Correction, April 5, 2016: This article has been corrected.
This article is being continuously updated, as developments merit.
Reports published this week on the secretive industry that banks and lawyers use to hide the financial holdings of some of the world’s top leaders and billionaires brought a powerful global response, including the resignation of one prime minister, while the White House and U.S. agencies reacted more cautiously.
President Barack Obama addressed the massive leak of documents, which led to the reporting, on Tuesday during a press conference about business tax reform.
“There is no doubt that the problem of global tax avoidance generally, is a huge problem,” the president said. The president also noted in his remarks that the problem is not unique to other nations. "There are folks here in America who are taking advantage of the same stuff. A lot of it is legal, but that's exactly the problem," the president added. "It's not that they're breaking the laws, it's that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they've got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by."
The Justice Department, which is investigating alleged corruption in the world’s top soccer body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), said it may focus more on the financial dealings raised in the reporting based on the documents.
“We are aware of the reports and are reviewing them," said Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman. "While we cannot comment on the specifics of these alleged documents, the U.S. Department of Justice takes very seriously all credible allegations of high level, foreign corruption that might have a link to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”
The investigation was published Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which with the German-based newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung oversaw the probe, which is being referred to as the Panama Papers. ICIJ is the international arm of the Center for Public Integrity.
At the White House’s daily news briefing on Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked four separate times about the reports. He said he wouldn’t comment on the allegations and stressed that “the United States continues to be a leading advocate for increased transparency in the international financial system and in working against illicit financial transactions and in fighting corruption.”
Earnest avoided a question asking if the administration would scrutinize the financial dealings of some world leaders with offshore holdings, including Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri, whom President Obama met with last month, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, whom Obama plans to visit this month.
“I'm not going to be able to consider the individual claims that are made based on some information included in the documents,” Earnest said. “But, look, this large volume of documents does not change the U.S. position.”
The papers, which totaled more than 11 million documents, were leaked from inside Panama-based Mossack Fonseca, one of the world’s top creators of shell companies, which are corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets. The documents expose the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders, associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former FIFA vice president, who has been charged by U.S. authorities with wire fraud and money laundering.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders issued a press release Tuesday on the Panama Papers to draw a contrast with Hillary Clinton. He said he voted against the Panama Free Trade Agreement, passed by Congress in 2011, arguing it would encourage the growth of offshore accounts to shield the wealthy from paying taxes. Clinton, Sanders said, “helped push the Panama Free Trade Agreement through Congress as Secretary of State.”
If elected president, Sanders said he would terminate the agreement.
Clinton has not issued a statement about the Panama Papers.
Still, most U.S. reaction was measured. U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman Whitney Smith said in an email that “we will not comment specifically on the findings.”
Smith added that “it is important to note that the U.S. government intently focuses on investigating possible illicit activity, including violations of U.S. tax laws or sanctions, using all sources of information, both public and non-public… If there has been any violation of U.S. tax law or sanctions evasion, we will take appropriate action consistent with the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Officials with the Treasury agency that investigates international financial crime, however, said it will be releasing “very soon” a rule that would require banks to disclose the identities of people behind shell companies such as those outlined in the Panama Papers. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network is completing the “customer due diligence” rule, which would require banks to identify individuals who own 25 percent or more of a corporation or exercises control over the organization.
An official with the Securities and Exchange Commission said Wednesday the agency is looking into the offshore accounts outlined in the Panama Papers. Kara Novaco Brockmeyer, chief of the commission’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act unit, did not elaborate, according to Reuters news service.
SEC officials did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Major U.S. media outlets weighed in as well.
"Lost tax revenue is one consequence of this hidden system," said the New York Times in an editorial. "Even more dangerous is its deep damage to democratic rule and regional stability when corrupt politicians have a place to stash stolen national assets out of public view."
USA TODAY said that Mossack Fonseca has assisted in establishing almost 1,100 business entities in the United States since 2001, mostly in Nevada and Wyoming, according to state incorporation records; both those states have relatively permissive laws regarding corporate secrecy. The newspaper said most of the firms linked to Mossack Fonseca "were formed by M.F. Corporate Services (Nevada) Limited, a one-employee company based out of a low-slung tile-roofed office building 20 miles from the Las Vegas strip."
The Panama Papers investigation has had a massive impact globally. It led to the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, official investigations were opened worldwide and an immediate censorship drive was instituted in China.
Thousands of Icelanders took to the streets of Reykjavik on Monday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson following the disclosure by ICIJ, Reykjavik Media, and Suddeutsche Zeitung that he and two members of his cabinet had owned or controlled secret offshore shell companies.
On Tuesday, Iceland’s president refused a request from Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson to dissolve parliament and call snap elections, according to the Guardian.
Gunnlaugsson’s resignation came hours later.
Gunnlaugsson violated parliamentary ethics rules when he failed to disclose his 50 percent ownership of Wintris Inc. in 2009. The company held millions of dollars worth of bonds in the three major Icelandic banks, which collapsed in 2008. The prime minister said the company was actually his wife’s all along and that his 50 percent ownership was caused by an error by the couple’s bank.
The crowd gathered in the square across from Parliament House, tossing eggs, bananas, and Icelandic yogurt at the building.
In the United Kingdom, banks and financial institutions on Wednesday were given till April 15 to disclose any dealings they have had with the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. U.K. regulators wrote approximately 20 firms to ask about “any significant issues or relationships identified.”
Panama President Juan Carlos Varela said the government will create an international committee of experts to recommend improvements in transparency in the offshore financial industry and that the committee would share its findings with other nations in the interest of taking joint action.
In Mexico, tax officials said Wednesday that they would look at information related to 33 Mexican nationals mentioned in documents related to the investigation to see whether income from offshore activities was properly reported.