Cybersecurity

Massive leak of law firm documents reveals offshore wealth of politicians and celebrities

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Unlocked documents

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One of the largest data leaks ever to occur resulted in more than 11 million documents from a Panamanian law firm that specializes in offshore incorporations and wealth management reportedly being sent to a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Shared by the newspaper through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for a year-long analysis by a team of reporters at media organizations including BBC News and the Guardian, the documents reveal financial dealings by Russian President Vladimir Putin and 11 other current and former world leaders; celebrities and their families and friends; as well as a number of individuals and entities blacklisted by the U.S. government.

A USA Today story about the so-called Panama Papers trove says the documents span an almost 40-year period from 1977, when the Mossack Fonseca firm started in business, to December 2015. In addition to legal documents, the leak includes bank statements and invoices.

It isn’t clear from news reports how the anonymous source that provided the documents to the German newspaper defeated law firm security measures to do so.

In a written response to questions by ICIJ, the Mossack firm said it had done nothing wrong and could not comment specifically on confidential client matters. However, it noted that “incorporating companies is the normal activity of lawyers and agents around the world.”

On Monday, the firm released another statement, quoted by CNN. “Our industry is not particularly well understood by the public, and unfortunately this series of articles will only serve to deepen that confusion. The facts are these: while we may have been the victim of a data breach, nothing we’ve seen in this illegally obtained cache of documents suggests we’ve done anything illegal, and that’s very much in keeping with the global reputation we’ve built over the past 40 years of doing business the right way, right here in Panama. Obviously, no one likes to have their property stolen, and we intend to do whatever we can to ensure the guilty parties are brought to justice,” Mossack Fonseca wrote. “But in the meantime, our plan is to continue to serve our clients, stand behind our people, and support the local communities in which we have the privilege to work all over the world, just as we’ve done for nearly four decades.”

The ICIJ contends that some major banks and law firms (it doesn’t specify which ones) have failed to take required measures to ensure that clients are not acting illegally.

In response to questions about backdating documents, the Mossack firm said doing so “is a well-founded and accepted practice” that is “common in our industry and its aim is not to cover up or hide unlawful acts.”

The U.S. Department of Justice said Monday that it was reviewing the documents to see whether there is any violation of U.S. law.

On Tuesday, founding partner Ramon Fonseca said that this was not an inside data leak; the firm was a victim of a hack. He has filed a complaint with the Panamanian attorney general’s office.

“The only crime that has been proven is the hack,” Fonseca said. “No one is talking about that. That is the story.”

Related coverage:

Agence France-Presse: ” ‘Panama Papers’ leak boosts Panama’s image as hub for money laundering”

Forbes: “Billionaires, Former Billionaires Outed For Offshore Wealth By The Panama Papers”

Guardian: “The Panama Papers: what you need to know “

Irish Times (news analysis): “Panama Papers: Secret records reveal money network tied to Vladimir Putin”

Updated April 7 to include links to subsequent coverage.

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