Toby & Toby on ... The Panama Paper chase

11:32 am on 12 May 2016

The what?

Just less than a month ago, the world was introduced to the Panama Papers, a leak of 11.5 million documents from the offshore-specialist law firm Mossack Fonseca. Stories based on the material, which was shared by Süddeutsche Zeitung with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 107 media organisations in 80 countries, created global political waves. This week, the ICIJ has posted a massive database featuring more than 200,000 entities involved with the firm, representing, the ICIJ reckons, "the largest ever release of secret offshore companies and the people behind them".

Scoundrels all!

Well, no. But let's come back to that in a bit.

So this database is where the Radio NZ team got their big splashes this week?

Not quite. And it's just "RNZ", please.

Apologies. Where did they get them from?

Having made contact with the ICIJ directly, reporters from RNZ and TVNZ, along with investigative journalist Nicky Hager, were provided with the full Panama Papers database, and they launched their first stories on Monday morning.

What did the stories tell us?

The extent to which New Zealand, which appears almost 61,000 times in the documents, has been promoted by Mossack Fonseca, to Latin American clients especially, as an ideal tax-free place to park money in offshore trusts or companies, thanks to limited disclosure requirements as well as political and legal stability - putting NZ at the heart of the Panama money-go-round".

The central figure in New Zealand was identified as Roger Thompson, Mossack Fonseca's agent here, who crops up in 4560 documents. Thompson responds to questions about his role here. Documents also appear to challenge the prime minister's assertion that his personal lawyer, Ken Whitney, had no dealings with Mossack Fonseca. The PM rejected the allegations, saying any association was "tenuous".

Did the ICIJ check out those named before naming them?

No. And that has prompted some criticism. The ICIJ emphasises, however, that it is not a "data dump" of the original documents (as provided to, for example, the RNZ-TVNZ-Hager supergroup), but "a careful release of basic corporate information". The details are limited to those that many, including world leaders such as David Cameron, now say should be made routinely public as part of disclosure rules.

The database comes with a disclaimer that begins: "There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly."

Where is this database?

Here.

That's a pizza delivery database.

Sorry. Here.

What reasons would anyone have for parking money overseas?

A recent Economist piece cites a range of motivations for using an offshore shell company or trust - from "pooling investor's money from different countries" and "insulating savings from an unstable economy", through to evading tax, funding corruption and so on.

What motivated the leaker?

The leaker, widely assumed to have accessed hacked materials, points to global income inequality, "one of the defining issues of our time", and predicts "the next revolution will be digitised".

Where did they say that?

The self-styled "John Doe" wrote a lengthy statement, published on the weekend. The same one that names only one world leader, John Key, who is described as having "been curiously quiet about his country's role in enabling the financial fraud Mecca that is the Cook Islands".

The Cook Islands?

The Cook Islands. Many have noted that the Cook Islands were integral in events leading to the Wine Box inquiry of the 1990s. But John Key has pointed out that the loopholes that allowed the Cooks to be used in dodging tax have long been closed. "I have as much responsibility for tax in the Cook Islands as I do for Russia,"said Key.

What? John Key wields influence over the Russian tax system?

The point is that he doesn't wield influence over the Russian tax system.

What about this Hagar fellow?

It's Hager. Rhymes with lager. Doesn't rhyme with vaguer.

OK but isn't he a screaming leftwing conspiracy theorist?

That's what the prime minister claims.

Yes but is he?

It is the considered opinion of the Toby & Toby Epithet Assessment Committee that Nicky Hager is not a screaming left wing conspiracy theorist.

What is the committee's view on John Key being a David Icke style shapeshifting reptilian alien ushering humanity towards enslavement?

Irrespective of the absence of evidence either way, the committee is firmly of the view that John Key is not a David Icke style shapeshifting reptilian alien ushering humanity towards enslavement.

What NZ stories have been fished out of this week's database publication?

A document was found referring to the late South Canterbury Finance founder Alan Hubbard. Another linked a Tauranga based Elvis impersonator to an Iraqi oil scandal.

Anything problematic in the database for the global Toby community?

"Toby" appears 16 times in the database. But there is nothing to link these Tobys, who are almost certainly either innocent or imposters, to wrongdoing.

The popular animated Toby & Toby column has remained curiously quiet on the appearance of Toby-based entities in the database.

That's an outrageous smear; it was the popular animated Toby & Toby column that raised it just a moment ago.

Is New Zealand a tax haven, then?

Depends who you ask. Such a suggestion is either obviously true or obviously ridiculous or somewhere in between. More searing analysis here.

What is the political response?

The prime minister has arguably "softened" in his stance on tax reform ; having asked John Shewan to review the status of foreign trusts, Key this week said he was "more than happy to make changes" to the system.

Labour is keen on outlawing foreign trusts altogether, while all the opposition parties, as well as government minister Peter Dunne , have expressed concern about the impact of the revelations on New Zealand's reputation. Key, too, says: "We want to preserve New Zealand's reputation."

Is there really any impact on NZ's reputation?

It is easy to overstate the extent to which most of the world gives a toss, but it's fair to say we could do without headlines such as "New Zealand identified as pivotal in world's rich hiding their money" (ABC Australia), "NZ named at heart of Panama Papers" (Reuters TV), and "NZ prime place for rich to hide money" (Times of India).

What about Winston Peters?

Glad you asked. He is calling for a wider inquiry, but what you really need to know is his critique of the prime minister's response on RNZ's Cambopoint : "He's like a boy who's had a widdle behind the couch and he's denying it to mum, but saying, look, if I have I'll mop it up."

Is it a coincidence that The Panama Papers abbreviates to TPP?

Yes.

Sum it up in 25 words.

Panama Paper darts continue to fill the political airspace, and NZ inches closer to a consensus on the minimum change: beefing up trust disclosure rules.

And in five words?

Gonna need a bigger winebox.

Toby Toby stamp

* This column is part of a weekly series published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.