The anonymous source for the “Panama Papers” leak — described by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as a “whistleblower,” although the Mossack Fonseca law firm of Panama would say “thief” is a better word — has written a lengthy manifesto, reprinted in full by the ICIJ.
The source, writing under the name “John Doe,” begins by declaring that “income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time,” claiming his leaked data on shell corporations established by Mossack Fonseca “provides a compelling answer” to the question of why income inequality has grown so severe.
That answer, according to John Doe, is “massive, pervasive corruption.”
“More than just a cog in the machine of ‘wealth management,’ Mossack Fonseca used its influence to write and bend laws worldwide to favour the interests of criminals over a period of decades,” he charges, railing against the idea of “tax havens.”
Although he admits that nothing Mossack Fonseca did has yet been established as a violation of the law, he charges the firm with helping its clients “carry out a wide array of serious crimes that go beyond evading taxes.”
“I decided to expose Mossack Fonseca because I thought its founders, employees and clients should have to answer for their roles in these crimes, only some of which have come to light thus far,” John Doe writes. “It will take years, possibly decades, for the full extent of the firm’s sordid acts to become known.”
He credits himself with starting an “encouraging” global debate on the issue but then claims he had no “specific political purpose” in mind when he handed his data trove over to the ICIJ. He also states he does not “work for any government or intelligence agency.”
Then he reverses himself on the concession that Mossack Fonseca did nothing illegal, charging that in fact “the law firm, its founders, and employees actually did knowingly violate myriad laws worldwide, repeatedly,” specifically accusing the law firm’s co-founder Jurgen Mossack with committing perjury before a federal court in Nevada and using his information technology staff to “cover up the underlying lies.”
This is a reference to Mossack’s 2015 testimony that a company called M.F. Corporate Services in Nevada was not a direct subsidiary of Mossack Fonseca, in the course of investigating a massive corruption case out of Argentina.
According to the ICIJ, leaked documents demonstrate that the Nevada firm was wholly owned by Mossack Fonseca, and the parent company deliberately instructed its employees to destroy evidence of the link, even dispatching an employee from Panama to grab documents from the U.S. offices.
“In the end, thousands of prosecutions could stem from the Panama Papers, if only law enforcement could access and evaluate the actual documents,” claims John Doe. “ICIJ and its partner publications have rightly stated that they will not provide them to law enforcement agencies. I, however, would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement to the extent that I am able.”
He goes on to say he has watched other whistleblowers destroyed after “shining a light on obvious wrongdoing,” specifically naming NSA leaker Edward Snowden — who he says deserves a “hero’s welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment” — along with Swiss bank whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld and Antoine Deltour of Luxembourg.
John Doe sets absolute immunity from prosecution as the price for handing his data trove over to law enforcement agencies: “Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution, full stop. Until governments codify legal protections for whistleblowers into law, enforcement agencies will simply have to depend on their own resources or on-going global media coverage for documents.”
He is, however, quite willing to give instructions to the governments he refuses to cooperate with, including a demand for federal laws requiring the full disclosure of U.S. corporate registers and “reform of America’s broken campaign finance system,” because “tax evasion cannot possibly be fixed while elected officials are pleading for money from the very elites who have the strongest incentives to avoid taxes relative to any other segment of the population.”
He has a long list of demands for other countries too, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the European Union, and of course Panama.
“Banks, financial regulators and tax authorities have failed. Decisions have been made that have spared the wealthy while focusing instead on reining in middle- and low-income citizens,” the Panama Papers leaker declares. “Hopelessly backward and inefficient courts have failed. Judges have too often acquiesced to the arguments of the rich, whose lawyers — and not just Mossack Fonseca — are well trained in honouring the letter of the law, while simultaneously doing everything in their power to desecrate its spirit.”
He also lambastes news networks as “cartoonish parodies of their former selves,” with too many of them owned by individual billionaires, while “serious investigative journalists lack funding.” Unsurprisingly, he is particularly upset by the failure of “several major media outlets” to cover the Panama Papers intensively enough.
“Even Wikileaks didn’t answer its tip line repeatedly,” John Doe sighs.
He is hardest of all on the legal profession, where he says “lawyers have become so deeply corrupt that it is imperative for major changes in the profession to take place, far beyond the meek proposals already on the table.”
“If the industry’s shattered economics were not already evidence enough, there is now no denying that lawyers can no longer be permitted to regulate one another. It simply doesn’t work,” he writes.
John Doe’s manifesto wraps up by saying the “complete erosion of ethical standards” has made capitalism “tantamount to economic slavery,” where “the slaves are unaware both of their status and their masters, who exist in a world apart.”
“Democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner,” he declares, darkly insinuating that “issues involving taxation and imbalances of power have led to revolutions in ages past.”
This time, he suggests that the instruments of both subjugation and revolution will be digital, as the masses are manipulated by controlling their access to information.
The somewhat disappointing half-life of the Panama Papers scandal might have motivated John Doe to write his lengthy manifesto and tease the possibility that he has raw data of interest to law enforcement agencies around the world. There was a sizable initial outcry, followed by a few resignations from embarrassed politicians, but the story doesn’t seem to have long legs. It is the largest data breach in history, but it is already becoming an afterthought, something John Doe acknowledges in his tirade against the media.
One reason for this is the lack of actionable lawbreaking demonstrated in the Panama Papers thus far. That tale of perjury and obstruction of justice in Nevada is juicy, and there are a few others like it, but without law enforcement agencies taking dramatic action, there is not much for the media to hang follow-up stories on.
Law enforcement agencies are reluctant to take dramatic action, not just because of the corruption and inertia John Doe alleges, but because he is the only person demonstrably guilty of a crime so far. Prosecutors have displayed some interest here and there, often because the Panama Papers gave them ideas for other lines of inquiry, but there is only so much they can do with Mossack Fonseca’s stolen confidential property. Those are legal standards most societies will not be eager to cast aside.
There is probably a degree of public cynicism at work too, a lack of surprise that rich people (especially rich people with political connections) have been using a secretive law firm to set up offshore tax havens. The complicated maze of tax laws besetting Western societies leaves average people uncertain of exactly what is legal.
Complexity breeds the corruption John Doe decries. The accumulation of centralized government power, and vast hoards of tax money, inevitably creates an elite class of cronies, rent-seekers, and people who get rich by gaming the system. You can’t have complicated tax-avoidance schemes without complicated tax laws.
At the core of this debate is a notion of cosmic, transcendent “justice” that reaches beyond the letter of the law. The “income inequality” argument is all about punishing people who obeyed the law, often paying great sums of money for accounting and legal services, to ensure it was followed to the letter. We’re told we should hold them to account for violating a higher sense of social justice that has no written legal code.
Enforcing such a standard of justice requires a powerful government that is also unbound by the law, able to seize from one person and give to another, even though no crime was committed, and no trial will ever be held. People around the world certainly are angry about corruption and eager to end the practice of granting special legal privileges to the rich and well-connected, but they are also rightfully wary about empowering the kind of government that could fulfill all of John Doe’s demands.