Panama Papers | The story of how Indian journalists investigated one of biggest data leaks

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Published: November 17, 2019 3:26:18 AM

Among the rare ‘false positives’ in the leaked data, the most dramatic was of the Ratan Tata who was not. In November 2015, Jay found at least a dozen documents in the leaked data that named Ratan Tata as the president, director and the legal representative of Coral Resorts Development Limited Inc., a Panamanian company set up in August 1986.

Panama Papers, Indian journalist, biggest data leaks, data leak, ICIJ, HSBC Swiss Leaks, Panama Papers india, Panama Papers amitabh, Panama Papers book, ratan tata, tata group(From left) P Vaidyanathan Iyre, Ritu Sarin, Jay Mazoomdaar of The Indian Express (PHOTO: NEERAJ PRIYADARSHI)

The Panama Papers investigation was code-named ‘Project Prometheus’ after the character from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings. Perhaps it was named so with the expectation that a huge fire would be kindled. In July 2015, reporters who had collaborated with the ICIJ on the HSBC Swiss Leaks project were still exulting over its impact. The only Indian journalist in the collaboration, Ritu Sarin, head of investigations at the Indian Express, was busy chasing follow-ups of the probe the government had ordered. In all that rush, she missed a webinar that the ICIJ conducted on ‘how to discover data stories from leaked data’. She put in an email request for a recording of the webinar which the ICIJ staff had said was connected to the Swiss Leaks. There was also a line in the email that the webinar would guide reporters on ‘how to work with leaks’.

Two days later, it was clear that the web tutorial the ICIJ was putting its members through was a preparation for a bigger, much bigger, data leak.

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Among the rare ‘false positives’ in the leaked data, the most dramatic was of the Ratan Tata who was not. In November 2015, Jay found at least a dozen documents in the leaked data that named Ratan Tata as the president, director and the legal representative of Coral Resorts Development Limited Inc., a Panamanian company set up in August 1986. Records showed that one Francis Perez represented Tata in several board meetings of the said company where one Leticia Montoya also served as a director along with Tata.

When it was time to seek responses, Jay wrote to Ratan Tata on 28 March 2016, requesting him to comment on his connection with and role in the company, and his associations with Perez and Montoya, both named in several international cases of money laundering. Within hours, the managing trustee of the Tata Trust, R. Venkataraman, replied, ‘Mr RNT has or had no connection whatsoever with either the organisation or the personnel’ concerned. Jay was in a fix. Tata’s denial was emphatic and unequivocal. Yet, a bunch of Mossack Fonseca records claimed otherwise. To be doubly sure, around noon the next day, Jay shared a few more details of the company from the Mossack Fonseca archive for further perusal and requested a reconfirmation of Ratan Tata’s denial. This set off a flurry of events.

Within a couple of hours, Vaidy received a message that Mukund Rajan, chief ethics officer of the Tata Group, would like to meet him and Jay to better understand the matter at hand.

The meeting was not stretched unnecessarily. Rajan did not question the reporters’ prerogative and premises. ‘I am sure you have your reasons to raise these very specific questions. But our position, his position, is that these are absolutely untrue.’ …Vaidy and Jay shared with Rajan some of the details of the references to Ratan Tata found in the records of the Panamanian company and assured him that they would further investigate the matter before taking a final call.

The issue though had to be resolved and both Jay and Vaidy decided to dig deeper. Soon enough, Jay traced a reference to a Ratan Tata in the book Major Companies of the Arab World 1991/91, edited by Giselle C. Bricault, that described him as the managing director of Hotel Dammam Oberoi established in 1981. Searching further on this lead, he then found a Coral Resorts Development Limited Inc. record in the Mossack Fonseca data that said director Ratan Tata was domiciled at Hotel Oberoi, Dammam, Saudi Arabia. By that time, Vaidy found that there was one Rattan Tata —‘one of the brightest sparks in the Oberoi Group from Singapore’s Imperial’—who set up the Oberoi Hotel in Dammam. The mystery unravelled: the Tata who worked for the Oberoi Group and owned the Panamanian company spelt his name variously as Rattan and Ratan, leading to the grand confusion.

Finally, there was no story in it to report. Ratan Tata was not Rattan Tata, and Rattan Tata was an NRI long-settled abroad. …As they contemplated if and how they should write to Rajan or Venkataraman, the conclusion of the ‘detailed investigation’ launched by the Tatas was conveyed to them. The one-line message mentioned an attachment that might ‘clarify’ the issue. Attached was the copy of a document which had Rattan Tata’s name on it.

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The only persons to deny outright evidence of their offshore involvement found in the Panama Papers documents were Amitabh Bachchan and his daughter-in-law, Aishwarya Rai. While Rai’s media adviser tried to dismiss Ritu’s request for comments, Bachchan did not even bother to respond to repeated queries. Then, the day after the report was published, he issued a statement. It read:

I do not know any of the companies referred to by Indian Express— Sea Bulk Shipping Company Ltd, Lady Shipping Ltd, Treasure Shipping Ltd, and Tramp Shipping Ltd. I have never been a director of any of the above-stated companies. It is possible that my name has been misused. I have paid all my taxes including on monies spent by me overseas. Monies that I have remitted overseas have been in compliance with law, including remittances through LRS (Liberalised Remittance Scheme), after paying Indian taxes. In any event the news report in Indian Express does not even suggest any illegality on my part.

‘Misused’ being the functional word, the denial was craftily open-ended. While ruling out any involvement on Bachchan’s part, it did not accuse the publication of misreporting. The Indian Express might well have found Bachchan’s name on the company records in question, went the tacit reasoning, but Bachchan had no knowledge either of those companies or how his name had cropped up in their records.

Not surprisingly, the Bachchan exposé and his late denial attracted lopsided media attention, prompting a few sceptics to question the credibility of the entire investigative series. Such provocations, however, did not perturb the editorial leadership at the Indian Express. Yet, Jay was not the only one with a sense of urgency when he reached Mumbai days after Bachchan issued the denial.

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A scrutiny of the list of persons prosecuted in the Panama Papers till February 2019 though does not inspire much confidence and reinforces the conception that somehow the prominent persons named in the exposé are not at least in the first line of fire of the tax sleuths. The very first prosecution to be filed in the Panama Papers probe was against Bharmal Lodha on 9 December 2016 for incorporating a company named Dependable Investments Limited in BVI way back in 1996. A list of nineteen of the thirty prosecutions filed by early 2019 were in courts in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai, West Bengal and Sikkim. Curiously, even three years after the MAG was set up, not a single court case has been filed in New Delhi.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India

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