The Journalist Who Blew the Whistle on Mossack Fonseca 18 Months Before the Panama Papers
Ken Silverstein spent 2014 unearthing how criminals and oligarchs hide their money, but his story got ignored.
"A yearlong investigation reveals that Mossack Fonseca... has served as the registered agent for front companies tied to an array of notorious gangsters and thieves that... includes associates of Muammar Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe, as well as an Israeli billionaire who has plundered one of Africa's poorest countries, and a business oligarch named Lázaro Báez."
This was veteran investigative journalist Ken Silverstein writing about Mossack Fonseca, the shady law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandal. His article, recounting what he'd learned tracing the company across three countries over the course of a year, was published on VICE in 2014—nearly 18 months before the Panama Papers came to light earlier this week.
It was explosive stuff. But when Silverstein's piece was released the reaction was nothing like we are seeing now. Iceland's prime minister wasn't forced to resign. There was no global uproar. And when I ask Silverstein about the Panama Papers, he says the story came as a surprise. "I heard a long time ago that the German newspaper [Süddeutsche Zeitung] had a lot of documents but I had no idea what the scope of their holdings were. I didn't know it was a leak of this size," he says.
Silverstein first discovered Mossack Fonseca while researching another story, digging into how criminals were buying up Miami real estate to launder their money. "It's a huge favored destination for the world's corrupt, whether they are government officials or private business people," he explains. "I found that Mossack Fonseca was setting up a lot of shell companies that were used in the purchase of properties in Miami."
He started poking around, checking in with contacts to see if anyone had heard of this group. "People were like, "Oh yeah, that's one shitty firm,'" he recalls. "You'd call former FBI people who dealt with money laundering and they'd be like, "Oh yeah, Mossack Fonseca. They are the worst.
"Inside those circles, everybody knew Mossack Fonseca was a sleazy firm."
Documents Silverstein got his hands on in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax haven, linked Mossack Fonseca to billionaire Rami Makhlouf—Syria's richest man. "Makhlouf is widely believed to be the "bagman"—a person who collects and manages ill-gotten loot—for President Bashar al-Assad, who during the past three years has helped cause the deaths of more than 200,000 of his citizens in the country's civil war," Silverstein wrote back in 2014.
But it wasn't just dictators and criminals. Silverstein's reporting unearthed that scores of legitimate businesses were tied to Mossack Fonseca. The group had even opened up offices in the United States, something that hasn't been widely covered in the Panama Papers furore.
"I found all of these shell companies set up in Las Vegas, Nevada—where Mossack Fonseca had an office—by an Argentine oligarch who had been linked to corruption," he says. "Now, why would an Argentine oligarch use a Panamanian law firm to set up a series of companies in Las Vegas? It makes no sense. There's only one reason to do it: you're hiding money."
It can't be easy watching a story you poured a year of your life into becoming the scoop of a lifetime for someone else. And Silverstein concedes that there is a sting seeing his original reporting not be credited. "The one thing that annoys the shit out of me," he says. "I feel like, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—I know those people, I know they knew of my work."
In many ways Silverstein's experience speaks to the changing nature of investigative journalism. He was one journalist, knocking on doors, bribing his way into free trade zones where these companies were offshoring, turning up at Mossack Fonseca's offices in Panama and Nevada to ask questions no one wanted to answer.
The Panama Papers story emerged through journalists from hundreds of media outlets around the world combing through 2.6 terabytes of documents—the biggest leak of all time. In the age of big data, it's likely this will be the way big stories are broken. To cut through the noise of the news cycle stories will also need this massive co-ordinated push by multiple mastheads.
"You have to sell these stories harder than you do, say, a story about the royal prince having an affair," he says. "Money laundering is not a sexy topic. People don't understand that it actually impacts them."
The big question that's circling around the Panama Papers scandal at the moment is why more Americans haven't been implicated. Rumors are swirling in the comments section that wealthy Americans have bribed their way out of mention in the documents. But from his time researching money laundering, Silverstein believes the answer is more about Mossack Fonseca's client base, which he guesses is largely Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans.
"I think there still is an important American component to this story though," he adds."Which is that Mossack Fonseca was allowed to operate openly in the United States for a long time. That's outrageous." Barack Obama has long campaigned for international action against tax havens, as has David Cameron, even though the Panama Papers revealed his own father was squirreling millions away in one.
But Silverstein's overwhelming feeling about the Panama Papers coverage is excitement—that it looks as though Mossack Fonseca is finally coming down. "I'm really glad it's getting this kind of pick up. Mossack Fonseca, those people belong in jail," he says. "Their alibis, 'Oh we didn't know who we were working for,' and all their bullshit excuses are very, very unconvincing. I think there's going to be legal fallout for these people, finally."
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