A senior editor of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists offered a glimpse into the work that led to the leak of the Panama Papers Thursday, speaking about the role of journalism in combating corruption in business and government.
Michael Hudson spoke at the Yale Law School before an audience of about two dozen, explaining how his organization brought together 370 journalists across multiple countries to release over 11.5 million files that detailed how wealthy and powerful individuals, including former heads of state, have evaded taxes and accountability. Hudson described various obstacles that arose during the project and denounced the corruption of the global financial system as rife with corruption.
“There are so many issues that are too complex for one journalist to handle,” Hudson said. “Journalists aren’t known for patience and teamwork. But people really got in the spirit of working together.”
At first, Hudson said, language was a barrier among the journalists. Other technical and organizational issues sprang from the sheer size of the operation, including the quantity of journalists, their distance from one another, the need for encryption and the volume of documents involved. But eventually, Hudson said, the multinational nature of the project actually allowed for division of labor in regards to translating documents from specific languages, and English as a common second language assisted communication.
Hudson explained how the ICIJ acquired the leaked documents in the first place: An anonymous source who gave their name “John Doe” contacted reporters involved with the organization, he said.
“My name is John Doe. Are you interested in data?” Hudson recalled the source asking.
According to Hudson, the purpose of the ICIJ is to work with local people on the ground and provide technological and data-specific support. Hudson warned that many journalists who cooperate can be endangering themselves by participating, and noted that one corresponding journalist from Azerbaijan was jailed on trumped-up charges.
The Panama Papers implicated 12 former world leaders including those of the Ukraine, Brazil, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
“By our calculations, close associates to Putin shuffled around $2 billion in offshore funds,” said Hudson. “We had a subgroup of about eight to 10 journalists in Russia translating the documents of Putin and his cronies. Our teams would often communicate back and forth discussing the exact calculations; they would say ‘We think it’s $3 billion,’ then others would say ‘No, I think it’s closer to $2 billion because you may have double counted here,’ and so on.”
After describing the document acquisition process and its aftermath, Hudson explained how the papers revealed systemic corruption in the global financial system.
Even U.S. banks played a role, Hudson said, despite the U.S. government’s persistent criticism of other countries for not shutting down offshore account operations within their populations. Big banks such as J.P. Morgan were revealed to have been involved, and because laws vary across states, transactions and money movement in states like Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada particularly lacked transparency.
Hudson continued by explaining that the process of creating offshore accounts is complex.
“The money will be moved on paper, but the money is still sitting there [in that country],” said Hudson. “In the U.S., that money will often be still sitting there in a New York bank or in Miami.”
He added that the process of shuffling money can involve multiple banks for a single account or transaction — and often all the banks are from different countries.
Several people with strong interests in corruption, power and finance attended Hudson’s lecture. Among them was Mari Bastashevski, a Greenberg world fellow who uses art to explore how secrecy in states and corporations perpetuates armed conflicts.
“Investigating power and money is a very big part of my practice, so I was already very familiar with the work of ICIJ,” Bastashevski said. “While we should be careful in tying any one specific event to global and radical change, ICIJ is an extremely useful resource for researchers and practitioners across many fields, and it’s certainly one of the initiatives out there that could and should keep the world of murky corporate finance on their toes.”
Yanique Joseph ’00, who advocates for financial reform in developing countries, said she recognizes that power and money are obstacles toward economic development in places like Haiti, Puerto Rico and Brazil. She has worked with advocacy networks in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. According to Hudson, the World Bank was implicated in the Panama Papers too.
“There is a tolerance among these institutions for major corruption,” Joseph said.
She added that the head of the IMF has said that if governments do not achieve structural reform, there will be another economic crash in the next few years.
“Corruption is being enabled in countries of the Global South,” she said. “These corrupt elites are some of the same people who appeared in the Panama Papers.”
As a result of the Panama Papers, Germany and Ireland are already prosecuting citizens who facilitated offshore accounts.