Sunday, July 24, 2016

Will Fitzgibbon - Secret Offshore Deals Deprive Africa of Billions: Panama Papers show politicians and corporates benefit from dubious multimillion dollar transfers

When he wasn’t aboard his yacht, Farid Bedjaoui held court in the Bulgari Hotel in Milan, a renovated 18th-century palace nestled between the botanical gardens and the La Scala theater. Over five years, Bedjaoui’s hotel tab there exceeded $100,000. In the plush rooms and the granite-lined lobby, Bedjaoui met with Algerian government officials and executives from Saipem, the Italian energy giant. Their agenda, according to witnesses later interviewed by Italian prosecutors: arranging some $275 million in bribes to help the energy company win more than $10 billion in contracts to build oil and gas pipelines from the North African desert to the shores of the Mediterranean.

To shift the bribe money between countries, Bedjaoui used a cluster of offshore companies that helped him shield the transactions from scrutiny, Italian prosecutors claim. Twelve of the 17 shell companies linked to Bedjaoui were created by Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm that is at the center of the Panama Papers scandal, a review of the law firm’s internal records by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners has found.

Italian investigators described one of those companies, Minkle Consultants S.A., as a “crossroads of illicit financial flows” that channeled millions of dollars from subcontractors to an array of recipients whose identities are still being untangled. Prosecutors allege Bedjaoui used one company set up through the law firm to funnel as much as $15 million to associates and family members of Algeria’s then-energy minister.

The cross-border bribery scandal is one of dozens of cases in Africa in which companies created or administered by Mossack Fonseca have played a role in oil, gas and mining deals that have spawned public allegations of tax dodging, corruption, environmental destruction or other misconduct. In all, ICIJ’s review identified 37 companies within the Panama Papers that have been named in court actions or government investigations involving natural resources in Africa.

Ventures that drill or dig for oil, gas, diamonds, gold and other resources have long been dogged by evidence that contracts are often secured through bribery and other corrupt tactics that benefit a few and harm average citizens. Suspect mining and energy deals are usually organized through secretive companies and hard-to-trace bank accounts, corruption experts say.

“Companies may be given access to lucrative extractive projects because their owners are politically connected, or because their owners are willing to engage in questionable deals aimed at generating quick profits for a few rather than benefits for wider society,” Fredrik Reinfeldt, former prime minister of Sweden and now head of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, told ICIJ.

He said the use of anonymous companies makes it harder to prevent money laundering and corruption because it allows wrongdoers to “hide behind a chain of companies often registered in multiple jurisdictions.”

ICIJ’s review of Mossack Fonseca’s internal records shows that the Panama-based law firm is a major provider of secrecy to companies involved in extractive industries. The firm’s internal files include more than 1,400 companies whose names refer to mining, minerals, oil, petrol or gas. Other less explicitly named companies – including the 12 companies allegedly used by Bedjaoui in the Algerian energy deal – also played roles in the extractive sector, the files show.

Mossack Fonseca’s files reveal offshore companies that were established to own, hold or do business with petroleum, natural gas and mining operations in 44 of Africa’s 54 countries. Many of them are controlled by politicians, their family members and business associates. Often, the oil, gas, gold and diamonds formed beneath the earth’s surface over millions – even billions – of years are traded by shadow companies that have existed for months.

Companies created and assisted by Mossack Fonseca include at least 27 subsidiaries of one of the world’s biggest gold producers, the mining behemoth AngloGold Ashanti and its predecessor. AngloGold told ICIJ it complies with relevant tax laws and that its offshore companies held investments and allowed it to “mitigate ‘double taxation.’”

Mossack Fonseca declined to answer detailed questions for this story… read more: