An enormous new leak of tax-haven financial records is laying bare some of the financial secrets of the world's elite, from the Queen of the UK to US president's commerce secretary, along with more than 120 politicians across the globe.
The 13.4 million files in what is being dubbed the Paradise Papers come largely from Appleby, one of the biggest offshore law firms on the planet, which was founded in Bermuda and has branches in tax havens around the world.
The records expose the assets and sometimes murky dealings of a host of characters, as well as the ways corporate giants like Apple, Nike and Uber avoid taxes legally through increasingly creative bookkeeping.
The leak -- rivalling the Panama Papers in size and scope -- was obtained by German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a network of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has business ties to a shipping firm linked to Vladimir Putin's inner circle, according to the leak that also revealed Queen Elizabeth II's investments in tax havens.
Besides, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's top fundraiser and senior advisor Stephen Bronfman, heir to the Seagram fortune, moved some $60 million to offshore tax havens with ex-senator Leo Kolber.
There is no suggestion that Ross, Bronfman or the queen's private estate acted illegally.
But Ross's ties to Russian entities raise questions over potential conflicts of interest, and whether they undermine Washington's sanctions on Moscow.
The commerce secretary insisted that "there is no impropriety".
In an interview with the BBC yesterday, Ross defended personal business links to Russia revealed by the Paradise Papers. In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Ross indicated he could end the links but not because of any wrongdoing.
The revelations about Bronfman could spell trouble for Trudeau, who was elected two years ago riding on the coattails of promises to reduce economic inequality and tax avoidance.
Canada's tax agency began poring over the papers leaked from Appleby for any evidence of Canadians having used tax havens to evade paying taxes in this country.
The names of roughly 3,300 Canadian companies, trusts, foundations and individuals appear in the Paradise Papers.
In the case of Queen Elizabeth's private estate, critics may question whether it is appropriate for the British head of state to invest in offshore tax havens.
The Queen's financial advisers have been criticised for bringing the “monarchy into disrepute” after it was revealed she had £10m invested in an offshore tax haven.
The Duchy of Lancaster -- which provides the Queen with a private income -- holds funds in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
This money is divested into accounts which are sheltered from the UK tax, which then makes investment decisions on their behalf.
The Duchy made a small investment in the controversial rent-to-buy furniture firm BrightHouse, which was ordered to pay back £14.8m to its customers last week after the Financial Conduct Authority said it had not acted as a “responsible leader”.
The Duchy said its holdings in BrightHouse now equate to just over £3,000 and did not control how the fund made decisions about what to invest in.
Asked whether the monarch should say sorry over her investments, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said anyone putting money offshore to avoid tax should do so and also “recognise what it does to our society”.
Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, is named in the files as a director of an offshore firm used in a multibillion-dollar oil and gas venture in the Middle East that became embroiled in controversy.
Tillerson was a director of Marib Upstream Services Company, incorporated in Bermuda in 1997. The company was tied to ExxonMobil, the American oil and gas corporation that Tillerson later led as chief executive.
Other names that surfaced in the Paradise Papers include former PMs of Pakistan and Japan, president of Colombia, ex-deputy minister for defence of Saudi Arabia, the Queen of Jordan and Brazilian politicians.
Celebrity icons like Madonna, Bono and Amitabh Bachchan have also been named in the documents.
THE RUSSIAN CONNECTION
Russian politicians played down the leak, saying the deals mentioned were legal and not politically motivated.
Ross, a billionaire investor, holds a 31 percent stake in Navigator Holdings through a complex web of offshore investments detailed in the documents.
The 79-year-old reduced his stake when he took public office, according to public filings.
Navigator Holdings runs a lucrative partnership with Russian energy giant Sibur, which is partially owned by Putin's son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and Gennady Timchenko, the Russian president's friend and business partner who is subject to US sanctions.
The US imposed sanctions on Russian entities and individuals over the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine.
Ross's private equity firm has been the biggest shareholder in Navigator, and although his personal share of the firm's stake was reduced when he took office in February, the commerce chief's investment is still valued at $2 million to $10 million, according to official filings.
The New York Times reported that Ross's stake in Navigator has been held by companies in the Cayman Islands. His wealth, estimated to exceed $2 billion, is said to be tied to similar arrangements in various tax havens like the Cayman Islands.
Among the 180 countries represented in the data, India ranks 19th in terms of the number of names.
In all, there are 714 Indians in the tally. Interestingly, it's an Indian company, Sun Group, founded by Nand Lal Khemka, that figures as Appleby's second-largest client internationally, with as many as 118 different offshore entities.
Among Appleby's Indian clients are several prominent corporates and companies which subsequently came under the scrutiny of investigating agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
Records have mentions like Sun-TV-Aircel-Maxis case; Essar-Loop 2G case; SNC-Lavalin in which Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was named, then cleared; the Rajasthan ambulance scam which has recently been routed to the CBI and which names a company called Ziquista Healthcare; and fresh financial links in a CBI case against YSR Congress Chief YS Jagan Mohan Reddy.
Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha's name cropped up in the papers, leading Congress to mount a fierce attack against the Narendra Modi government.
India formed a panel of government officials to investigate cases that figure in the Paradise Papers. Officials from government bodies and the central bank will carry out and monitor the probe, the finance ministry said.
Appleby did not reply to a detailed list of questions sent by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists but released an online statement stating it had investigated the questions.
"We believe they are unfounded and based on a lack of understanding of the legitimate and lawful structures used in the offshore sector," the statement said. "There is no evidence of any wrongdoing."
[From CBC News, BBC, The Guardian, Independent, Indian Express and AFP]