in the air. You know it’s that serenity prayer.

Maria Ressa at a press freedom protest
Filipino journalist Maria Ressa participates in a protest by press and media groups calling for press freedom in Manila in 2018. Image: Richard James Mendoza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Scilla: Is there anything that you do to relieve the stress?

Maria: I mean, we have a great team, my co-founders are, you know, we have a joke among the four of us that only one of us can be afraid at a time. We rotate the fear.

We plan worst-case scenarios because inevitably whatever you can imagine is worse than what the reality is. So if you’re prepared for the worst, it’s actually always better. Every battle begins in your mind.

I look at the bright side. Even the Nobel Peace Prize, right? Who would have thought?

But I just did what I did, the right thing. And this is actually something that, in Rappler, we’ve been saying since 2016: We want to look back a decade from now and know that we did everything we could, that we did the best we could for our profession, for our country.

[Audio clip, Berit Reiss-Andersen, Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chair: The Nobel peace prize in 2021 has been awarded to two outstanding representatives of the press.]

ICIJ’s training manager and Eastern European partnership coordinator, Jelena Cosic, with Maria Ressa at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, 2021.

Scilla: In 2021 Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, the veteran editor of independent Russian magazine Novaya Gazeta received the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee said it chose them “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

You were there as a representative of every journalist around the world, and that was great, because I guess, for many of us, especially for those working in very difficult conditions and was kind of a symbol that also journalism matters, deeply. How do you see the fight for press freedom now?

Maria: It’s fundamental, I mean, it’s fundamental to the survival of democracy. The Nobel Committee was pressured in a weird way. They chose journalists at a year when we have never been as besieged. The last decade has shown increased dangers for journalists.

The work that ICIJ does actually is probably the best response which is that we must collaborate, collaborate, collaborate, because the physical cost, the emotional cost, the mental cost for every journalist today has just increased.

It is a recognition of how difficult it is to do our jobs, but also a recognition of how critical our jobs are today. What do I see our job is today? It is standing up to power. It is demanding the truth. It is holding power to account.

So that Peace Prize, I think, is for all of us to continue. And now, I always felt this year was going to be the tipping point. Are we going to descend further into tyranny, into fascism? Or are we going to restore? Are we going to strengthen democracy? Because It’s very weak.

What I look for when I hire a journalist is not: can they write well? Can they do television? But it’s actually courage, because, in the end, what makes journalists different from anyone else … is the courage to confront power.

Scilla: Do you have any advice for young, aspiring journalists?

Maria: Be excited. Be creative. Don’t look at the past. Analyze exactly what is happening today.

Stick to the standards and ethics. The mission of journalism is important but the form will change.

What I look for when I hire a journalist is not: can they write well? Can they do television? But it’s actually courage, because, in the end, what makes journalists different from anyone else who is writing, or who can ask good questions, what makes a journalist different is the courage to confront power, that you can actually demand the answers in a way that is respectful of the institutions. But, in order to do that ー and to do it at a time when the costs are so high ー you need courage.

To young journalists: When I was your age, I didn’t have your power. You will have tremendous power. Don’t let naysayers get you down. This is an incredible time of creativity, of imagination. You must create what journalism is going to become.

Scilla: On this inspiring note I want to leave you and thank you all for listening to another episode of our Meet the investigators podcast. Please share it on social media or send us feedback at socia@icij org.

Till next month. Ciao!

If you’re a fan of our Meet the Investigators series, please consider making a donation to support ICIJ. Not only will your donation help support our work with journalists like Maria, but as an ICIJ Insider, you’ll also receive sneak previews, access to exclusive chats with reporters and behind-the-scenes content like this delivered straight to your inbox. Donate today, and support independent investigative journalism.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/_8Bi2Lj_9-o 2021 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony <![CDATA[Join us live for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony. The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony takes place in Oslo City Hall.The ceremony contains art...]]> nonadult
Pandora Papers shed light on ‘gatekeepers’ of dirty money says European watchdog https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/pandora-papers-shed-light-on-gatekeepers-of-dirty-money-says-european-watchdog/ <![CDATA[Spencer Woodman]]> Tue, 10 May 2022 01:58:28 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Accountability]]> <![CDATA[Europe]]> <![CDATA[Impact]]> <![CDATA[Money Laundering]]> <![CDATA[Pandora Papers]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22286 <![CDATA[MONEYVAL rebuked governments across Europe for failing to combat money laundering or police lawyers, accountants and other professionals who facilitate financial crime.]]> <![CDATA[

A key European watchdog has blasted the continent’s “particularly weak” defenses against criminal and terror financing, declaring that few governments adequately track the owners of anonymous shell companies and none sufficiently police the lawyers and accountants that serve them.

In a new report, MONEYVAL, the Council of Europe’s financial crime research arm, offers a scathing rebuke to governments across Europe for failing to tackle illicit money flows.

MONEYVAL prominently credits the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which for the past decade has published extensively on the flow of dirty money through Europe to the rest of the world. Citing ICIJ’s 2021 Pandora Papers project, which was based on a giant leak of 14 so-called offshore service providers, MONEYVAL said the global journalism collaboration showed the “growing scale of the money laundering threat and the persistence of launderers.”

In the report’s introductory section, Elżbieta Frankow-Jaśkiewicz, MONEYVAL’s chair, said ICIJ’s repeated exposure of the role of lawyers and accountants in aiding money laundering caused the group to focus its attention last year on these so-called “gatekeeper” professions. ICIJ’s work, she wrote, showed that such professionals “can be complicit in large-scale transnational money laundering schemes involving corrupt politicians, as well as high-net worth individuals seeking to evade taxes.”

In its report, MONEYVAL said no European government effectively punishes lawyers, accountants and other gatekeeping professionals who break the law in facilitating financial crime. The report said only three countries had effective policing mechanisms to deter big banks from moving dirty money.

In 2020, ICIJ along with BuzzFeed News and more than 100 other media partners published the FinCEN Files, an investigation revealing the role of world’s biggest banks moving massive flows of dirty money through the financial system. The investigation found major compliance lapses and an attitude among banks of treating fines regulators impose on them as a cost of doing business. As a part of the project, ICIJ exposed major flows of suspect money through HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Danske Bank and other major European financial institutions.

Known formally as Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism, MONEYVAL is primarily a research organization and lacks legal authority to force European countries to strengthen their laws or increase enforcement budgets. The group is an arm of the Council of Europe, founded after World War II to promote human rights across the continent.

Although Europe has unified financial regulations that allow money to flow easily across borders, the continent lacks any unified anti-money laundering authority. “This combination fosters a vicious circle of erosion” around policing dirty money, according to a 2018 paper by researchers Joshua Kirschenbaum and Nicolas Véron. The result of uneven enforcement causes havens for financial crime to continuously emerge across Europe, which “undermines the integrity of the entire European system,” the authors wrote.

MONEYVAL’s report found that some countries in the Eurozone historically regarded as tax havens are backsliding while others are improving. Andorra, a small country between France and Spain, was downgraded this year in the group’s assessment of the government’s actions to stop dirty money. Another notorious tax haven, Cyprus, did appear to institute changes last year but too late for MONEYVAL to assess them.

Malta, another tax haven, made progress last year in implementing laws and regulations to protect against money laundering, the report said. The Holy See, the jurisdiction of Vatican City, also has made significant progress following previous critical assessments of its financial crime controls.

Only a small handful of countries have set up effective databases to help law enforcement identify the owners of anonymous shell companies, which are registered in the names of so-called nominee, or stand-in, officers and directors.

Do you have a story about corruption, fraud, or abuse of power?

ICIJ accepts information about wrongdoing by corporate, government or public services around the world. We do our utmost to guarantee the confidentiality of our sources.

MONEYVAL found that only five countries collect ownership data in a way that is efficient for law enforcement to access. Yet the group said Gibraltar, another historic haven of secrecy, had taken steps to increase the transparency of ownership of companies registered there.

The watchdog’s report comes after a speech outlining various challenges in the fight against dirty money by the president of the primary global body of governments that sets policy standards for stopping financial crime.

In the speech late last month, Financial Action Task Force President Marcus Pleyer pointed to anonymous shell companies and trusts as a major continuing tool for terrorists and other criminals, and said that countries around the world are still struggling to achieve actual results. Countries “actually have to be effective in fighting money laundering and terrorist financing,” Pleyer said. “Often this means going beyond the minimum requirements to have a system in place that is fit for purpose, and one that can address the risks we all face.”

Europol links Kinahan drug cartel to murders in four countries https://www.icij.org/investigations/panama-papers/europol-links-kinahan-drug-cartel-to-murders-in-four-countries/ <![CDATA[Fergus Shiel]]> Fri, 06 May 2022 19:31:32 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Europe]]> <![CDATA[Middle East]]> <![CDATA[Panama Papers]]> <![CDATA[Sanctions]]> <![CDATA[United Arab Emirates]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22272 <![CDATA[A new report connects widespread violence to cocaine wars involving the sanctioned Irish family, whose connections to companies and enablers in Dubai and Panama were revealed in recent ICIJ investigations.]]> <![CDATA[

Kinahan cartel wars with rivals have been linked to “at least 20” murders across four European countries, according to a new Europol report into the illicit cocaine market.

Europol says the Dubai-based gang, which was sanctioned last month by the U.S. as narco-traffickers, and subsequently saw its assets frozen by the UAE, has been tied to violence across Europe.

“Violence and homicides in several EU member states have also been connected to the notorious Kinahan clan from Dublin, Ireland, ” said the 2022 EU Drugs Market Analysis.

“Conflict between the Kinahans and rival groups has led to the murder of at least 20 people in Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain.”

It adds, “The trial of some Kinahan clan members revealed that specialised crime cells were established in order to kill rivals.”

ICIJ and the Irish Times have revealed connections between key Kinahan cartel members and companies and enablers in Dubai and Panama.

Jointly published by Europol and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the report said Spain, as well as Dublin, were centers for narco violence.

“Southern Spain is also recording significant numbers of deadly score-settling incidents between criminal networks involved in the cocaine and cannabis resin trades,” it said, noting 33 murders in 2018-2021.

The report says criminal networks involved in cocaine trafficking are now “highly resilient,” and often operating across several continents.

The U.S. has offered three separate $5 million rewards for the arrest of the cartel leaders, Daniel Kinahan, his brother Christopher Kinahan Jr. and their father, Christopher Kinahan Sr.

“Our new analyses show that we are now facing a growing threat from a more diverse and dynamic drug market, that is driven by closer collaboration between European and international criminal organisations,” EMCDDA chief Alexis Goosdell said.

“This has resulted in record levels of drug availability, rising violence and corruption, and greater health problems. In response, we need to be even more sensitive to signals coming from the market and invest in greater coordinated action, not only in Europe, but also with our international partners in producer and transit countries.”

The report says one way to disrupt the international cocaine market is to “target the brokers, key facilitators and enablers.”

Daniel Kinahan and his younger brother established Dubai companies to trade in food, clothing and textiles and provide business services, incorporation documents and other records show.

The Kinahans also formed management and aviation consultancies in Emirati free zones, areas with business-friendly tax policies. Several were created with the help of UAE partners.

Leaked records, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, also describe previously unknown ties between MTK Global, which promotes boxers around the world, and Ducashew Consultancy, a key Kinahan company that has been sanctioned by the U.S.

Do you have a story about corruption, fraud, or abuse of power?

ICIJ accepts information about wrongdoing by corporate, government or public services around the world. We do our utmost to guarantee the confidentiality of our sources.

The Europol report says cocaine traffickers are assisted by Middle Eastern “financial facilitators”. “A number of financial coordinators and money launderers are based in the Middle East, which is home to an established parallel financial system.”

The Kinahans have strong ties to southern Spain, a region referenced elsewhere in the Europol report, although without any mention of the Irish crime family.

“The second case was in February 2021, when a European-made semi-submersible was found in a warehouse in Malaga, Spain, in a multinational law enforcement operation,” the report says.

“During the investigation, 3 tonnes of cocaine, 700 kilograms of cannabis resin and 6 tonnes of precursor chemicals were also seized.”

The report adds that the boat was nine meters long and under construction when located. “Such a vessel could have been used to smuggle cannabis resin from North Africa to Europe or even cocaine from mother ships waiting in the Atlantic Ocean.

A separate Europol report released today on methamphetamines notes large seizures of heroin and meth have been reported around the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

US moves to seize yacht of prominent Pandora Papers-linked Russian oligarch https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/us-moves-to-seize-yacht-of-prominent-pandora-papers-linked-russian-oligarch/ <![CDATA[Spencer Woodman]]> Fri, 06 May 2022 11:24:14 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Pandora Papers]]> <![CDATA[Russia]]> <![CDATA[Sanctions]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22265 <![CDATA[Gold billionaire Suleyman Kerimov violated sanctions in funding the luxury ship, U.S. says.]]> <![CDATA[

Authorities in the island nation of Fiji have seized the superyacht of a sanctioned Russian oligarch and are expected to turn the vessel over to the United States, the U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday.

The 348-foot yacht, called the Amadea, is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, the U.S. said. Kerimov is a gold tycoon who made a fortune buying up energy assets and major stakes in Russian banks after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is also a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, and was one of a select group of powerful oligarchs summoned by Putin to Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

The vessel has been in legal limbo since late last month, after it unexpectedly sailed into Fijian waters, and was held in port by authorities there.

The announcement follows an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists into the offshore financial empire of Kerimov and his closest associates. ICIJ reporters traced billions of dollars flowing through opaque offshore shell companies associated with Kerimov. In many cases, these secretive transfers stumped bank compliance officers trying to understand who was behind the massive wires.

In announcing the seizure, the Justice Department said it was acting on a forfeiture warrant issued by a federal court that had found “probable cause” that Kerimov had maintained the $300 million ship by illegally moving money through U.S. banks. Fijian authorities, with the support and assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, acted pursuant to a mutual assistance treaty, the Justice Department said.

“This yacht seizure should tell every corrupt Russian oligarch that they cannot hide – not even in the remotest part of the world,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco in a press release.

The Amadea’s seizure is one of the most high profile moves for a new task force led by the Justice Department to identify and seize assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. The task force, known as KleptoCapture, was announced shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and came amid a new raft of sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Kerimov was first sanctioned by the United States in 2018. Britain and the European Union followed suit this year.

The super luxury motor yacht Amadea, one of the largest in the world, is seen anchored at a pier in Bodrum district of Mugla province in Turkey on Feb. 18, 2020. Image: Osman Uras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Thursday’s filing states that, shortly after the Ukraine invasion, the Amadea began to intermittently shut off its digital tracking system that allows remote tracking of a ship. While the system is used by researchers and investigators to monitor ships, it is primarily intended as a means to prevent ships from colliding on the high seas.

When the Amadea arrived in Fiji in mid-April, local authorities searched the vessel and found “numerous documents detailing transactions engaged in on behalf of the AMADEA,” according to the filing. Those documents detailed “Kerimov and those acting on his behalf” moving money through U.S. banks during the time that he was under sanctions.

An attorney for Kerimov did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

ICIJ’s Kerimov reporting is part of Pandora Papers Russia, an effort by ICIJ and global partners to shed light on covert money flows tied to oligarchs and others close to the Kremlin in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The project also highlighted offshore professionals who have helped oligarchs secretly buy luxury assets like yachts and jets.

The investigation showed the difficulties facing the U.S. in its mission to locate and seize assets connected to Kerimov and other Russian billionaires, who have increasingly turned to opaque offshore shell companies that can conceal assets.

Do you have a story about corruption, fraud, or abuse of power?

ICIJ accepts information about wrongdoing by corporate, government or public services around the world. We do our utmost to guarantee the confidentiality of our sources.

The inside story of how the Offshore Leaks Database became a go-to resource on offshore finance https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/the-inside-story-of-how-the-offshore-leaks-database-became-a-go-to-resource-on-offshore-finance/ <![CDATA[Nicole Sadek]]> Tue, 03 May 2022 15:58:30 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Data journalism]]> <![CDATA[Data visualization]]> <![CDATA[Offshore finance]]> <![CDATA[Offshore secrecy]]> <![CDATA[Pandora Papers]]> <![CDATA[Secrecy for sale]]> <![CDATA[Tax havens]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22213 <![CDATA[A magic pill, a mysterious hard drive, a masterful data and tech team — the database was the result of tense decisions, a bit of luck and a lot of work. ]]> <![CDATA[

When the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists launched the Offshore Leaks Database in 2013, it received 2 million page views in the first 24 hours and crashed — an unmistakable sign of the public’s demand for information about the secret system known as offshore finance.

Nearly a decade and millions of leaked documents later, the database has quietly become one of the most valuable resources on the offshore financial system. Every month, regulators, academics, reporters and the public rack up 300,000 pageviews tracking the hidden wealth of drug dealers, human traffickers and corrupt oligarchs — not to mention the diverted profits of brand name multinationals.

Now, the Offshore Leaks Database has become the focal point of renewed interest with a bump in traffic as governments scramble to track down and seize the offshore assets of Russian oligarchs and the enablers of President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine who have snuck stolen wealth into the luxury of the West.

After steadily expanding the database since 2013 with information from 2016’s Panama Papers project and four other leaks, ICIJ today releases the last batch of data, which includes new data on more than 9,000 offshore companies, foundations and trusts, from the Pandora Papers, the massive leak from 14 so-called offshore service providers that powered last year’s largest-ever journalism collaboration of the same name. As we close the final chapter of the Pandora Papers in the Offshore Leaks Database, we share what it took to bring it to life — and why it has become an essential tool in the global fight to dismantle offshore secrecy.

Hard drive in the mail

It all started with a guy in Perth, Australia, who claimed to have invented a magic pill. This pill, once dropped into a car’s fuel tank, would miraculously eliminate toxic emissions and dramatically improve gas mileage. The pill took Australia by storm, racking up $60 million from investors.

ICIJ director Gerard Ryle
ICIJ director Gerard Ryle

Gerard Ryle, however, was … skeptical. The 41-year-old investigations editor at the Sydney Morning Herald began digging into the entrepreneur behind the pill, a certain Tim Johnston who managed to dupe investors for three years. The pill, Ryle revealed, was a massive Ponzi scheme. But what he also discovered was that Johnston had set up multiple companies in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax haven. These entities had issued the millions of shares that had been sold to the deep-pocketed sports stars, politicians and others who had wanted in on his invention. For Ryle, the revelation cracked the lid on a bigger story, a secret world of offshore finance.

A tax haven is a place with low or no taxes where a foreigner can register a company anonymously, under the name of a stand-in often for no other purpose than to own a bank account used to divert profits or hide wealth. Offshore service providers, usually based in the havens, specialize in incorporating and managing the paperwork of such entities, which are often used to hide assets from tax and other authorities.

In 2009, Ryle published a book detailing his investigation into the fraudster Johnston and the offshore companies he had set up for his magic pill venture. The book would trigger a career-defining event: a reader with inside details not only on Johnston’s companies but other offshore entities mailed Ryle a hard drive containing 2.5 million documents from two offshore financial service providers.

The data-packed hard drive — in gigabytes, the equivalent of streaming films on Netflix for nearly 11 days straight — contained 2 million emails with details on more than 122,000 offshore companies and trusts. At the time, it was the largest leak of its kind in history.

“That disk was really the basis of the Offshore Leaks Database,” Ryle said.

An idea from Costa Rica

In 2011, Ryle, packed his hard drive and punched a ticket to Washington, D.C., where he had accepted a new role as director of ICIJ, an organization designed to bring together reporters from across the globe to conduct cross-border investigations. Housed in the basement offices at the Center for Public Integrity and with just three full-time staffers, ICIJ had produced creditable investigations into tobacco smuggling and the U.S. AIDS policy abroad — but nothing like what would come next.

Two years later, an ICIJ-led global collaboration of journalists from nearly 40 news organizations and 46 countries would use the hard drive’s leaked records to produce an investigation formally called Secrecy for Sale but known internally as Offshore Leaks.

The probe was a journalistic landmark, expanding ICIJ’s cross-border collaboration model to a topic that was ripe for it: the largely unexplored network of island tax havens, global banks and Western professionals that make up the offshore financial system.

Do you have a story about corruption, fraud, or abuse of power?

ICIJ accepts information about wrongdoing by corporate, government or public services around the world. We do our utmost to guarantee the confidentiality of our sources.

Giannina Segnini, founder and director of the data-investigative team at La Nación, an ICIJ media partner, first proposed to make the leaked offshore data somehow accessible to the public. Segnini had helped assemble an investigative team that included data analysts, developers and geographic information systems specialists, giving La Nación deep experience in pooling together information into massive databases.

At the time, WikiLeaks was commanding global attention with its new model centered on publishing huge caches of leaked data virtually in raw form, most famously, top-secret diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department. Wikileaks drew plaudits for allowing the public into the journalistic process and harsh criticism for endangering national security and releasing sensitive personal information about non-public figures.

The idea was not to release the data WikiLeaks-style, but to include only essential information, like the names and locations of the offshore companies and their owners, and add interactive features that would allow users to easily draw connections. The new application would be verified, structured into standardized fields, and easily searchable.

Still, Ryle was hesitant. The technical challenges alone were enormous. And, as an Irish-raised longtime resident of Australia, where libel protections are relatively weak, he feared the legal risks could sink the tiny news organization.

“I was thinking, ‘If this was Australia, every single one of these people would potentially sue us,’” Ryle said.

But ICIJ had three things on its side: the data, because it came directly from the offshore service providers, was undoubtedly accurate; ICIJ’s decision not to publish in the database personal information like bank account numbers or financial statements; and perhaps most importantly, ICIJ enjoyed the protections of U.S. law, which provides ample leeway for the publication of truthful information that is newsworthy. ICIJ’s lawyer, Mike Rothberg, gave the thumbs up.

So Ryle sent Segnini’s team a copy of the hard drive and, after a minor holdup in customs, it landed in the laps of La Nación’s data experts.

Technical challenges

The material on Ryle’s disk came in a jumble of formats: PDFs, spreadsheets, images and web files. It also contained more than 320 spreadsheets from the two offshore service providers, Portcullis TrustNet (now Portcullis) of Singapore and the British Virgin Island’s Commonwealth Trust Limited. Each spreadsheet was composed of different sets of related records — one included the names of officers, for instance, while another one the names of companies. Without an index to explain the relationships between the spreadsheets, Segnini’s team would have to reverse-engineer them, a painstaking technical and analytical task.

Rigoberto Carvajal, a member of Segnini’s team in 2013, recalls that a few colleagues around the world expressed doubts that he and the Costa Rican team could pull it off.

Data gurus Rigoberto Carvajal, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Giannina Segnini and Mar Cabra

“During the process, I felt like [people were thinking] ‘This guy from Costa Rica, how can this guy do this work?’” he told ICIJ with a chuckle. But he pushed those doubts aside. “With this project, I had the opportunity to contribute to fight corruption. That was the exciting part,” he said.

Carvajal and the rest of the La Nación team proved the doubters wrong when, in the summer of 2013, they quietly launched the web-based offshore database, with advice from U.K. journalist Duncan Campbell and programmer Matthew Fowler, as well as Mar Cabra, who later became the head of ICIJ’s first data team. It was searchable, verified, open to the public, and free.

Using a JavaScript library, or pre-written code, called Sigma, the application allowed users to easily visualize and interact with the huge trove of ownership information. Users simply had to search a keyword, company name, person’s name or jurisdiction to find all associated entities, including intermediaries, offshore providers and more. For example, it included details about individuals and companies linked to a tax fraud scandal that led to a ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans, about a Venezuelan deal-maker who funneled millions of dollars in bribes to a Venezuelan government official, and more.

Maybe best of all, it allowed journalists around the world who weren’t involved in the initial Offshore Leaks investigation to follow new, unexplored leads.

And that would happen a lot. Over the next several years, ICIJ would obtain new leaks from an expanding number of offshore service providers: the Panama Papers in 2016, featuring a massive leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca; the Bahama Leaks, also in 2016, based on internal documents from the island nation’s corporate registry; the Paradise Papers in 2017, containing documents from the Bermuda-based law firm Appleby and Singapore-based company Asiaciti Trust; and the Pandora Papers in 2021, which revealed new details on companies from a whopping 14 offshore service providers around the world.

Each new release generated new leads for reporters everywhere to explore how the shady financial system affected their own countries.

During a trip to London after the publication of the Panama Papers data, Ryle passed a news stand and noticed the lead story in The Times was about an offshore company linked to the actor Emma Watson, famous for playing Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter films.

“The story had originated from our data and it was something that we ourselves had missed,” Ryle said. “That was great for us because it meant that we had a whole new second wave of reporting on things that we had missed.”

Academics, regulators and the general public have also flocked to the Offshore Leaks Database. After the database’s initial launch, South Korean financial regulators opened an investigation into the illegal transfer of funds by hundreds of Koreans whose names appeared in the database. Authorities in the Philippines also said they would review the tax records of residents who appear in the database by matching results with income tax returns.

In the following years, ICIJ’s data team — which had recruited Carvajal and his colleague Matthew Caruana Galizia from La Nación — updated and improved the application. They started using new graphing database tools called Linkurious and Neo4j to improve user experience; incorporated new filters to optimize searches; and added features that allowed users to explore the most prominent names in the leaks.

The data team’s successful efforts to visualize the huge trove of records prompted Talend Open Studio to award them a plaque that honored their hard work.

Carvajal moved on from ICIJ in 2019 — but has been keeping a small secret.

“I have here the Talend award,” he joked. “This is something that I’m not sure if I have to send to ICIJ.”

Global fallout

After ICIJ published its first batch of stories based on the offshore records, but before the launch of the Offshore Leaks Database, three men in black suits (Ryle remembers them being from the Internal Revenue Service) showed up at ICIJ’s Washington office demanding access to the data. ICIJ refused. Soon, about 30 governments had written to ICIJ requesting access to the data.

Ever since, and as a matter of policy, ICIJ doesn’t turn over such material to government authorities. ICIJ isn’t an arm of law enforcement or an agent of the government, but an independent news organization. In any event, Segnini’s team was already working on the public database that would soon make it possible for those government officials — and everyone else — to explore the data on their own.

And since the launch, governments around the world have come to expect new data releases after every offshore investigation, frequently contacting ICIJ to ask when that data will become available.

“By launching the Offshore Leaks Database, we were able to at least give them the basic information, which then they took, and they prosecuted people, they recovered taxes,” Ryle said.

That was exactly the type of impact ICIJ had been hoping for, and it became even clearer after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers’ data was integrated into the application. By April 2021, 24 governments had publicly announced that they had recovered a total of more than $1.36 billion that had been hidden offshore, according to an ICIJ tally.

Since the launch, governments around the world have come to expect new data releases after every offshore investigation, frequently contacting ICIJ to ask when that data will become available

Given the sensitive nature of the data, ICIJ remains committed to contextualizing it with a disclaimer on every page: There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts. The inclusion of a person or entity in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database is not intended to suggest or imply that they have engaged in illegal or improper conduct.

The Offshore Leaks Database also earned itself some dogged critics.

After ICIJ’s first offshore investigation and since, WikiLeaks has attacked ICIJ for withholding the raw documents that underpin the investigations.

“ICIJ refuses to publish #OffShoreLeaks data,” WikiLeaks tweeted in 2013. “Cowardly.”

The tension between releasing less-curated leaks and publishing edited, structured data has since created a wedge in the investigation community, with some siding with WikiLeaks and others with ICIJ.

“The concept of Offshore Leaks is information that should be public and it’s published in the public interest, bringing transparency,” ICIJ Data & Research Editor Emilia Díaz-Struck said. “It’s not aiming to address and publish that other kind of private information, such as bank accounts, financial statements and other kind of records that you could find inside leaks like the ones we explore.”

As Ryle told Wired magazine in 2016, “We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly.”

Lasting legacy

Since 2013, ICIJ has worked steadily to incorporate data from each successive leak into the Offshore Leaks Database. The database has grown eight-fold since it first launched and now contains information on more than 800,000 corporations, trusts and and other entities.

Until today, the Offshore Leaks Database remains a rare example of a fully open-source database linking offshore companies and their owners — something that tax experts around the world have lauded.

But the financial burdens of keeping the database running makes its future uncertain. Ryle says it’s part of ICIJ’s public mission to maintain the database, but “it’s something that probably isn’t being appreciated by people, that this is costing us money.” In addition to server costs, which ran about $9,000 in the last year, three dozen or so ICIJ staffers who served on what would become separate data research and technology development teams have played a role in maintaining the database over the last decade.

That said, the Offshore Leaks Database’s role in helping combat the social ills that flow from the secretive offshore system has raised ICIJ’s profile. That’s especially true today, as global authorities work to identify and seize the offshore assets of Russian oligarchs who have enabled Putin’s war on Ukraine.

“There was almost no understanding of the national security risks that arise from the ways in which organized criminals and kleptocrats and autocrats like Putin and his entourage could use offshore, not just to hide their wealth, but also to direct their money into nefarious activities,” said John Christensen, co-founder of advocacy group Tax Justice Network. “Fast forward, and I think these things are now recognized.”

  • The launch and early operation of the Offshore Leaks Database is thanks to the work of Mar Cabra, Duncan Campbell, Rigoberto Carvajal, David Donald, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Matthew Fowler, Marco Hernández, Erik Lincoln, Emily Menkes, Sebastian Mondial, Kimberley Porteous, Gerard Ryle, Giannina Segnini and Marina Walker Guevara.
  • The most recent version of the Offshore Leaks Database involved the work of Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, Agustin Armendariz, Hamish Boland-Rudder, Jelena Cosic, Antonio Cucho, Caroline Desprat, Emilia Díaz-Struck, Jesús Escudero, Miguel Fiandor, Jorge González, Javier Ladrón de Guevara, Karrie Kehoe, Sean McGoey, Asraa Mustufa, Madeline O’Leary, Delphine Reuter, Pierre Romera, Nicole Sadek, Mago Torres, Maxime Vanza and Margot Williams.
ICIJ publishes final batch of Pandora Papers data on more than 9,000 offshore companies, trusts and foundations https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/icij-publishes-final-batch-of-pandora-papers-data-on-more-than-9000-offshore-companies-trusts-and-foundations/ <![CDATA[Emilia Díaz-Struck]]> Tue, 03 May 2022 15:58:18 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[AsiaCiti]]> <![CDATA[Data journalism]]> <![CDATA[Offshore finance]]> <![CDATA[Offshore secrecy]]> <![CDATA[Pandora Papers]]> <![CDATA[Russia]]> <![CDATA[Tax havens]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22203 <![CDATA[The Offshore Leaks Database spans five different leaks, and now includes information on offshore companies, foundations and trusts from seven offshore service providers from ICIJ’s latest investigation on the use of tax havens.]]> <![CDATA[

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is adding a large volume of new information to its Offshore Leaks Database — incorporating additional data from the Pandora Papers investigation about beneficial owners, shareholders, directors and other types of officers from more than 9,000 offshore companies, foundations and trusts.

The new data comes from seven offshore providers headquartered in Hong Kong, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Switzerland and Dubai.

They are Asiaciti Trust Asia Limited, CILTrust International, Commence Overseas Limited, IlShin, Overseas Management Company Inc, SFM Corporate Services and Trident Trust Company Limited. Sixteen current and former country leaders were connected to offshore entities that received services from these providers.

ICIJ believes that providing this data to all for free helps shine light on the offshore economy and, in many cases, the damage it causes. ICIJ is publishing this information in the public interest. There are legitimate uses for offshore companies, trusts and foundations; the presence of a person’s or a company’s name is not intended to suggest or imply that they have engaged in illegal or improper conduct.

As with previous sets of leaked data, ICIJ is not publishing raw documents or personal information en masse. The Offshore Leaks database contains a great deal of structured information about company owners, proxies and intermediaries in secrecy jurisdictions, but it doesn’t disclose private communications, bank accounts information, passports and other identification documents.

With the addition of this data, the Offshore Leaks database now has information on more than 750,000 names of people and companies behind secret offshore structures with links to more than 200 countries and territories. In all, the Offshore Leaks database has data on more than 810,000 offshore entities from five different leaks: Pandora Papers, Paradise Papers, Bahamas Leaks, Panama Papers and Offshore Leaks.

In October 2021, ICIJ revealed as part of its Pandora Papers investigation that it had identified the secret deals and hidden assets of more than 330 politicians and high-level public officials in more than 90 countries and territories, including 35 current or former country leaders. An ICIJ analysis also found more than 45 Russian oligarchs using offshore entities. Some of the data explored for these analyzes is now available in the Offshore Leaks Database.

The Pandora Papers investigation, the largest-ever journalistic collaboration in history, was based on a trove of more than 11.9 million records from 14 offshore service providers that offer services to wealthy individuals, celebrities, criminals and multinationals worldwide. By using shell companies, trusts, foundations and other entities in low- or no-tax jurisdictions, providing little to no transparency, the service providers’ clients often concealed their identities from the public and sometimes from regulators.

The publication of the Pandora Papers triggered reactions around the world: governments promised tougher laws, convened public hearings and launched investigations. Other public officials were forced to answer questions about their own financial dealings, or the offshore maneuvers of people close to them. Watchdog groups clamored for more efforts to end the shadow financial system that covers up tax dodging and money laundering.

Russia, the United Kingdom, Argentina, China, Brazil, Ukraine and Venezuela are among the countries with the largest number of beneficial owners hidden behind offshore entities in the Pandora Papers.

The companies, foundations and trusts that are part of this new publication were registered between the 1970s and 2019 in secrecy jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Singapore, Seychelles, and Hong Kong, among others. More than 4,500 entities published with this new release are registered in the British Virgin Islands.

A significant part of the beneficial ownership information in the Pandora Papers, including the data being published today, comes from documents that some of the offshore services providers needed to compile for the British Virgin Islands’ beneficial ownership register (also known as “BOSS”), which BVI authorities established in the wake of ICIJ’s publication of the Panama Papers in 2016. This beneficial ownership information which ICIJ has now integrated into its Offshore Leaks database is especially important as it is not made available elsewhere to the public. Nearly half of all the providers in the Pandora Papers have provided services as registered agents in the British Virgin Islands — establishing companies for thousands of clients looking for anonymity.

The biggest portion of the Pandora Papers trove, more than 3.3 million records, came from a sole offshore service provider: Trident Trust. Trident Trust, with offices in the British Virgin Islands and operations in more than 20 jurisdictions, is one of the world’s largest offshore service providers. Questions about who owns Trident Trust went unanswered last year when ICIJ contacted the company.

According to an ICIJ analysis, nearly a third of all politicians and public officials identified in the Pandora Papers data were clients of Trident Trust, the provider with the second largest number of this type of clients in the data. Among these 97 politicians and officials are seven current and former country leaders, including Gabon’s president Ali Bongo, Qatar’s current ruler Tamim Al Thani and Haiti’s former Prime Minister Laurent Salvador Lamothe.

The Offshore Leaks Database now contains records on more than 1,500 offshore entities registered in the British Virgin Islands that got services from Trident Trust.

Trident Trust also provided services to U.S. trusts created from 2000 to 2019 that ICIJ identified during the Pandora Papers investigation. Out of 206 trusts, 43 were registered with Trident Trust’s local office in South Dakota. ICIJ’s data analysis shows that in total, the U.S. trusts in the Pandora Papers held assets worth more than $1 billion, including real estate in Florida, New York and Germany, and accounts with banks in Panama, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and elsewhere.

Along with the offshore entities associated with Trident Trust, another more than 7,000 entities linked to the other six providers in this data release are also now included in the Offshore Leaks database. Data associated with those six providers includes at least 71 politicians and high level public officials who used those entities. Among them are 10 current and former country leaders from Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Gabon, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, Peru and Qatar. One of them also got services from Trident Trust.

While the newly released data contains relevant information that was previously unavailable to the public, not every officer or significant individual featured in Pandora Papers reporting appears in the Offshore Leaks database. This is because information about ownership is often buried in emails, power-of-attorney letters and internal notes and cannot easily be extracted in a systematic manner.

ICIJ’s data and tech teams dedicated months to the structuring of the information that was identified as being important by the teams’ data journalists and developers as well as by reporters and media partners across the world. To extract information from the millions of records, ICIJ combined a series of methods that varied for each of the 14 offshore services providers. The team combined and standardized information coming from spreadsheets; used programming languages to automate data extraction and structure the information; and employed machine learning and other tools. The team also manually extracted details from handwritten or hard-to-read forms. After structuring the information, ICIJ staffers put the data through a rigorous fact-checking process that incorporated ICIJ’s bespoke data cleaning and validation tool, Prophecies.

Since December 2021, ICIJ has added more than 25,000 offshore entities records from the Pandora Papers to the Offshore Leaks database. They are explorable through the search engine and can be filtered by data sources, linked countries and registered jurisdictions filters, among other options. The data in the Offshore Leaks Database is also available for download for non-commercial purposes.

If you find any relevant information and would like to share any tips with ICIJ and the Pandora Papers journalists, you can contact ICIJ through a variety of platforms, including Signal, WhatsApp, Keybase and more.

Contributors: Caroline Desprat, Madeline O’Leary, Pierre Romera, Maxime Vanza, Antonio Cucho, Jesús Escudero, Mago Torres, Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, Sean McGoey, Hamish Boland-Rudder, Asraa Mustufa, Jorge González, Javier Ladrón de Guevara, Michael Hudson


The current version of the Offshore Leaks database released between December 6, 2021 and May 2, 2022 was built by ICIJ:

Developers: Caroline Desprat, Madeline O’Leary, Pierre Romera, Maxime Vanza

Database developer: Miguel Fiandor

Design: Antonio Cucho

Data reporters and researchers: Agustin Armendariz, Delphine Reuter, Jelena Cosic, Jesús Escudero, Karrie Kehoe, Mago Torres, Margot Williams, Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, Sean McGoey, Nicole Sadek

Data & research editor: Emilia Díaz-Struck

Chief technology officer: Pierre Romera

Online editor: Hamish Boland-Rudder

Digital editor: Asraa Mustufa

System administrators: Jorge González, Javier Ladrón de Guevara

Russia-focused stories from ICIJ’s Pandora Papers partners and more https://www.icij.org/investigations/russia-archive/russia-focused-stories-from-icijs-pandora-papers-partners-and-more/ <![CDATA[ICIJ]]> Tue, 03 May 2022 15:56:57 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[FinCEN Files]]> <![CDATA[Panama Papers]]> <![CDATA[Pandora Papers]]> <![CDATA[Paradise Papers]]> <![CDATA[Russia]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22243 <![CDATA[ICIJ's media partners have used the Pandora Papers, FinCEN Files and Paradise and Panama Papers to uncover numerous secret networks of Russian oligarchs, businesspeople and more.]]> <![CDATA[

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February prompted renewed scrutiny of Russia’s wealthy and powerful elite, including investigations of assets held outside Russia.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ media partners used the Pandora Papers, FinCEN Files and Paradise and Panama Papers to uncover numerous secret networks of Russian oligarchs, businesspeople and more. Here is a collection of their stories:

Pandora Papers

Do you have a story about corruption, fraud, or abuse of power?

ICIJ accepts information about wrongdoing by corporate, government or public services around the world. We do our utmost to guarantee the confidentiality of our sources.

FinCEN Files

Paradise Papers

Panama Papers

In Ukraine, investigative journalists are now on the frontlines of covering the carnage and chaos of war https://www.icij.org/investigations/russia-archive/in-ukraine-investigative-journalists-are-now-on-the-frontlines-of-covering-the-carnage-and-chaos-of-war/ <![CDATA[Jelena Cosic]]> Tue, 03 May 2022 12:28:25 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Europe]]> <![CDATA[Investigative journalism]]> <![CDATA[Investigative reporting]]> <![CDATA[Press freedom]]> <![CDATA[Russia]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22182 <![CDATA[This World Press Freedom Day, ICIJ speaks to our Ukrainian reporting partners about how their lives and work have changed since Russia’s invasion.]]> <![CDATA[

Few jobs are as dangerous as covering a war.

As Russian forces besiege Ukrainian cities and the toll of human casualties mounts (including local and international journalists), ICIJ marks World Press Freedom Day with two of our Ukrainian partners valiantly reporting on the invasion of their country.

Freelance investigative reporter and 2021 Pulitzer finalist with ICIJ Tanya Kozyreva and Anna Babinets, editor-in-chief of Slidstvo.Info and editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) discuss the extreme dangers and rewards of their unexpected new roles.

Babinets has worked with ICIJ on several investigations, including the Pandora Papers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers, while Kozyreva has worked on the Pandora Papers and the FinCEN Files. The two journalists believe their work is now more important than ever but fear that precious press freedom gains made since the 2014 Maidan Revolution may be another casualty of Russia’s naked hostility.

What is your work focused on since the war in Ukraine began and are you able to do investigative reporting?

Kozyreva: My work is mostly focusing on reporting the Russian atrocities in Ukraine now, interviewing life witnesses of war crimes all over Ukraine, kids who lost their limbs, parents whose children are missing or stuck under rubble, families whose loved ones were kidnapped in Ukrainian cities and villages under Russian occupation and those who buried relatives in the backyards of their family house. I’m doing my best to tell their heartbreaking stories to the world.

Often I have to go to extremely dangerous places near the frontline like Slovyansk or Lysychansk, but I feel like it’s my duty to take this risk. I think it’s a duty of journalism to tell the truth no matter what.

Previously, I spent all my time on long-term international investigations, but war changed my agenda. And I don’t really know for how long I won’t be able to return to the work I love most: investigating financial crimes of top authorities, oligarchs and organized crime representatives. For now, the most important story for me is Russian aggression in my own country. In theshort term, I will try to focus on the investigation about the Russian filtration camps on the teritory of Ukraine, where Ukrainians are tortured and killed for no reason.

Babinets: Fortunately, I’m able to continue to do investigative journalism. But a lot of things have changed. Slidstvo.Info is an investigative agency based in Kyiv, we have been exposing high level corruption and crimes for almost ten years. We participated in Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and other international projects.

We began preparing for the possible war a month before [it started]. Our partners from OCCRP have bought vests, helmets and other equipment for working in war times. Colleagues from Bellingcat organized special training for our team [on] how to identify people and places in social networks, especially Russian networks. Great American trainers explained the difference of guns and ammunition Russians can use against Ukraine, told us about working under shootings and basic medical help in critical situations. Of course we couldn’t imagine all the hell we would meet during the war, but basically we were prepared.

On the morning of February 24, when Russia started to bomb Ukraine, we in Slidstvo.Info had a long editorial call – we were talking [about] what we can do the best. We are professional investigative reporters who know how to find criminals or secret real estate of politicians or discover tricky offshore schemes. All our knowledge looked not usable for circumstances we found ourselves [in] on February 24. In the end of the editorial call, we decided that we will continue our work despite it looking like investigative journalism isn’t necessary for the war. Some journalists from Slidstvo.Info were thinking about joining the army or volunteering, to help with logistics and other things. But I believe that, even in war, we should work in the area where we are professionals. We know how to collect proof of crimes and show them to people.

The war is a huge crime, we have a lot of work to do. Our team decided to collect proof of war crimes, to identify Russian soldiers and generals, to name them and show them to people. Now I see that our findings are very useful for official investigators. Ukrainian prosecutors ask us to help them to identify Russians and they use our stories for official criminal cases, they can charge criminals using our evidence we have been publishing for the last two months.

When did you realize you had to leave your country?

Babinets: I decide to leave Ukraine at the beginning of war, when Russia started to bomb Kyiv. The main reason: my 7-year-old daughter. Her father is serving in the Ukrainian army now, so I’m the only person who can care [for] her. If I had an option to stay and work in Kyiv and be sure that my daughter is in a safe place, I’d prefer to stay in Kyiv with my team. But I didn’t have this option.

Could you describe the work logistics right now? What are your working conditions?

Kozyreva: I’m mostly freelancing for the international media now. One of the reasons is that the coverage is the most impartial. The other is my knowledge on the ground now is valuable like never before, as many foreign journalists who are reporting from Ukraine don’t have any background of covering Ukraine, they don’t speak the language, they don’t have any contacts, they don’t know the geography and history of the region. Some of them are arriving with the scripted stories in their mind and refuse to face reality. Meanwhile, my expertise gives me opportunities to work with the top news media, BBC, New York Times, CNN, Sky News, ect. I’m doing TV and radio live interviews, writing articles, and producing stories for print and TV.

I’m mostly reporting across the country and haven’t been at home for two months already. My office is my phone. When I need a short break, I go to Poland for a couple of days to get some sleep without sirens on.

As journalists and as citizens, we want to help our country to win in this war and punish the war criminals using evidence we obtain and publish every day. — Anna Babinets

Babinets: I can’t complain about the conditions. I have enough space to work and focus on editing stories. I’m working from the apartment where I live with my daughter: she is doing online school in a separate room, I’m editing and having calls with colleagues at the same time.

Every day in the morning, we have an editorial call with Slidstvo.Info team. For two months, we work without days off and weekends and publish two to three stories per day. We have never published so many stories before, usually it’s two to three stories per month. Our audience has grown almost twice as big in the last two months. We do deep research, analyze data, talk to our sources and report from hotspots in Kyiv region. Part of Slidstvo.Info team stayed in Kyiv, part moved around Ukraine, and a couple journalists left Ukraine. People from my team even in these hard circumstances believe that our work matters, we can change something, we can help to save our country.

Regarding your journalism work, what are your biggest fears or worries?

Kozyreva: I think war has already impacted Ukrainian journalism. Some of the best Ukrainian journalists have already died. Some joined the Ukrainian army. Some were kidnaped by Russian forces. The others are jangling the facts and creating a space for propaganda. Ukrainian independent media has lost its financial support and is struggling to survive. In the long term, I think Ukrainian journalism can lose everything it gained during the last eight years.

Babinets: As I see now, working in war circumstances made our team stronger. As journalists and as citizens, we want to help our country to win in this war and punish the war criminals using evidence we obtain and publish every day. I’m worried about the hard work my journalists are doing every day, I’m worried that they don’t have enough rest and worry about burning out. I realize that the war can go on for a long time and really hope we will be able to do great work for months or years, if it will be needed.

Ukrainian journalist Tanya Kozyreva reports from the frontlines of the war with Russia on April 20, 2022.

What fuels you to keep doing investigative journalism despite the dangers?

Kozyreva: When I see elderly people who lost everything they had, women with children who have nowhere to go, wounded kids whose lives are changed forever, when I’m interviewing the relatives of [those] tortured ot killed, I feel like I have no right to stop reporting their stories. This is the best I can do for them. This is the best I can do for democracy. I’m knowingly taking the high risk, because I believe the truth can make the world a better place for everyone.

Babinets: Because we see that our work is important. Many people text to ask to help or to tell their stories. Ukrainian officials ask us to help. We see that things we are doing are useful and have an impact in the real world. We want a bigger impact, that’s why we keep going. Our main goal [is] to collect proof of war crimes that can be used for punishing criminals from Russia.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

‘There is no freedom and there is no press’: How one Russian reporter approaches journalism in the age of Putin https://www.icij.org/investigations/russia-archive/there-is-no-freedom-and-there-is-no-press-how-one-russian-reporter-approaches-journalism-in-the-age-of-putin/ <![CDATA[Nicole Sadek]]> Tue, 03 May 2022 12:10:31 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Behind the scenes]]> <![CDATA[Investigative journalism]]> <![CDATA[Meet the Investigators]]> <![CDATA[Pandora Papers]]> <![CDATA[Russia]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22159 <![CDATA[Roman Anin shares his journey to investigative journalism, and talks about the dangers of working as a reporter in Russia, the challenge of holding powerful people accountable in the face of constant threats.]]> <![CDATA[

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of these tireless journalists.

In April, we spoke with Roman Anin, a Russian reporter who founded and runs IStories, short for “Important Stories,” a nonprofit news outlet focused on publishing investigative journalism. Anin has been labeled a “foreign agent” and the head of an “undesirable organization” by Russian authorities for his dogged reporting critical of President Vladimir Putin and his allies. Before IStories, Anin worked for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which partnered with ICIJ on some of the earliest investigations into offshore finance.

ICIJ’s award-winning Meet the Investigators series is emailed exclusively to ICIJ’s Insiders each month before being published on ICIJ.org, and is one of a number of ways we like to thank our community of supporters who are so integral to our independent journalism. You can join our Insiders community by making a donation to ICIJ. Thanks to all our ICIJ Members who have shared their stories with us, and to all our supporters for helping ICIJ continue its work.

Nicole Sadek: Welcome back to Meet the Investigators from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I’m ICIJ’s editorial fellow and, today, your host Nicole Sadek.

Since this series launched, we’ve spoken to dozens of ICIJ members who are among the most distinguished journalists in the world. Today is no different. I’m speaking with a reporter who has a raft of accolades, including the Knight Trailblazer Award, a European Press Prize and various prestigious Russian journalism awards. But he also has an equally long, if not longer, list of people who’ve put a target on his back for simply doing his job. And that’s why he keeps much of his work under wraps.

Roman Anin: I don’t disclose the location of myself and the newsroom for security reasons.

Nicole: That’s Roman Anin, a Russian journalist who founded and runs the groundbreaking news outlet IStories. Roman has been working alongside ICIJ in its investigations into offshore finance since 2013. But journalism hasn’t always been his passion.

Roman: I was born in Moldova, and until [age] 17, my dream was to become a professional soccer player. But then when I was 17, my family moved to Russia because Moldova was a very poor country and it was difficult to find a job there, so I didn’t know how I would continue my soccer career. And one day I was lying on the sofa and watching a soccer game on TV, and the commentator was really bad. So I was watching the game and I was thinking that this guy knows nothing about my favorite game, and that is when I realized that I can try to become a commentator and maybe do this job better than this guy because I at least I know the game. That’s when I decided to become a journalist.

Nicole: After enrolling at Moscow State University to study journalism, Roman had to get some real-world experience.

Roman: One of my friends said that the sports section of Novaya Gazeta was looking for interns, and I knew nothing about Novaya Gazeta, you know, but I decided to come there. And I remember that I was really nervous because I thought that they would ask me, that they would be asking me, you know, things about, I don’t know, like different teams, different championships, kind of testing my skills. But the very first questions that I heard from them, from actually my future editor of the section, was, “Do you like beer?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah.” So we went, we had a couple of beers, and that’s how I became part of Novaya Gazeta’s sports section. And I worked there for two years until 2008, when suddenly the war in Georgia started.

[Audio clip 00:00 – 00:11] Al Jazeera: It was a war that lasted only six days but which had a profound effect on a country and a region on the edge of Europe.

Nicole: Although it was a brief conflict, it received widespread coverage.

Roman: It was interesting because it was summer and the majority of experienced reporters there were on vacations. And I was one of the few reporters in the newsroom and the editors asked me whether I wanted to go to Georgia to cover the war. And I said, “Yes.” And I went there. And when I got back, they actually offered me to move to the investigative section, and that is how I became an investigative reporter.

Nicole: Nearly 15 years later, Roman runs his own nonprofit newsroom IStories, which he says stands for Important Stories. The IStories core staff is based outside of Russia with freelancers working inside the country. He came up with the idea for the online investigative outlet when he was finishing up a Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University in 2019.

Roman: The goal is to tell important stories to the audience. It kind of unites two ideas that I had in my mind. The first idea is obvious and simple. You know, investigative reporting is crucial to keep the powerful accountable. But there was a second idea, and actually it came to my mind in Stanford. You know or you probably know that in the last decades, the audience has been losing its trust in the media, so what we do these days is we care more about traffic than audience, and we bombard people with 50 or 60 or 100 news every day, and the majority of this news are useless. Bombarding people with news is really bad for their health. So that is why we are called Important Stories because we try to publish on those news and those stories that we believe are really important for people. In terms of media management, it’s a very bad strategy, but in terms of care about people, it’s the best.

There is no freedom, and there is no press. In the ideal world of Vladimir Putin, there is no independent media in Russia.

Nicole: Since Vladimir Putin commanded forces to invade Ukraine in late February, the Russian president has run a concerted campaign to silence independent media. He even labeled IStories an “undesirable organization.” Roman, what does that mean for you?

Roman: It’s a crime to be, to head an undesirable organization, and I can be sentenced to six years of prison for the work that I do, so for journalism. For every reporter who works for IStories, every reporter can be fined for cooperation with an undesirable organization, and the second time if they continue working or cooperating with an undesirable organization, they can be sentenced to four years of prison. It is also forbidden to repost all our stories, so if anybody in Russia reposts our story, tweet or every piece of information that we produce, it can be seen by Russian authorities as cooperation with an undesirable organization, and again, this person or the reader can be fined and then sentenced. We are also blocked because it’s prohibited to spread the information of undesirable organizations, so we’re blocked in Russia, and people can reach us only through VPN.

Nicole: How would you describe the state of press freedom in Russia today?

Roman: There is no freedom, and there is no press. In the ideal world of Vladimir Putin, there is no independent media in Russia. There is no media that criticizes him or his cronies. But of course, after the war started, the Kremlin kind of has increased its pressure on the media. And today, almost every independent media in Russia, or I would say every independent media in Russia, is either blocked or shut down.

Foreign agent media protest in Russia
A journalist holds a placard which reads “Foreign agents yourself” during a protest of solidarity with colleagues who were added to the list of “foreign agent” media near the Moscow headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service in August 2021. Image: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

Nicole: What security precautions do you and your colleagues take?

Roman: I’m the only reporter who uses [a] byline. All others, they have to publish their stories anonymously because again if law enforcement sees that, if people from the law enforcement see that our reporters continue to cooperate with us, then they can be sentenced. We also can’t really take interviews because it might be considered as a cooperation with an undesirable organization as well, so all our experts and people we talk to are anonymous in our stores.

Nicole: Why do you use your byline?

Roman: Well because I’m the head of the organization, and I I think it’s important to be public and say that we’re not afraid of all [those] restrictions and all [those] labels. And the second reason is that there is a different criminal case ongoing against me in Russia that was started even before the war and before we were proclaimed undesirable. And I thought, you know, like, well, what’s the difference to have one or two criminal cases or three against you?

Nicole: The case Roman is talking about started on April 9, 2021, when Russian authorities raided Roman’s apartment and office in connection to a story he had written five years prior about a Putin ally who was using a luxurious yacht. Roman, can you talk me through what happened?

Roman: I was going to a swimming pool. In a minute after I exited from my house, I saw that somebody was running after me and I thought that it was a robber or something like that and I was prepared to fight. But then the guy came to me and said that he is from the FSB, which is the main Russian Secret Service. And he said that they’re going to conduct a search in my apartment. The search lasted for about seven hours, and they ended in the midnight. And then the investigator said that he would take me to the investigative committee, and I knew it was illegal because you can’t interrogate witnesses in the nighttime. Well, but he said that if I don’t go voluntarily, then they will just take me to the investigative committee. So I was detained for a couple of hours. Then they let me go. I was planning to go on vacations even before the search and interrogations in May, and I went to Kyiv. I spent some time there. And then a number of sources told me that I should better stay there because there was a big risk that Russian secret services can arrest me when I come back. And since then, I’m abroad.

Nicole: After this incident, Roman actually found out that authorities had been surveilling him for several years. But it didn’t come as a surprise. Even in 2017, during ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation, Roman told VICE News documentarians that he went the extra mile to stay undetected by Russian authorities.

[Audio clip 28:10 – 28:34] VICE: Every day, you know, my day is different. I don’t wake up at the same time, and I don’t get out of my home at the same time. I usually take different routes. So one day I come to my office with car. Another day, I come with metro. The day after tomorrow, I took metro, then a bus and then I walk.

Nicole: Roman’s attention to security is not for naught. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 25 reporters have been murdered in Russia since 2000, not including several others whose reasons for death have not been confirmed. The fraught situation has been a part of Roman’s career from the very beginning. During his first year as a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, his colleague Anna Politkovskaya, a revered Russian journalist critical of the Kremlin, was shot and killed in a contract-style killing.

In those early days when I was naive, I thought that, you know, journalists are doing a great job … the stories that they publish are so important. So why would anybody kill a journalist?

Roman: I remember very well the day when I heard the news. I was in Yaroslavl, a very beautiful ancient city in Russia. And I was playing billiards with my father, and then I got a call from a colleague who told me that Anna Politkovskaya was killed. And I was so shocked and surprised. In those early days when I was naive, I thought that, you know, journalists are doing a great job. You know, the things that they, the stories that they publish are so important. So why would anybody kill a journalist?

Nicole: The stakes of being in this line of work in Russia are astronomical. And it’s become an issue of renewed focus since Russia’s war on Ukraine started in late February. With the world’s attention back on Russia, ICIJ has launched the Russia Archive, a project that brings together previous Russia-related exposés and new investigations into the hidden wealth of the Putin regime’s ruling elites. Like all of ICIJ’s projects, it brings international partners together. Roman, what is it like working in a collaborative community?

Roman: It’s a great opportunity to work with your colleagues from Australia, from Japan, from South America and from many, many other countries. And of course, it’s, I mean, it teaches you a lot because you, you know, you, you work shoulder by shoulder with your colleagues from other countries, and you get some skills from them, they get some skills from you. And of course, it makes your stories better because, you know, the crime is international these days. And if journalists don’t unite their efforts to investigate those criminals or corrupt officials, you know, then they are not effective. And I think that these days, the international community of journalism is way more effective than the international community of law enforcement because we’re faster, we’re more creative and we use more skills. Yes, we don’t have all the instruments that law enforcement passed. But in terms of cooperation skills, we’re really better.

Nicole: What was your experience collaborating with other journalists in last year’s Pandora Papers investigation?

Roman: Well, it was like this great, you know, cooperation and investigation very similar to Panama Papers. We spent about a year investigating all the Russian names that we saw in the leak, and in the end we published the story. Probably the only difference is that when we published Panama Papers, there was just three of us and we worked for Novaya Gazeta. These times, there were about 10 reporters from IStories and we had to evacuate everybody from Russia, I mean everybody who was working on this story, from Russia on the eve of publication because there was a great risk that secret services would come with searches or even arrest people working on this project.

Nicole: What piece of advice would you give to newer reporters?

Roman: Woah that’s difficult. Never study media? No, but I’m joking. I’m constantly joking that the professional disease of a journalist is narcissism. All of us think a lot about ourselves. I think it’s really important these days to kind of remind all the time to ourselves that we are a team, and that we need to be together, we need to stay strong. We really gotta think about big goals and why we do that. And in our case, it’s easy because we know why the stories that we publish are important and why it is important for the Russian audience to know and read them.

Nicole: Those are some great tips. I want to thank Roman for joining me today and wish him all the best as he continues to cover those important stories.

You can find ICIJ’s Russia Archive stories at icij.org, and don’t forget to share this episode on social media using the hashtag #MeetTheInvestigators.

Meet the Investigators is a production of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. This episode was produced and edited by me, Nicole Sadek, with help from Hamish-Boland Rudder. We’ll be back again next month.

If you’re a fan of our Meet the Investigators series, please consider making a donation to support ICIJ. Not only will your donation help support our work with journalists like Roman, but as an ICIJ Insider, you’ll also receive sneak previews, access to exclusive chats with reporters and behind-the-scenes content like this delivered straight to your inbox. Donate today, and support independent investigative journalism.

Kinahan drug cartel enforcer owned a website that named and shamed criminal “rats” https://www.icij.org/inside-icij/2022/05/kinahan-drug-cartel-enforcer-owned-a-website-that-named-and-shamed-criminal-rats/ <![CDATA[Fergus Shiel]]> Mon, 02 May 2022 09:34:33 +0000 <![CDATA[Inside ICIJ]]> <![CDATA[Europe]]> <![CDATA[Money Laundering]]> <![CDATA[Mossack Fonseca]]> <![CDATA[Offshore finance]]> <![CDATA[Offshore secrecy]]> <![CDATA[Panama Papers]]> https://www.icij.org/?p=22188 <![CDATA[Leak reveals sanctioned money launderer John Morrissey set up offshore companies and sought to open Panamanian bank accounts tied to the site. ]]> <![CDATA[

A senior member of the Kinahan drug cartel established a subscription website to name and shame criminal “rats” with the help of the controversial Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, leaked files show.

A come-on to potential subscribers, “Do you want to find the rats in your neighborhood?!!” appeared on the short-lived United Kingdom-focused website, The RatBook.com, before it went live in 2009. “See if there are serious criminals, rogue traders, pervy priests etc around you. This is the site for you!!”

A co-founder of the site, incorporation records show, was John Francis “Johnny” Morrissey, now 62-years-old, an Irish citizen accused of some of the crimes his website promised to expose. The documents show that the site was tied to offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands and Panama, where Morrissey also attempted to open a bank account to process website subscription payments.

In a sanctioning notice April 11, the U.S. Treasury Department. described Morrissey as an “enforcer” for the Kinahan cartel, the most powerful organized crime gang in Ireland. “Irish courts have concluded that the [cartel] is a murderous organization involved in the international trafficking of drugs and firearms,” the notice said.

Morrissey, who lives in Spain, “facilitates international drug shipments for the organization from South America” and is “involved in money laundering,” the U.S. notice said.

Through his wife, Morrissey also controls Nero Drinks Co. Ltd., a vodka maker based in Glasgow, Scotland, and he has been a brand ambassador for the company, his most public venture. Morrissey has handed over significant parts of the company to Daniel Kinahan, a leader of the cartel, “to compensate for loads of drugs seized by law enforcement,” the U.S. said in its notice. Daniel Kinahan has previously denied being linked to organized crime.

At the core of the Kinahan cartel’s operations, according to an investigation funded by the European Union, are dozens of front companies that help move heroin, cocaine and other drugs and that launder the proceeds from their sale.

The U.S. sanctions, which targeted seven members of the cartel, including Morrissey, have put new pressure on the cartel and the countries that host affiliated businesses and gang members. Last week, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Irish Times revealed the existence of several companies tied to the ruthless Irish drug gang in the Middle East’s top secrecy haven, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Authorities there say they are investigating.

U.S. and Irish officials announce sanctions against the Kinahan Organized Crime Group in Dublin on April 12, 2022. Image: Sam Boal/Irish Times

According to media reports, Morrissey is a longtime mobster who has been implicated in killings and other crimes. He moved to Spain two decades ago after police raided his home in Ireland. Authorities reportedly had discovered a plot by Morrissey to kill an official with the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau, a law enforcement agency that had served him with a tax demand of more than $100,000.

The timing of Morrissey’s interest in offshore companies and bank accounts, and the creation of a website, coincided with a turning point in a European anti-drug-trafficking campaign.

In 2008, police in Spain, the U.K., Ireland and Belgium teamed up to investigate the Kinahan cartel, following a major bust and the confiscation of 1.5 tonnes of cannabis in a house in County Kildare, Ireland. The joint investigation was known as Operation Shovel.

Later that year, Morrissey set up a company, Northcote Development Holdings SA, in the British Virgin Islands, a renowned corporate secrecy and tax haven. The transaction came with a special request: “Please DO NOT register the identity of the shareholders or directors at the BVI Registry,” leaked records from the ICIJ-led Panama Papers investigation show.

ICIJ identified the Morrissey documents and shared them with the Irish Times.

Northcote was a “shelf” company, meaning that it was created without a business purpose. Such companies can be used to add layers of complexity and secrecy to a business arrangement. Northcote then became the sole shareholder in a Panama-incorporated company, Holmhurst SA.

In 2009, Morrissey flew to Panama to “explore the possibility of initiating an internet business from Panama,” according to leaked files of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm whose internal records sparked the Panama Papers investigation. He was met at the airport by a courtesy car from the law firm.

Emails show Mossack Fonseca’s lawyers and managers discussing how best to help Morrissey and a partner, Glenn Patrick Cunningham, set up bank accounts for processing “subscription” payments to the internet site, through Holmhurst, the shell company. A complication emerged: the Panamanian bank, Towerbank, required that the owners of such accounts maintain a physical office in Panama.

Morrissey balked at the cost, according to emails, complaining that it made no sense to pay for a “ghost office.” It’s not clear how or whether the matter was resolved, or if an account was ever opened. “We went with Mr. Morrissey to Towerbank and we are in the process to complete the process,” an April 2009 memo from a Mossack Fonseca lawyer says.

Mossack Fonseca’s founders are awaiting trial in Panama, accused of helping clients launder money.

In an application document for a bank account, a lawyer for Morrissey and Cunningham described the planned website as a place “where rogue traders & practitioners can be named and shamed.” The lawyer also mentioned in an earlier email that information would come from “open source material” and from investigators.

The website’s “members” would pay a subscription of $20 per quarter, with as many as 100,000 members expected to sign up in the first year, the document said. Dividends paid from the account would go to the U.K. and Spain, the document said.

According to an archived version of the website, TheRatBook.com was active for about a year.

Shortly before it shut down, the website said it had about 4,000 users and that it had created more than 18,000 profiles of people convicted of child abuse, murder, terrorism and other crimes. It wasn’t possible to verify the numbers.

When the Irish Times rang the mobile number given for Morrissey in the documents, a man said, “Digame” [talk to me] in an Irish accent, before hanging up when told who was calling.

Cunningham did not respond to requests for comment. He has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Northcote was struck off the BVI register in October 2010, the leaked files show. But Holmhurst survived long after the website stopped working — despite its association with a member of a drug cartel. Its status changed from “current” to “suspended” in 2019, according to the OpenCorporates database.

The Panama Papers documents were obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with ICIJ.

Across multiple globe-spanning investigations, ICIJ has shown how the offshore industry has given shelter to untold trillions of dollars through elaborate corporate structures designed to deceive authorities and deflect attention from their true owners. Criminal groups have found these structures particularly valuable for hiding ownership of real estate and other assets, along with semi-legitimate front businesses that can be used as vehicles for laundering money.

Although there is no evidence that TheRatBook.com was involved in criminal activity, the circumstances of its creation and its association with a member of a drug cartel accused of money laundering raise red flags.

Shilpa Arora, a London-based anti-financial-crime specialist at ACAMS which provides training and certification for anti-money laundering, said drug traffickers, in particular, are especially creative about finding “innovative means to launder their illicit proceeds” because they are so often a target of law enforcement.

She referred to traffickers’ investments in racehorses, art and anything else “that has a stable or rising value which can be invested in or bought with few questions asked, and preferably far from the reaches of law enforcement.”

The Kinahan cartel has been linked to dozens of shell companies around the world. The cartel is led by Christopher Kinahan and his sons, Daniel and Christopher Jr.

The U.S. Treasury sanctioned senior members of the Kinahan organized crime group in April 2022, including “enforcer” John Francis Morrissey, who controls Nero Drinks Co. Ltd., a Scotland-based vodka maker, with his wife. Image: U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control

According to publicly available documents, one of the Kinahans — either Christopher Sr. or Christopher Jr. — was a director of a Panamanian company called Pantheon Investments Worldwide SA.

Morrissey comes from a humble background, according to a résumé included in leaked documents.

He left school at 15 and worked as a bricklayer, according to the résumé, which adds: “I am a good timekeeper, trustworthy and reliable. I am very persistent and past experience has taught me to communicate on all levels.” He listed diving and sailing among his hobbies.

According to Irish news reports, Morrissey set up a restaurant in the 1990s in the pretty coastal town of Kinsale, County Cork. He acquired the nickname “Johnny Cash” because he paid for everything with wads of banknotes, including an expensive refurbishment of his property.

It’s not clear how long Morrissey has been part of the Kinahan cartel. He attended Daniel Kinahan’s secret 2017 wedding to Caoimhe Robinson at the “seven-star” Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai, mingling with other members of the international underworld, according to news reports.

Other guests included Dutch mobsters Ridouan Taghi, accused assassin and ringleader of the Angels of Death gang, and Naoufal Fassih; Dutch-Chilean gangster Ricardo Riquelme Vega, aka El Rico; and Italian Camorra crime boss Raffaele Imperiale.

In Spain, Morrissey and his Scottish wife, Nicola, have mixed with celebrities on the Costa del Sol — and his vodka company, Nero Drinks, entered a sponsorship deal with then-Scottish Premiership soccer team Hamilton Academical in December 2019. The club says the deal ended “prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” but some Nero signage remained up during lockdown at the ground where the team plays home games. Nicola told one interviewer that the company had been named Nero because “John’s passion is the gladiators and the Roman Empire.”

According to publicly available documents, Morrissey’s business interests include serving as a director of a company called Family Import-Export SL and as sole director and shareholder of a computer software firm with the unlikely name Inner City Property Management SL. Both companies are based in Spain.

According to its marketing material, Nero offers gluten-free premium vodka for those with wheat intolerance. It contributes to environmental conservation through a partnership with TreeSisters, a nonprofit group devoted to tropical forest restoration.

“For every case of Nero Premium Vodka we sell, a tree is planted in The Nero Forest to help create a greener future for all,” Nero’s marketing material says.

Spain’s Central Narcotics Brigade (UDYCO ), part of the National Police, told ICIJ partner La Sexta that it was not aware of any warrant for the arrest of Morrissey — and he was unknown to it.

A Europol spokesperson declined to comment on Morrissey, saying it did not comment on individuals.

Colm Keena is a reporter with the Irish Times.

Contributors: Ben Hallman, Richard H.P. Sia, Joe Hillhouse — and Joaquin Castellon of La Sexta