A searching look at the tangled, deeply buried financial network exposed by the publication of the so-called Panama Papers.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bernstein (co-author: Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency, 2006), a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, recounts the story that the millions of documents leaked from a Panamanian law firm tell about how corporations and wealthy individuals hide their money in offshore accounts. As he notes, that firm has its origins in the Third Reich, when a former SS commando made his way to Latin America, “a beacon for former Nazis following Germany’s defeat,” and became an expert in maritime law. His partner in Mossack Fonseca had long roots in Panama’s political class as well as a fearless embrace of a questionable clientele—arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, for one. “In Panama, moral flexibility was a professional selling point,” writes Bernstein; the country has a long history of catering to an international criminal cohort in exchange for a cut of the action. Mossack Fonseca, by the author’s account, went headfirst into the business of parking massive fortunes in places where they supposedly would not be detected: the Seychelles, Liechtenstein, the British Virgin Islands. As “Mossfon” grew, it expanded its markets to places like China, whose wealthy had been sheltering money in Panama and Liberia but needed a new haven with the fall of Manuel Noriega and Samuel Doe; Mossfon obliged with fake foundations, silent partnerships, and a range of other strategies, some quite illegal. As its influence grew, others came into Mossfon’s orbit—including members of Vladimir Putin’s circle and, it seems, of Donald Trump’s as well. Bernstein alleges that “Trump had long made a practice of consorting with dodgy characters for financial gain, so Mossfon wouldn’t have been a stretch. In the months since his election, notes the author, it has been difficult to distinguish whether the administration’s actions are in the public or private interest.
Mossfon remains a maze worthy of a Cretan palace, but Bernstein does first-rate work in providing a map to a scandal that has yet to unfold completely.