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Unpacking the contents of the Pandora Papers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How are some of the world's richest and most powerful people hiding their money? Almost 12 million financial documents offer answers. The documents collectively are called the Pandora papers. A group of news organizations obtained them. Their work was coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

An initial story by The Washington Post reveals how some world leaders shovel money out of their own countries. The king of Jordan bought $100 million worth of luxury homes in California, for example. And other assets are linked to the leaders of Kenya and Russia, among other countries.

The Washington Post's Greg Miller is one of the journalists who has reviewed the documents and is with us. Greg, good morning.

GREG MILLER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why would world leaders ship so much money out of their own countries?

MILLER: There's a lot of reasons for that. In some cases, I think leaders are in countries where they may feel vulnerable. They don't feel secure in their assets. They want to move their money into safe - perceived safe places overseas, where they could get to it if they lost power. Another big reason, I think, is just the desire to hide where - their wealth from their own people and to put it in places where they hope that it will not be seen. And if it weren't for stories like and investigations like the Pandora papers, that would probably be true in most cases.

INSKEEP: How does one come across almost 12 million documents?

MILLER: (Laughter) Well, these are documents that are from financial services companies in 14 different places around the world. So they really represent a cross section of companies that are setting up shell companies, setting up private trusts, doing the bidding of world elite to try to hide their money. In terms of how we obtained these records, that's something that the partnership is keeping secret to protect the sources here.

INSKEEP: You have just referred to how it is that this happens. People set up shell companies. It's not like the king of Jordan has real estate in his own name in California. But you report that through these companies, he controls $100 million worth of houses in Malibu alone. But I have to note that in response to this story, there is a statement from the palace in Jordan, and they say that King Abdullah owns flats and homes in the U.S. and U.K., essentially confirming your story. But they go on to say this is not a secret or new. What about your reporting is new?

MILLER: Yeah. I found that comment from the kingdom baffling this morning because if it's not a secret, his financial advisers sure went to a lot of trouble. They used shell companies - dozens of them. They - we have emails showing them fighting among themselves internally about how to avoid and get around disclosure requirements. In one email we got in the documents, his main financial adviser doesn't even use his name and calls him you know who.

INSKEEP: The person who must not be named.

MILLER: Right.

INSKEEP: Is it illegal, though, for the king of Jordan to go overseas and buy a bunch of real estate somewhere else?

MILLER: No, it's not illegal. And that's one of the things that we highlight in our story about Abdullah. I mean, here he is a king. He's a royal. He is royalty in Jordan. He could presumably make the case that, I'm a royal; I'm entitled to have some lavish properties around the world. But he hasn't done that. He hid them inside multiple shell companies in far-off places without ever disclosing any of this to the people of his kingdom, where, by the way, the economy has really deteriorated over the last 10 years. Unemployment has risen. Wages have declined. It's a striking contrast.

INSKEEP: What assets did you find linked to another national leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya?

MILLER: So Kenyatta is interesting because he has sort of positioned himself as a champion of transparency and even said publicly a year or two ago that any public official ought to identify all their assets. And in Pandora, we see that he and members of his immediate family have set up at least seven companies and trusts overseas in which they've parked tens of millions of dollars that has never been disclosed.

INSKEEP: Although you mention that he seems to have made a lot of this money before becoming president of Kenya. Is that an important distinction?

MILLER: Well, it might be because, I mean, he still didn't disclose it in a way that he has publicly said public officials should. But if it's money that his family acquired beforehand, then perhaps it's not indicative of any corruption while in office.

INSKEEP: Although you just pointed at the reason that some of this money is of interest. Maybe it's not illegal to park your money overseas, but how did you get it?

MILLER: Right.

INSKEEP: And that brings us to another person whose finances have been exposed before - Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. What new have you learned about his finances?

MILLER: So Putin manages to surface in so many of these investigations in offshore finance. And it's - and it tells us a lot about how the Russian economy and the Russian economic system works. In our case, what we found was a - was initially just a mystery. There is a woman who is in St. Petersburg who reportedly had a relationship with Vladimir Putin and then had a child with him in 2003. And lo and behold, she shows up in the records as having acquired a multimillion-dollar apartment in Monte Carlo shortly thereafter. And it took a while to piece this all together. But again, it's an example of somebody close to Putin becoming very wealthy with no - without any other kind of alternate explanation for how it occurs.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds, I just want to note, we talked about houses for the king of Jordan in California. These are offshore assets often parked in the United States. Do Americans encourage this?

MILLER: Americans take advantage of it. In some ways, we encourage it. There are many states in the United States, including South Dakota, about which we will be publishing a story today, that now kind of function as onshore offshore havens. They have secrecy laws, much like these overseas destinations.

INSKEEP: Greg Miller, national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.