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Reporter unpacks 'Pandora Papers,' showing how the super-rich hide wealth

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A trove of private financial records uncovered by journalists is making huge waves all around the world today. The documents, dubbed the Pandora Papers, expose how billionaires, politicians and criminals are hiding billions of dollars from authorities in so-called offshore accounts established in many countries, including here in the United States. The trove, which includes nearly 12 million emails, spreadsheets and other records, was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. One of the reporters who worked on this investigation is with us now to tell us more, Will Fitzgibbon.

Will Fitzgibbon, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILL FITZGIBBON: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Who are some of the players the investigation uncovered using this offshore system to hide billions of dollars?

FITZGIBBON: Well, what's remarkable about the Pandora Papers, unlike any other previous investigation, is just how many politicians and heads of state appear in the data. We're talking more than 300 politicians, present and past, and leaders of countries such as the king of Jordan, the president of Kenya, the prime minister of Ukraine, the prime minister of the Czech Republic. And in every case, these politicians had either owned or been beneficiaries or users in some ways of these really secretive companies that, unless we had this leaked information, citizens around the world would have no idea about.

MARTIN: And how was the U.S. implicated in this?

FITZGIBBON: Well, one of the jaw-dropping revelations of the Pandora Papers investigations was really that, for the first time, we have documents from inside the United States, in particular from the state of South Dakota, believe it or not. That has become one of the world's leading secrecy jurisdictions. That means a place where the rich and powerful from around the world set up confidential or shady trusts, particularly in South Dakota, move assets into those trusts without ever stepping foot in Sioux Falls. And billionaires from Brazil, millionaires from Guatemala, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, all in recent years, have been attracted by South Dakota's advertising as a secretive tax haven within the United States borders. And that's something the documents of which have never been revealed before.

MARTIN: The - you know, there's a saying in Washington that the scandal isn't what's illegal, it's what's legal. Is this illegal? Or is this a legal but ethically dubious way for the very wealthy to avoid taxes?

FITZGIBBON: I think it's both. But, of course, owning and using an offshore company or being in a tax haven isn't illegal in and of itself. What the documents speak more to - and that's especially the case of the king of Jordan, the president of Kenya and other leaders, for example - is really this lack of transparency at a time when politicians routinely stand up on stage and say that they're committed to transparency and to accountability. It's Western countries like the United States, like the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Netherlands who help this system thrive.

You know, a corrupt minister from a country in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, for example, doesn't just take $10 million and move it into a bank account in Switzerland on their own. The Pandora Papers really shows how lawyers in New York, in Geneva, in London and every step of the way are advising people to use the offshore system. So the offshore system is not offshore. The offshore is onshore. And I think that has profound and important consequences for how the world needs to respond to it in terms of improving accountability and justice. At least that's what experts tell us.

MARTIN: Will Fitzgibbon is a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Will, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

FITZGIBBON: Thank you. Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.