What Is a Company Formation Agent?
Hidden assets, money laundering, tax dodging, and the firms that help make it all possible. Here’s how formation agents can facilitate abuse of the global financial system.
Leaked documents reveal that the law firm of a FIFA ethics watchdog had business relationships with three men who have been indicted in the world soccer association’s corruption scandal.
The confidential files disclose previously unknown dealings between the three men and Juan Pedro Damiani, a member of FIFA’s Independent Ethics Committee, which has handed down a series of bans against high-level executives at the organization.
The records show that Damiani and his law firm did work for at least seven offshore companies linked to Eugenio Figueredo, a former FIFA vice president who has been charged by U.S. authorities with wire fraud and money laundering for his role in the alleged bribery conspiracy.
The records also show that Damiani’s law firm served as an intermediary for a Nevada-based company linked to Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, a father-son team of businessmen who have been accused of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to gain broadcast rights to FIFA events in Latin America.
The records do not show illegal conduct by Damiani or his law firm. But they do raise new questions for Damiani and FIFA at a time when the nexus between offshore secrecy and corruption has been a growing concern in the world’s most popular sport.
Damiani, the president of Uruguay’s Club Atlético Peñarol, one of the more important soccer clubs in Latin America, said his law firm does not maintain “any professional relationship” with anyone indicted in the U.S.’s FIFA investigation. He did not answer a question about previous working relationships with people indicted in the case.
The links between the ethics watchdog and figures indicted in the FIFA scandal are among the new revelations about the hidden side of soccer contained in the leaked documents.
The secret files show that what is often called “the beautiful game” could also be dubbed the game of dummy corporations and tax havens. The documents expose offshore entities used by an array of players, team owners, league officials, sports agents and soccer clubs to move money offshore.
These findings are the result of a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media partners. The reporting partners sifted through more than 11 million records from the internal files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm that specializes in helping the wealthy and powerful set up offshore companies.
The Mossack Fonseca documents include the names of nearly 20 high-profile soccer players, past and present, representing some of the globe’s best-known professional football clubs, including Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Among the names: Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona star, a five-time world player of the year, is already under indictment in Spain on charges that he and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, used offshore companies in Belize and Uruguay to stiff the government out of millions of dollars in taxes.
The leaked documents show that Messi and his father owned yet another offshore company in Panama: Mega Star Enterprises.
The first reference to the company in Mossack Fonseca’s files came on June 13, 2013 — one day after Spanish prosecutors first filed tax fraud charges against Messi and his father. An email indicated that responsibility for handling the company’s paperwork was being transferred to Mossack Fonseca from another offshore corporate agent.
The first reference in the files to the Messis owning Mega Star came less than two weeks later, on June 23, 2013.
Through his father, Messi declined to comment for this story.
The files also include the offshore holdings of current or former owners of at least 20 major soccer clubs, including Internazionale Milano and Boca Juniors.
While soccer players and executives are by far the most common sports-related names in the leaked documents, the files also include the names of current and former athletes from other sports.
“Over the years, we’ve seen an increasing penetration of offshore finance into sports, which we believe is detrimental to the game,” said George Turner of the Tax Justice Network, a fair-tax advocacy group based in London. “If we’re shifting competition away from the athleticism, the skill, the talent of the players and into the skill and talent of the accountants, lawyers, bankers, and boardroom executives, the sport quickly becomes a pointless thing to go and watch.”
Mossack Fonseca’s internal files reveal, for example, that at least 11 retired National Hockey League players used the law firm to help administer offshore structures. The records show that Nick Faldo, one of the top professional golfers of all time, owned an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands from 2006 until 2008. Faldo is one of at least five golfers whose names appear in the documents.
A spokesperson for Faldo declined comment.
The FIFA scandal broke into the open in 2015 when the U.S. Justice Department charged that entrepreneurs had used bribes and kickbacks to win favorable terms on the broadcast rights to games sponsored by the world soccer body.
Four of the 1631 FIFA officials indicted in the United States used offshore companies created by Mossack Fonseca, as did four businessmen linked to the soccer corruption case, the leaked records show.
The records show that two of the businessmen charged with fraud and money laundering in the scandal — Hugo and Mariano Jinkis — have been linked to a company called Cross Trading SA that was originally incorporated on the tiny Pacific island of Niue in 1998, then moved to Nevada in 2006 as Cross Trading LLC.
Both Hugo and Mariano Jinkis are mentioned in correspondence regarding Cross Trading between Mossack Fonseca and the law of firm of Damiani, the FIFA ethics panel member. The leaked records listed Hugo Jinkis as a “beneficiary” of the company after it moved to Nevada.
The records show that Damiani’s law firm did work for Cross Trading while it was in Niue as well as in Nevada — handling correspondence for Cross Trading and advising on the question of whether it would have to pay taxes in Nevada. At one point after the company’s move to Nevada, the records listed Damiani as Cross Trading’s “principal beneficiary,” but it’s unclear what that meant. It’s possible that was a temporary designation while the new structure for the company was being arranged.
Damiani’s ties to Cross Trading weren’t unusual. According to the leaked documents, Damiani and his law firm, J.P. Damiani & Asociados, have acted as a go-between for hundreds of companies registered with Mossack Fonseca.
Among them are five offshore companies owned by Figueredo, the former FIFA vice president arrested in Zurich in May 2015. Damiani’s firm also acted as an intermediary for a company over which Figueredo held power of attorney and another company for which Figueredo and members of his family served as officers and directors.
Figueredo has been charged with taking part in a bribery scheme in which media and marketing executives were to pay more than $100 million in exchange for the rights to Copa Libertadores, the annual Latin American soccer championship, and other major events.
In a separate case, Figueredo has already pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering in his native Uruguay.
Damiani said through a spokesperson that he wasn’t authorized to make statements while officials in Uruguay are investigating allegations of corruption related to FIFA. He added, however, that he has taken a lead in reporting corrupt practices within FIFA to Uruguayan authorities and to the soccer organization’s ethics committee.
One of the biggest soccer figures named in the documents is Michel Platini, a former French soccer great and a key figure in the 2015 FIFA scandal. Platini relied on Mossack Fonseca to help him administer an offshore company created in Panama in 2007, the same year he was named president of UEFA, the European soccer association. Platini was given an unlimited power of attorney for Balney Enterprises Corp., which was still an active business as of March 2016, according to Panama’s commercial register.
Platini, a longtime member of FIFA’s executive committee, has already been banned from the sport for six years because of a questionable $2 million payment he received from FIFA in 2011.
An attorney for Platini said his client is a Swiss citizen and noted that all his “bank accounts, investments or assets are known by the Swiss Authorities.”
Jérôme Valcke, the secretary general of FIFA from 2007 until he was banned on corruption charges in September 2015, also appears in the leaked documents. Valcke is listed as the owner of a British Virgin Islands company called Umbelina SA, created in July 2013.
The company appears to have been used to purchase a yacht registered in the Cayman Islands.
“Publish what you want,” Valcke wrote in an email responding to questions for this story. “The company no longer exists and never had its own funds, never held a bank account and never had any commercial activity.”
The Mossack Fonseca files also provide details of broadcast agreements that officials with CONMEBOL, the South American soccer association, signed with companies that U.S. authorities claim paid bribes and kickbacks. The men who signed these deals for the association — CONMEBOL’s former president, Nicolás Leoz, and its former secretary general, Eduardo Deluca — were both indicted by the U.S. in November.
One deal, with a company run by an entrepreneur named as an unindicted “co-conspirator,” provided that CONMEBOL would be paid $97 million for the rights to broadcast Copa Libertadores championships from 2008 to 2018.
According to 2015 indictments, the entrepreneur secured media and marketing rights for his companies by paying annual six-figure bribes to Leoz, Deluca and other CONMEBOL officials over a period of several years.
The soccer players whose names appear in the Mossack Fonseca files hail from Brazil, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Serbia, The Netherlands and Sweden, among other countries. Most seemed to have used the law firm’s services to create offshore companies to hold the money they earned selling their image rights to athletic shoe companies and other advertisers.
Lionel Messi and his father, who served as his son’s agent, are slated to stand trial on tax fraud charges starting May 31. Accused of shortchanging the government out of nearly $6.5 million in taxes by shielding his image rights in an offshore network, Messi has paid the back taxes the government said he owed for the years 2007-2009.
Messi denies that he deliberately tried to deceive anyone.
Mega Star Enterprises, the offshore company owned by Messi and his father at least as far back as 2013, is not mentioned in the Spanish government’s 2014 and 2015 indictments against the pair. The leaked records show Messi signed at least one document reflecting his ownership of Mega Star, but that his father, Jorge Messi, took over sole ownership of the company in December 2015. The company remains active in Panama’s company register.
Messi isn’t alone when it comes to using offshore havens.
Leonardo Ulloa, a top scorer for Leicester City, the surprise team of the season for fans of the Premier League.
In early 2008, when he was playing for San Lorenzo de Almagro in Argentina, Leo Ulloa signed over his economic and image rights to Jump Drive Sport Rights LLC, a company registered in New York.
On paper, Jump Drive’s director and shareholder weren’t people but instead two companies based in the South Pacific nation of Samoa. Jump Drive’s power of attorney was held by José Manuel García Osuna, a businessman and soccer administrator who is now facing fraud charges in Spain, including an allegation that he pocketed a large percentage of the money that Ulloa was supposed to receive for his image rights as well as for his signing contracts to move from one team to another.
Ulloa declined to discuss his image rights agreement or his dealings with Osuna. “I don’t have a good relationship with him now, but I don’t want to talk about it,” Ulloa said in a brief telephone interview.
Osuna told ICIJ that he didn’t incorporate Jump Drive and he didn’t sign Ulloa’s image rights contract. He said he negotiated Ulloa’s signing with the Spanish club CD Castellón but he “did not bill a single cent to the club in exchange for my services.”
Iván Zamorano, a retired footballer from Chile who was named to the FIFA 100 list of the world’s best living players.
His image rights were held by Fut Bam International Ltd., when he was a star player for Real Madrid in the 1990s. Fut Bam is based in the British Virgin Islands, which has an effective tax rate of zero, and lists Zamorano as its owner.
Fut Bam granted temporary custody of those image rights to Real Madrid in exchange for a total payment of $195 million pesetas —roughly $1.3 million dollars. The club was to pay Fut Bam $45 million pesetas in 1993 and then another $50 million pesetas ($330,000) a year between 1994 and 1996.
Gabriel Iván Heinze, who is from Argentina and played with Manchester United and Real Madrid, among other teams.
In 2005, while he was with Manchester United, Heinze created the Galena Mills Corp., also in the British Virgin Islands. That same year he signed a contract with Puma AG that guaranteed him payments of at least $1 million over five years. The payments from Puma were channeled through the offshore company. The records show that Heinze’s mother was listed as the company’s owner.
The Puma deal ended in 2008, a few months after Heinze joined Real Madrid. The Mossack Fonseca files also show that the former footballer also held a Swiss bank account with UBS.
A spokesman for Heinze said that “the set up of Galena Mills was a part of a succession (inheritance) strategy, just in case something bad could happen to Heinze.” The spokesman said Galena Mills “paid all the necessary taxes” in the countries where it was supposed to pay taxes.
The secret documents also expose how one club, Real Sociedad in Spain, paid its players in a way that appears to have allowed both the club and its players to slash their tax payments.
The documents show that the club shelled out millions of dollars each year to the foreign players in its employ, even as the players reported a fraction of those payments to the Spanish government. Real Sociedad paid seven of its foreign players that way between 2000 and 2008, the records show, via companies and banks in Niue, Panama, the British Virgin Islands, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Jersey in the Channel Islands.
Spanish authorities were told that Darko Kovačević, a well-known Serbian footballer, was earning about $2,000 a month from the team during the 2006-2007 season, according to an online news site, ExtraConfidencial.com, which in December published parts of an investigative report by a Spanish prosecutor. Mossack Fonseca’s files show that that the team paid Kovačević roughly $1.4 million that season through IMFC Licensing in The Netherlands.
Real Sociedad’s general manager, Iñaki Otegi, declined to answer questions about the club’s payment practices. But the club’s press officer said that Otegi “asked me to phone you and tell you that this sort of practice of using companies abroad to remunerate the foreign players was and is a common practice in all Spanish soccer clubs.”
Bastian Obermayer contributed reporting to this story.