Two years after the Panama Papers were leaked, the question remains of the extent of their impact. The Organized Crime and Reporting Project (OCCRP), began investigating corruption in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has grown into a global project. They continue to use data from the Panama Papers ito investigate corruption to this day.
Hromadske spoke to Paul Radu, Executive Director of the OCCRP, at the annual investigative journalism conference, MezhyhiryaFest, about the lasting impact of the Panama Papers and the role of investigative journalism in uncovering corruption.
To the public, the Panama Papers was significant because the names implicated included prominent government officials and businessmen. However, the lack of action and inability to persecute have discouraged a lot of people about the ability of the public to hold corrupt officials accountable. According to Paul Radu, the Panama Papers is "a gift that keeps on giving."
"There is a lot, a lot of information that hasn't been explored yet," he told Hromadske. "Some the information in the Panama Papers will become relevant at a later in time.” He also pointed to the recent work of the OCCRP on the "Russian Laundromat," where over $20 billion was laundered. Key information in this investigation came from the Panama Papers database.
According to Radu, the Panama Papers revealed a "rigged system" that corrupt politician, criminals and controversial business used to do business and make money illegally. Exposing this system makes it "much harder for them to do business as usual," Radu said.
Radu acknowledged that new tricks will be invented, but at the end of the day corruption is still an old trick. "You are stealing money from citizens' pockets," he explained, "It's theft, simple theft."
While the Panama Papers point to off-shore tax havens and bearer share companies located far from home, Radu stated that a great deal of corruption takes place within the EU. "We need to clean our house first," he said. "All the politicians in the EU are using these tools."
Radu acknowledged that that it's harder to persecute powerful peole in Eastern Europe, but also pointed to some positive changes, such as the jailing of several officials in Romania. "You've got to attack the system," Radu explained. "The Panama Papers highlighted and exposed the system in its entirety. So now it's much harder for these people to use the same mechanisms to do busienss. That is very important."
Panama Papers has been one of the biggest international journalistic investigations which was covering a number of governments and politicians. There was a big buzz last year, but we would like to know what is the follow up, what is changing? Starting with the Panama Papers, that is a story, which was a huge success if we speak about the investigation. Now, can we speak about the results, the impact of that? You know, investigations today are making a lot of people discouraged. All the politicians are corrupt, and it leads to nowhere. Do we know about any kind of things which led to something? Which brought some positive results in courts and elsewhere?
Well, you are right. Panama Papers was all about the hype of the names involved, including names in Ukraine and Russia, and other countries. But really, Panama Papers is about the whole system. It is a rigged system that was used by corrupt politicians, by criminals, by controversial businessmen to actually do business, to make money in an illegal way. So, that’s what’s changing with the Panama Papers project. Now it is much harder for them to do business as usual. So I think that changed quite a bit. Even if people were not sent to jail, as it happened in a few other countries. In our region, it is harder to put people in jail, especially people in power. Although, in my country, in Romania, that happens quite a lot lately for the past few years.
The thing is, you know, you got to attack the system. And the Panama Papers highlighted and exposed the system in its entirety. So now it is much harder for these people to use the same mechanisms to do business. That is very important. Don’t forget that at the level of the European Union, there is an open investigation into the Panama Papers. There is a group investigating, officially investigating, at the level of the European Union. And out of this group, there’re a few ideas that came out and that will become practice very soon. And one is to create a register of beneficial ownership at the level of the EU. So no company can do business in the EU without knowing who is the real owner of the company. That is very, very important as this was exactly how these criminals, how these corrupt politicians, businessmen do business right now; stealing European funds, stealing national funds, and all this.
Secondly, one thing people must understand about the Panama Papers is that this is a gift that keeps on giving. I mean, Panama Papers is not over. Even we published in March this year an investigation we titled, “The Russian Laundromat.” It is about more than $20 billion laundered via banks in Moldova, in Latvia, and including connections to Ukraine. The key piece of information for that investigation came from the Panama Papers database. There is a lot, a lot of information there that’s not explored yet. That will be explored, because you know, journalists are working actively. So that is a place you keep on going to get information. That is why I say it is something that will probably never stop. Because some of information in the Panama Papers will become relevant later in time. And that information, coupled with other leaks, with other databases, can create new investigative reporting and it is creating new investigative reporting. In fact, we are working right now on an investigation that, I think, will be very impactful. That we are going to publish in the fall. Some of the information for this investigation comes from Panama Papers as well as from other sources.
When we talk to a lot journalists from the region, they said that they were uncovering corruption before and there was a high level of corruption here in Mezhyrhirya where the Ukrainian president used to live. We know what we knew about that place thanks to investigative reporters. But how are their practices changing? With the corrupt officials and criminals, they adapt very fast. As soon as you found something, you put a light on it, they find new ways. So what are now new tricks besides tax havens, that was the thing, but now you can dig into that?
The thing is, I mean, even with tax havens, they are still using the old tricks. There are not so many ways to go about corruption, to do corruption. In the end, it is about stealing money from someone’s pocket, that’s it. You are stealing money from the citizens’ pockets, so it is theft. It is simple theft. You can put in between off-shores, you can put bearer shares companies, and all these. These tricks are still used.
One of the main thing here, for one instance, at the level of the European Union – although the European Union is investigating Panama Papers and it is taking actions against bearer shares and against off-shore tax havens. There are a few countries inside the European Union where you can create companies which insure more secrecy than the companies that were established by Fonseca in Panama. In my country, in Romania, there are more than 300 companies that are owned via bearer shares. Bearer shares mean a piece of paper where you have a hundred shares in a company. Whoever holds the piece of paper in their hands, it is their company. So if I give you that piece of paper, it is your company. If I put it in my pocket, it is my company. Without other documents attached to it. So these are things that are alright right now in the EU. We don’t need to go to the Panama Papers. We need to clean our house first. And so, all the politicians in the EU are using these tools.
Outside of the Panama Papers, there is a lot, a lot, of work to be done. For instance, in Austria, you can establish “privatstiftungs”, private foundations that can be used in various ways. I think, in fact, Mezhyrhyria here was owned by a company connected to a “privatstiftung”. So there are various tricks still used, still the old tricks. There will be new tricks. We see this right now money-laundering. Our last project about “The Russian Laundromat” – more than $20 billion laundered through banks in the EU. We see it targeted banks, there were more than 500 banks involved in dealing with this money. And now we have bitcoin, and bitcoin is still a small part of world economy, it is very very small. But if you crack down on banks, and this needs to happen, lots of criminals will probably move towards bitcoin. We’ll see how that will go and then we have to adapt to it a bit more – to use more technology in our investigative reporting to be able to expose this stuff.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Written by Chen Ou Yang