A Reporter On The Panama Papers: The Basic Idea Is 'To Hide True Ownership' Documents leaked from a Panama-based law firm have offered new insight into how easy it is for the rich and corrupt to hide their assets. McClatchy's Kevin Hall has been reporting on the documents.
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A Reporter On The Panama Papers: The Basic Idea Is 'To Hide True Ownership'

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A Reporter On The Panama Papers: The Basic Idea Is 'To Hide True Ownership'

A Reporter On The Panama Papers: The Basic Idea Is 'To Hide True Ownership'

A Reporter On The Panama Papers: The Basic Idea Is 'To Hide True Ownership'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/478623566/478706969" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Documents leaked from a Panama-based law firm have offered new insight into how easy it is for the rich and corrupt to hide their assets. McClatchy's Kevin Hall has been reporting on the documents.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Last month, media organizations around the world published stories detailing billions of dollars of assets hidden in obscure shell companies, some of it held by prominent political figures and their associates. The revelations forced the resignation of Iceland's prime minister and revealed the holdings of many of Russian President Vladimir Putin's friends. The source of the stories was a leak of internal documents from a Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in creating shell companies and trusts.

The leak of more than 11 million records is the largest in the history of journalism. The material was analyzed for a year by more than 370 journalists from over 40 countries who worked collaboratively and secretly and agreed to publish their initial findings on the same day, April 3. The stories offered new insight into the scale of hidden wealth around the world and the ease with which the rich can conceal their assets. The Panama Papers are still being reviewed, and more stories are sure to come. Our guest today is one of the journalists who worked on that project. Kevin Hall is chief economics correspondent for the McClatchy newspapers. He's worked in Washington, Latin America and the Middle East. He was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for his work on financial manipulation on Wall Street that led to the financial crisis.

Well, Kevin Hall, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start with something really basic. What is a front company?

KEVIN HALL: Well, there are several forms of front companies. In the most basic sense, it's a company that is created to hide assets or to give the appearance of having a functional business. They're also - you can have a foundation, which is a version of that that's a little more secretive. The key to a lot of these companies is the ability to hide true ownership, that you have directors, who aren't the real owners of the company, named. I think that's really the big thing that distinguishes them.

DAVIES: OK, now, you write in here that there are legitimate reasons to set up front companies - like what?

HALL: Well, some of the legitimate reasons would run the gamut from real estate transfers - if you're purchasing property, say, in Panama - because it was easier to transfer that property to another. And then there are transfer taxes that you don't have to pay. So there's a financial gain in doing it this way, but it's also ease in property transfer. That would be one aspect. Another might be estate planning. Maybe you don't like the estate tax in the United States. And you keep certain assets overseas, and you try to find ways to pass on inheritance without going through the U.S. tax system. That would be another.

DAVIES: But that's legitimate because you're obeying the law, right?

HALL: There is a gray area. And as we found in the documents, people go right up to the end as close as they can. And of course, U.S. tax law has been modified so much since the Reagan era that all of these loopholes have been written into it specifically to kind of get around some of these laws.

DAVIES: OK. Now, I think people have thought of Switzerland as the traditional place where you'd hide money in secret, numbered accounts. And then we've heard about the Cayman Islands in recent years and accounts there where people, you know, stash money offshore. Why is a law firm in Panama so central to this?

HALL: Well, I think the key thing is the money is still the important part. The law firm isn't necessarily involved in any way with the money. And that's what's been so frustrating because you're looking at what are called company formation documents. This company sets up a shell company in the Seychelles or British Anguilla, places like that. You don't actually, in most cases, see the money. You don't know where that money is. You presume the money is in Liechtenstein or Luxembourg or Switzerland. And with the U.S. crackdown on UBS and HSBC and the Swiss banks, it's driven I think more people into this offshore world if they're looking to camouflage that money they have back in Switzerland.

DAVIES: Right, so what this law firm will do is essentially do the legal work of registering your company in whatever name you want, in - you mentioned the Seychelles; that's a little nation in the Indian Ocean off Africa - or some other place. What other services do they offer those who want secrecy and discretion with their assets?

HALL: What's so interesting about this company Mossack Fonseca is the kind of menu of options they provide. They can just simply create a company for you. They can create what's called a private enterprise foundation. They can help you get a Panamanian visa if you either purchase property or invest in Panama. It gets as complex as going into derivatives trading. We've found some evidence that they actually help customers, place them into derivatives trading in real complex securities.

They have an asset management arm. They have a mail forwarding service. They also provide - if you want to have the appearance of being a legitimate brick-and-mortar company, they'll provide you a website, a phone number, an office suite, everything to make it look like you're a legitimate brick-and-mortar company.

DAVIES: And you write that if you want to, you can get a company that's already been established but has no purpose. You have essentially an empty vessel. But it's ready to pull off the shelf. That costs a little more, right?

HALL: Right, those are called shelf companies, as opposed to shell companies. And a shelf company is ready to roll. They're offered in the United States too. And sometimes, a legitimate use of one of these might be you're purchasing - one American company is buying another American company. And they need to do it quick. And they're going to incorporate in Nevada or Wyoming or, you know, pick your state. That would be a legitimate use. It's already ready to go. You don't have to wait seven days. You complete the transaction, and you're ready to roll.

And then at some point, you can then change your corporate name and even your domicile - whatever you want to do. That would be one example. What we found also, though, is people use these because they give the appearance that you've been around a long time. So if you're someone in South America who's looking to hide your assets in a company that looks like a real company and has been around for 14 years, this is the ticket for you.

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DAVIES: You can say, I've got a company that's been here and empty for 14 years, and you can own it for a price.

HALL: Right. And you can go - if you just Google Wyoming and shelf companies, you'll see a bunch of people come up. And then one of the guys who was bending my ear about how I'm misunderstanding that these are really important, turns out he's in Orlando. But he has a phone number that traces to Pennsylvania, West Chester. And he's selling Wyoming shelf companies.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, what's weird about this is that the notion of registering a company, you know, with the state is that we're forming an entity for some business practice, and we're telling you who the directors are. There's a board of directors - right? - or a chief executive or a president. If you're buying a company whose board of directors was formed 14 years ago, what are you getting? Is it completely phony?

HALL: One of the characteristics of Mossack in particular is they offer these, what are called nominee directors, nominee shareholders. And so what that does, whether it's a shelf or a shell company, it gives the appearance of a legitimate corporation making decisions. So for instance, Francis Perez is a woman whose name I almost dream about, I've seen it so much. She's on thousands of documents. And she shows up as a director. Now, for her to be a director who's making decisions and acting as a proper director for that many companies would be physically impossible.

DAVIES: Right. So just to clarify what we're saying here, employees of the law firm itself here act as members of boards of directors of dozens, scores or even hundreds of companies.

HALL: Right.

DAVIES: You also note that there are more than 15,000 shell companies registered by banks - that's banks, their subsidiaries, their branches - and big, big names that we know, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch. Do these banks and their wealth management arms, which, you know, takes care of their wealthy clients - do they help their customers hide their assets in these, you know, shell companies?

HALL: They certainly did. I think there's a kind of a dividing line. Up until about 2010, banks were free to do more of this than they are now, I think, with the UBS prosecution and the fact that the U.S. really has cracked down. What the U.S. did was reach out to almost every Swiss - every major Swiss institution - with what are called John Doe summons, where they basically tell the Swiss, we want information on every American that you have in, you know, in your possession. And that kind of was a game changer.

So I think that part of it is harder to do. And I think people view taking on Americans as a greater risk. You see that in these documents where Mossack himself, Jurgen Mossack, one of the co-founders, is saying the partners must approve all Americans who are coming in these files because one of their concerns was that maybe it's the IRS or the DOJ poking around and looking for somebody who's in there and not doing it through the front door. They really did keep a distance from Americans.

DAVIES: As America began cracking down on secret accounts elsewhere.

HALL: Right.

DAVIES: You know, so many of these stories are dense and complicated. But I was just - I was amazed at this one story that you write about. In 2008, SunTrust, this American bank, there was a query that they made to the law firm about who was the real owner of a couple of companies registered on the Seychelles Island in the Indian Ocean. And the owner, the law firm reported, was the Faith Foundation. What was the Faith Foundation?

HALL: Well, the Faith Foundation seems to be something they created, Mossack Fonseca created, to serve as a shareholder on these foundations. And one of the things that Mossack also did was encourage people to take names that sound like something else. So the Red Cross, World Wildlife Fund - they would use names like that in these foundations to give the camouflage of being a charitable foundation when, in fact, they're not.

The advantage to these foundations is they require three directors, only two of whom have to be named. So they would appoint two directors from the law firm. And then the third person would be the actual beneficial owner. And then they have layers and layers of ways to camouflage that.

DAVIES: So if there's not a registry that tells you who the real owners of all these companies are, you'd need some tip to go fishing. And - so it mostly just remains secret.

HALL: Right, and in many cases, even when you have that person's name and go to a country, they'll do the minimum. I think in Panama, for instance, their selling point has been privacy. And it's not just the shell companies. The banks themselves, it takes a pretty high hurdle to get them to cough up information.

DAVIES: On some cases, there's clearly tax evasion happening here. In other cases, you see money which points to corruption or fraud, although you'd still have to investigate it. And then I guess there's simply the removal of large amounts of money from the economy of the native country.

HALL: Yes, and one of the things that's interesting in here is that this is a Latin American country. It's a crossroads. Panama is kind of a crossroads between North and South America. And obviously, the Panama Canal is a global hub for trade. So what you have is countries in which either you have confiscatory tax policies or you have violence or you have, you know, the threat of collapse. I had the good fortune of working in Latin America in 2001 when Argentina collapsed.

And one of the things that was so fascinating as an outsider, for 10 years, people were allowed to keep accounts in dollars. And then one day to the next, the government said, we've seized your dollars, they're now roughly 4 pesos to the dollar. And so basically, a 75 percent cut in what you've had in the bank account, and, hey, by Thursday, we're going to throw open the exchange rate and let the free market determine it.

Well, can you imagine being an Argentine in that situation? And I think those kind of things help fuel this, too. The instability and lack of any good governance in many of these countries is certainly a contributing factor.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Hall. He's the chief economics correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Kevin Hall. He is the chief economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He's one of many journalists who have done reporting on the Panama Papers. That's documents leaked from a Panama-based law firm that has registered thousands of shell companies, permitting wealthy and powerful people to hide their assets.

Let's look at one of the cases that emerges from the research in these papers. There's this guy - Naman Wakil, a Syrian-born guy with a Venezuelan passport. Tell us about him.

HALL: Mr. Wakil was an interesting case because he has ties to North Carolina and Florida. He's traveling on a Venezuelan passport, was born in Syria, seems to have contacts all over the world. About the time that we were reporting on him, one of the things that happened in Venezuela was a report that came out April 19 that alleged that he had paid the two brothers-in-law of a very important general in Venezuela to get a food contract. And from that was able to pocket about $76 million.

When we overlap the timeframe of that with the documents, we find that Mr. Wakil is opening an account - is opening a shell company - with Mossack Fonseca in 2013. But we don't know whether that money was the same money he's using. But his lawyer says he's got $400 million. He's trying to move about 14 million into trusts that will steer clear of U.S. taxes, but stay consistent with U.S. tax law.

He's brought to Mossack Fonseca by a Citigroup banker, Victor Olivo, who was using a personal email, rather than a Citigroup email but within the Mossack Fonseca document shows up as a person who is a reference. So Mr. Wakil establishes an offshore, and he's a mystery. He's able to move large sums of money.

The Venezuelan government has declined to investigate. What the investigative report in Venezuela alleged is that he creates what are called mirror companies that take the name of legitimate companies that sell chicken and beef in large quantities, big household names in Brazil, create a mirror company in, say, St. Lucia, and then bill the government from there. And he pockets the difference.

He bought meat that was about to expire - this was the allegation - and paid one price but then actually billed the government at the full price and pocketed the difference. And part of that was then spread around to the family of the general who runs the food program for the poor in Venezuela. So that was a particularly distasteful allegation.

DAVIES: So that's a case where a guy appears to have gotten tens of millions of dollars in a corrupt arrangement in a country. And why does he need this law firm? What does it do for him?

HALL: Well, in this case the law firm was looking to - the lawyer involved was helping to create trusts. He wanted to basically have these assets in a way that would be hard to get to if he was sued. This may be completely unrelated, or it may be related. We don't know. It's up to law enforcement to find the answer to that.

And there's no evidence that law enforcement in Venezuela is going to do anything about it, since the reaction was to criticize the people who wrote the story, which had documents showing large sums of money for these purchases of food.

DAVIES: You write that here in America, the states of Wyoming and Nevada have a lot of companies that are registered to clients of this Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Why is that?

HALL: Well, I think they're attractive places between the low-tax environment. And one of the things that we saw in the data itself, in the email traffic, is that they were pretty - they were marketed very much in the way that this will help you stay under the radar. No one's going to suspect Wyoming.

If you say Delaware, that might kind of jump out because it's internationally known as a place where companies headquarter themselves, Wyoming - not so much. And so Wyoming gave it kind of an air of legitimacy. Same with Nevada - Nevada's a little bit of a harder nut to crack. There seem to be a good amount of Chinese investment in the shell companies that came through Nevada.

An awful lot of Ecuador - one of the surprises was the degree to which it seemed like the entire business class of Guayaquil in Ecuador, the - kind of the business capital of the country - is in Nevada and, to a lesser extent, in Wyoming, Brazilians - quite a bit there, too. And it may have been something as simple as these new offices, as they ramped up, just tried to take a new locale.

DAVIES: And just so I understand it. This is the Panamanian law firm. Mossack Fonseca is telling people, if you want a spot to register a shell company, think about Nevada and Wyoming?

HALL: Yes, yes. People come to them and they're thinking about where we do that. Now, what they did - one of the key things about how Mossack Fonseca worked is they didn't go out and drum up the business. They worked with what are called clients.

These are usually law firms, but not always, who have people come to them and say, you know, I want to create an offshore. I want to hide my assets. I want to protect my assets. I need privacy - whatever term you want to use for why you're doing this. And then the law firm brings them to Mossack, so they're clients...

DAVIES: So it's like - they're like brokers, middlemen?

HALL: Kind of like middlemen, yeah, yeah. And so their business model was to not go out and pound the pavement. They worked with some key middlemen in many places. And they offered commissions. And as part of that, then certain law firms seemed to be interested in certain jurisdictions, whether it was ease of management, whether it was local knowledge with their own customs authorities, because at some point, Ecuador actually caught on to this and started looking at Wyoming. And that's when they started moving to other places.

But one of the things that is real clear - very much like the drug trade - as a crackdown happens in one place, it just kind of moves somewhere else. So for instance, have you ever heard of the island of Nieu, N-I-E-U?

DAVIES: Can't say that I have.

HALL: I had never heard of it. I had never heard of non-American Samoa. I knew Samoa. Well, in both cases, there was this tiny little atoll off the coast of New Zealand called Nieu - became for about a five-year period a real active place for offshore companies to be formed. Russians in particular seemed to be using it.

But once the U.S. kind of started pressing to crack down on Nieu, the company moved all of its clients and actually offered them incentives to move to non-American Samoa. And once that pressure started there, then it went to the Seychelles. The Seychelles at one point became a real active place, and at some point in - around 2013 if my memory is right - they started requiring that you provide names of beneficial owners. Mossack Fonseca goes through its records to see how many names they actually have. And there's a spreadsheet that shows just over 14,000 shell companies that they manage or administer in the Seychelles.

DAVIES: The Seychelles - that's the island nation in the Indian Ocean.

HALL: In the Indian Ocean, yes. And about 204 - less than 300 - actually have information about the beneficial owners.

DAVIES: Beneficial owners meaning the people who are actually benefiting from the company.

HALL: Right.

DAVIES: So a tiny fraction of the real owners are known even to the law firm?

HALL: Even to the law firm.

DAVIES: Kevin Hall is chief economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. After a break, he'll talk about how the Obama administration has reacted to the revelations in the Panama Papers and whether American rules for financial disclosure might change. We'll also hear about the new album by the Ralph Peterson Trio and about Pamela Erens' new novel. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're talking about the Panama Papers, the massive leak of internal documents from a Panama-based law firm that showed how billions of dollars of assets around the world are hidden in obscure shell companies.

Our guest is Kevin Hall, a chief economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He's one of many journalists who spent a year researching the material. He says many would be surprised to learn that some increasingly popular tax havens are in the United States.

If people are looking for places where they can form a shell corporation, where, you know, the real owners are not apparent to somebody who just looks at the records, why would Wyoming be attractive? Is there something about the disclosure requirements there that make it appealing?

HALL: Well, Wyoming offers complete anonymity to beneficial owners. If law enforcement - very much like these places in the Seychelles or are other places - unless law enforcement comes asking for it, they're not going tell you. And, in fact, Wyoming doesn't require you to ever say who the beneficial owner is. All you have to do is provide a name of a contact person, a real live person who can answer questions about the company.

DAVIES: And as a result of Wyoming requiring so little disclosure - I think you said there's a company for every four and a half people in the state.

HALL: Right. So it is the most sparsely populated state in the continental United States. And you could argue there's more buffalo or more cattle or horses probably than citizens as well. Yet, you've got this proliferation of companies.

So one of the things we did was drive around the state. We were tracking a Russian company that was setting up companies, and we had four different addresses for them in four different parts of the state.

And one of the places they had an address was in Buffalo, Wyo., a town of just under 5,000. So I went to Buffalo and went to the address, and it traced to a small law firm - knocked on the door, went in, said I'm looking for Vladimir Colton (ph). This is his address. Oh, no, no. This - we just - he has a suite here. I said, well, what - where - can I go to his suite? He goes, well, it's actually not a suite. It's just a mailbox.

DAVIES: You know, the United States has cracked down on secret Swiss bank accounts and has really been tough in getting more disclosure from, you know, secret accounts there and in the Cayman Islands. Is it now itself becoming kind of a - I don't know - the new international offshore tax haven?

HALL: Many people argue that in fact it is - that Delaware - Germans in particular - bend our ear quite a bit about how come Delaware offers the same things and offers almost no transparency? And I think it's a fair argument.

I think one of the risks - the Obama administration, every time you press them on this, is quick to say, well, we passed FATCA, which is a reporting requirement that's - makes it easier to track the movement of money.

That's the case, but many countries have now adopted that with standards that are even higher than ours. So we're running the risk if we don't make some serious changes, we'll actually be in the laggard in the list of developed nations in terms of what we require in transparency.

DAVIES: There's some new disclosure standards developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which, as I understand it, most nations of the world have signed onto, not the United States.

HALL: Right. And I think the administration had been very quiet on the Panama Papers, said almost nothing for a month. When it did say something, President Obama used it to kind of argue for tax - closing a loophole called tax inversions, which had nothing to do with this at all, which had to do with companies moving their headquarters overseas and merging with small partners so they get the tax benefits.

And then just - I think May 6 - if my memory is right - is when they finally had some proposed rules. They finalized a rule for bank - more disclosure of who the real owners are when you open a bank account that's tied to a shell company. That was partly designed because so many shell companies are buying real estate in New York and Miami and to a lesser extent Los Angeles as well.

DAVIES: You said that President Obama said the problem isn't just that people violate the law, but that the law themselves are inadequate.

HALL: This - Carl Levin - the senator Carl Levin who retired in 2014 - at the end of 2014 - he had been pushing this for a decade. He had high-profile hearings in 2006-2007, where he spotlighted many of the problems that were, you know - came out in the Panama Papers and was largely ignored by Congress. And one...

DAVIES: The fact that people can register companies in the United States and really not disclose who the real owners are.

HALL: He focused on Delaware quite a bit and Wyoming. This was the first time Wyoming was on anybody's radar screen. And, you know, he had some - the states made some changes on the margins.

But the problem was never really addressed, and "60 Minutes" did a wonderful piece earlier this year that was kind of a hidden camera-type piece where they went to lawyers in New York and pretended to be an African dictator trying to set up shell companies so they could buy property in the United States.

And they found all but one were willing to at least talk. One lawyer said this isn't for me, please leave. Everybody else had varying degrees of interest, and the story ended with the lawyer saying nothing is going to change because lawyers run Congress. And in a nutshell, I think he's right.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Hall. He is the chief economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He spent much of the past year researching and reporting on the Panama Papers. That's millions of documents leaked from a law firm in Panama that specialized in helping rich people in businesses hide their wealth in shell companies.

This was a massive leak of information. Tell us who it went to first and how many journalists got involved in investigating it.

HALL: Originally, this information came to Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper in Munich. And apparently the leaker or leakers - I've been careful not to make this singular - approached them with an offer. And they realized this is way too much for one small news organization to handle.

They turned to ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who had done Swiss leaks and had done an earlier leak about five years ago of financial data. And from there, they started assembling a team. When it was all said and done - I think the number is around 390, 390 journalists around the world - it is pretty remarkable. Now, not all 390 were on this all the time, but it was at least a hundred people who - core people who have done nothing but this for eight months.

I personally was shocked that it remained silent, and people kept their word because several countries had very difficult elections. And several countries had elections in which the information we had in hand would've changed the outcome of those elections potentially. And people kept their word to everybody's credit. This was kept silent. We didn't tell our own papers until a week before publication, which made it very difficult to prepare in terms of visuals and things like that, as you can imagine.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's remarkable. More than - journalists in more than 40 countries were involved, right? And what were the rules that the journalists had to abide by in terms of, you know, secrecy and who they would call and what they would say?

HALL: For the most part, the rules were basically you have to collaborate. So what they did was create kind of an internal Facebook page - for a lack of a better reference - where we all created groups. We joined groups, and then we would post as we researched, so we had one system in which we did the research, another where we posted what we were finding. And what was remarkable about it - this was what - in the truest sense collaboration.

If I found something from India or Russia that I thought looked of interest, you know, you'd find somebody. You'd spend a little time looking at it. You'd go do an Internet search and see if you can find a footprint of this person anywhere. And then if you found that you'd post it. You might post some corresponding links. And particularly in some of the Latin American countries where resources are pretty slim and many of them are under threat, we are able to do a lot of the groundwork for them that then they could run with.

So I think it was - it was just a wonderful project in that sense. And it still continues. It's a little different now that they brought in new partners, and it's a little more competitive, you know, for us at least with new U.S. partners involved. But there's still the spirit of collaboration, and certainly with people abroad we continue to collaborate closely.

DAVIES: Meaning if I had a story I thought was valuable, I would share it internally with the other reporters before we published it because you might have things to add.

HALL: Right. Yeah, we had all - had memos to the whole group, so everybody knew what everybody was about to publish. We all published jointly on the same day, April 3, 2 PM Eastern Standard Time. And by 6 o'clock that night, it was the top story on Twitter, and it had kind of traveled the world almost instantly.

DAVIES: And other stories came out after that. And there's now an online searchable database where you can put a name. I actually put in the name of a local kind of politically influential and financially powerful figure in my area and found eight hits. What can you find and what can you not find in the Panama Papers online database that you've established?

HALL: Yeah, the version that the public will be looking at is going to take you some of the way there - won't give you the whole range of data to search. And the whole reason for that is because so much private financial information, there would be hackers, a bad guy's dream come true in terms of passport numbers, bank account numbers, transfer numbers, all that.

So what the public is able to do is search name - either a person's name, you can search by country, you can certainly search by company name. And stuff will come up, if it's in the database. Now, there's a lot of false positives, a little bit of the danger - and even in the form that we have it as searchable - that people can jump to conclusions that, you know, are often not the case.

DAVIES: You know, when I try to figure out what this means in a larger sense, what we can learn from it, I look at the manifesto that the source of all this material wrote. It's called the "John Doe Manifesto." And he says economic inequality is one the defining issues of our time. And he says the acceleration of inequality is fueled by these shadowy entities which allow people to avoid taxes, hide fraud and other crimes. And he says the collective impact has been a complete erosion of ethical standards, ultimately leading to a novel system we call capitalism, but which is tantamount to economic slavery, a system in which the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters.

Essentially he's saying this easy ability to move and hide all of this money is accelerating this terrible inequality, and it's terrible. Is he right?

HALL: I think to a certain extent he's right. And certainly the region of the world that I've worked most of my adult life in Latin America, I think it's real evident that some very powerful people are moving large sums of money. And it begs the question for whom do these governments work? And these are governments where we've spent in the case of, say, Guatemala where those are the people coming on our doorstep, getting across the border, creating issues at the border security and the whole political debate we have.

And we've spent a lot of money both on nationbuilding, on immigration, on drug policy. And yet, these are kleptocratic governments. And I think that's one of the sad truths that we're seeing in these documents.

DAVIES: So what does this law firm, Mossack Fonseca, have to say about the papers and its own conduct?

HALL: The law firm has said very little publicly. They have let it be known that they plan on suing. At one point, several organizations had received notices that they consider this to be stolen material and that we should turn it over right away or face legal consequences. It issued a couple of statements in which they've said they're just a formation company. They just register companies. The documents show something far more detailed and, you know, going beyond just creating companies, but advising.

One of the stories we're going to publish soon involves a case where they tell the person flat out, you know, without even prompting, you know, you need to go to this bank here in Panama because they won't ask you for a W-9 form. You know, that's something the IRS requires. They don't ask you for it, so nobody even asked. They on their own offer that.

So I think there's a lot of questions about culpability and willful negligence - or willful blindness is the legal term, looking past things. But what they've said publicly is basically we're a formation company. We've never been charged with a crime. They're proud of never having faced any criminal action and continue to maintain that this is stolen information.

DAVIES: I'm sure you'll be working on this more. I wish we had more time to talk about it. Kevin Hall, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HALL: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Kevin Hall is chief economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He's one of many reporters who spent much of the past year researching the Panama Papers. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by the Ralph Peterson Trio. This is FRESH AIR.

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