When a trove of 13.4 million records, many from offshore services firms whose job was to structure and facilitate shadowy deals via tax havens and layers of front companies, expose dealings that include president Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, the Queen of England, Russian investments in Twitter and Apple’s search for a new island tax shelter, it is obvious life will never be the same for for the world’s rich and famous—both people and companies. The Indian Express (IE), which is running the Indian leg of this investigation of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Suddeutsche Zeitung, has already identified 714 Indian links including that of a top doctor who got shares from the very firms whose stents he was using. The Paradise Papers are the latest in a string of such leaks investigated by IE-ICIJ—the 2013 Offshore Leaks found 612 Indians who had incorporated companies in the British Virgin Islands and, last heard, the government had collected Rs 2,000 crore in taxes from them; the 2015 HSBC Lists has resulted in Rs 5,018 crore of undisclosed income coming to light and the 2016 Panama Papers leaked from law firm Mossack Fonseca have identified 420 Indians.
Setting up offshore entities, needless to say, is not always illegal but as the Paradise Papers show, very often the motives were shadowy. It is not clear, for instance, if Ross’ investments compromised US interests vis-a-vis Russia—Ross used a chain of Cayman Island entities to invest in a shipping company that had dealings with a Russian energy company co-owned by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law. Ditto for the tech mogul who received $191 million from a Russian government bank and invested in both Twitter as well as in a real estate firm co-owned by Kushner. Was Apple skirting the law when, according to the Paradise Papers, it was shopping around for a new island tax shelter after the Irish one was found out? And is it illegal for Nike to create offshore shell companies to hold assets like its “Swoosh” logo or for others to hold the “creative rights to silicone breast implants”?
But, illegal or not, Paradise-type Papers expose various deals/connections that the lay person wouldn’t normally even imagine. The fact that those guarding your most closely-held secret—remember Ashley Madison?—can be hacked or persuaded to give them up, should give the rich and powerful pause. As for governments, with such information public, even if they want to help cover up, they would be hard pressed to explain why they took no action. A great victory for transparency.