In 2013, U.K. leader David Cameron urged his country’s overseas territories — including the British Virgin Islands — to work with him to “get our own houses in order” and join the fight against tax evasion and offshore secrecy.
He could have looked no further than his late father to see how challenging that would be.
Ian Cameron, a stockbroker and multimillionaire, was a Mossack Fonseca client who used the law firm to shield his investment fund, Blairmore Holdings, Inc., from U.K. taxes.
The fund’s name came from Blairmore House, his family’s ancestral country estate. Mossack Fonseca registered the investment fund in Panama even though many of its key investors were British. Ian Cameron controlled the fund from its birth in 1982 until his death in 2010.
A prospectus for investors said the fund “should be managed and conducted so that it does not become resident in the United Kingdom for United Kingdom taxation purposes.”
The fund did this by using untraceable certificates of ownership known as “bearer shares” and by employing “nominee” company officers based in the Bahamas, the law firm’s leaked records show.
Ian Cameron’s tax-haven history is an example of how deeply offshore secrecy is woven into the lives of political and financial elites around the world. It’s also an important economic engine for many countries. The weight of that self-interest has made reform difficult.
In the U.S., for example, states like Delaware and Nevada, which have allowed company owners to remain anonymous, continue to fight against efforts to require greater corporate transparency.
Mossack Fonseca’s home country, Panama, has refused to embrace a plan for worldwide exchange of information about bank accounts — out of concern that its offshore industry could be left at a competitive disadvantage. Panama officials say they will exchange information, but on a more modest scale.
The challenge that reformers and law enforcers face is how to find and stop criminal behavior when it’s buried beneath layers of secrecy. The most effective tool for breaking through this secrecy has been leaks of offshore documents that have dragged hidden dealings into the open.
Document leaks uncovered by ICIJ and its media partners have prompted legislation and official investigations in dozens of countries — and fanned fears among offshore customers who worry their secrets will be revealed.
In April 2013, after ICIJ released its “Offshore Leaks” stories based on confidential documents from the British Virgin Islands and Singapore, some Mossack Fonseca customers emailed the firm looking for reassurance that their offshore holdings were safe from scrutiny.
Mossack Fonseca told customers not to worry. It said its commitment to its clients’ privacy “has always been paramount, and in this regard your confidential information is stored in our state-of-the-art data center, and any communication within our global network is handled through an encryption algorithm that complies with the highest world-class standards.”
This story was reported and written by Bastian Obermayer, Gerard Ryle, Marina Walker Guevara, Michael Hudson, Jake Bernstein, Will Fitzgibbon, Mar Cabra, Martha M. Hamilton, Frederik Obermaier, Ryan Chittum, Emilia Díaz-Struck, Rigoberto Carvajal, Cécile Schilis-Gallego, Marcos García Rey, Delphine Reuter, Matthew Caruana-Galizia, Hamish Boland-Rudder, Miguel Fiandor and Mago Torres.