Mossack Fonseca & Co. is a Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider, which is the world’s fourth biggest provider of offshore financial services. From its 1977 foundation until the April 2016 publication of the Panama Papers it remained mostly obscure, even though it sits at the heart of the global offshore industry, and acts for about 300,000 companies. More than half are registered in British tax havens – as well as in the UK. The firm received worldwide media attention in April 2016, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published information about its clients’ financial dealings in the Panama Papers articles, following the release of an enormous cache of its documents from between 1970 and 2015 leaked to the news media.
The firm was founded by German lawyer Jürgen Mossack in 1977 and joined by Panamanian novelist/lawyer Ramón Fonseca in 1986. It later added a third director, Swiss lawyer Christoph Zollinger. It specializes in commercial law, trust services, investor advisory, and international business structures. It also offers intellectual property protection and maritime law services. An internal memorandum revealed in the 2016 Panama papers leak noted that 95% of the company’s work consists of “selling vehicles to avoid taxes”.
In 2013, the firm was described as one of seven that collectively represented more than half of the offshore companies incorporated in Panama. The firm also houses several Panama-incorporated companies within its offices. It is one of the largest firms in the corporate services industry. However, the founder claims that its volume represents only around 5% of the global financial services legal industry. According to The Economist, the firm has 5 to 10% of the global shell company market, and it has been described as “tight-lipped”.
Mossack Fonseca is one of the biggest in its field and the biggest financial institutions refer customers to it. Its services to clients include incorporating and operating shell companies in friendly jurisdictions on their behalf. They can include creating “complex shell company structures” that, while legal, also allow the firm’s clients “to operate behind an often impenetrable wall of secrecy”. The leaked papers detail some of their intricate, multilevel, and multinational corporate structures. Mossack Fonseca has acted with global consultancy partners like Emirates Asset Management Ltd, Ryan Mohanlal Ltd, Sun Hedge Invest and Blue Capital Ltd on behalf of more than 300,000 companies, most of them registered in the British Overseas Territories.
Leaked documents also indicate that the firm would also backdate documents on request and, based on a 2007 exchange of emails in the leaked documents, it did so routinely enough to establish a price structure: $8.75 per month in the past. In 2008, Mossack Fonseca hired a 90-year-old British man to pretend to be the owner of the offshore company of Marianna Olszewski, a US businesswoman, “a blatant breach of anti-money laundering rules” according to the BBC.
Mossack Fonseca has managed more than 300,000 companies over the years. The number of active companies peaked at more than 80,000 in 2009. Over 210,000 companies in twenty-one jurisdictions figure in the leaks. More than half were incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, others in Panama, the Bahamas, the Seychelles, Niue, and Samoa. Mossack Fonseca’s clients have come from more than 100 countries. Most of the corporate clients were from Hong Kong, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Panama, and Cyprus. Mossack Fonseca worked with more than 14,000 banks, law firms, incorporators, and others to set up companies, foundations, and trusts for their clients. Some 3,100 companies listed in the database appear to have ties to US offshore specialists, and 3,500 shareholders of offshore companies list US addresses. Mossack Fonseca has offices in Nevada and Wyoming.
The leaked documents indicate that about US$2 trillion has passed through the firm’s hands. Several of the holding companies that appear in the documents did business with sanctioned entities, such as arms merchants and relatives of dictators, while the sanctions were in place. The firm provided services to a Seychelles company named Pangates International, which the US government believes supplied aviation fuel to the Syrian government during the current civil war, and continued to handle its paperwork and certify it as a company in good standing, despite sanctions, until August 2015.
More than 500 banks registered nearly 15,600 shell companies with Mossack Fonseca, with HSBC and its affiliates accounting for more than 2,300 of the total. Dexia and J. Safra Sarasin of Luxembourg, Credit Suisse from the Channel Islands and the Swiss UBS each requested at least 500 offshore companies for their clients. An HSBC spokesman said, “The allegations are historical, in some cases dating back 20 years, predating our significant, well-publicized reforms implemented over the last few years.”
The anonymity of offshore shell companies can also be used to circumvent international sanctions, and more than 30 Mossack Fonseca clients were at one time or another blacklisted by the US Treasury Department, including businesses linked to senior figures in Russia, Syria and North Korea.
Three Mossack Fonseca companies started for clients of Helene Mathieu Legal Consultants were later sanctioned by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Pangates International Corporation was accused in July 2014 of supplying the government of Syria with “a large amount of specialty petroleum products” with “limited civilian application in Syria.” The other two, Maxima Middle East Trading and Morgan Additives Manufacturing Co, and their owners Wael Abdulkarim and Ahmad Barqawi, were said to have “engaged in deceptive measures” to supply oil products to Syria.
Mossack Fonseca also ran six businesses for Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, despite US sanctions against him. Internal Mossack Fonseca documents show that in 2011 Mossack Fonseca rejected a recommendation by their own compliance team to sever ties to Mr. Makhlouf. They agreed to do so only months later. The firm has said it never knowingly allowed anyone connected with rogue regimes to use its companies.
Frederik Obermaier, co-author of the Panama Papers story and an investigative reporter at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, told Democracy Now: “Mossack Fonseca realised that Makhlouf was the cousin, and they realised that he was sanctioned, and they realised that he’s allegedly one of the financiers of the Syrian regime. And they said, ‘Oh, there is this bank who still does business with him, so we should still keep with him, as well’.”
HSBC also appeared to reassure Mossack Fonseca not only that it was “comfortable” with Makhlouf as a client but suggested there could be a rapprochement with the Assad family by the US. Makhlouf is already known to be a long-standing client of HSBC’s Swiss private bank, holding at least $15 million with it in multiple accounts in 2006. The Panamanian files also show HSBC provided financial services to a Makhlouf company called Drex Technologies, which HSBC said was a company of “good standing”.
DCB Finance, a Virgin Islands-based shell company founded by a North Korean banker Kim Chol-sam and British banker Nigel Cowie also ignored international sanctions and continued to do business with North Korea with the help of the Panamanian firm. The US Treasury Department in 2013 called DCB Finance a front company for Daedong Credit Bank and announced sanctions against both companies for providing banking services to North Korean arms dealer Korea Mining and Development Trading Corporation, attempting to evade sanctions against that country, and helping to sell arms and expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Cowie said the holding company was used for legitimate business and he was not aware of illicit transactions.
Mossack Fonseca, required by international banking standards to avoid money-laundering or fraudster clients, is like all banks supposed to be particularly alert for signs of corruption with politically exposed persons (PEP), in other words, clients who either are or have close ties to government officials. However they somehow failed to turn up any red flags concerning Tareq Abbas even though he shares a family name with the president of Palestine, and sat on the board of directors of a company with four fellow directors the firm did deem PEP because of their ties to Palestinian politics. Yet Mossack Fonseca actually did and documented due diligence research, including a Google search.