Panama

Why can’t I just have fun with this? … and other pressing questions about the Panama Papers

By Tina Irgang

This week saw the release of the so-called Panama Papers, a document leak that detailed the offshore assets of heads of state, prominent businessmen and celebrities from around the world. The papers came from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The amount of information in this leak is staggering, and so is the amount of news coverage. Here are some straightforward answers to your most pressing questions.

I’m not interested in news coverage. Where can I see the papers for myself?

You can’t, at least not all of them — for a number of reasons. Keep in mind that the leak comprises some 11.5 million documents, amounting to a size of 2.6 terabytes, as Bustle points out. Hosting that amount of data would be extremely expensive and would crash most servers, Bustle notes.

There’s also a strategic reason. The news outlets who have possession of the documents will likely want to ensure that the story stays in the news for some time to come, so hanging on to some information and staggering the coverage over time makes good sense, Bustle adds.

With that said, there are a few documents you can access. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which has been coordinating coverage about the Panama Papers, has compiled a list of influential people named in the documents. If you click on each of these “power players” and scroll down, you will be able to view related documents.

Is it true that news organizations have had access to these papers for a while? Why weren’t they released earlier?

Again, it’s a question of size. It simply took news organizations a long time to look through all the data and determine what it means. In an interview with NPR, ICIJ director Gerard Ryle explains some of the background. The documents were originally leaked to the German paper Sueddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source. The paper contacted ICIJ, which in turn assembled a coalition of more than 100 media outlets in 76 countries to analyze different pieces of the documents.

I’ve heard about foreign leaders and celebrities being implicated by the documents, but I haven’t heard about any Americans. Why not?

Again, keep in mind that the amount of information in the papers is huge and will take journalists a while to sift through. So if there haven’t been any major revelations about Americans yet, it doesn’t mean there won’t be, as NBC News points out.

So far, ICIJ has identified 211 individuals with U.S. addresses in the data it has reviewed, which is just a small sliver of the total cache of 11.5 million documents, according to Fusion, one of the news organizations involved in the effort of sifting through the Panama Papers.

This whole thing got me wondering how many major American companies have subsidiaries in tax havens. How can I find out?

One of the most definitive reports on the subject was issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in December 2008. The report found that 83 of the 100 largest publicly traded U.S. corporations had subsidiaries in jurisdictions listed as tax havens or “financial privacy jurisdictions.” Keep in mind that these are just the companies who reported their offshore subsidiaries (but also that such subsidiaries aren’t illegal unless they’re used for illegal purposes, such as money laundering). The GAO report lists the number and location of the subsidiaries for each company.

More recently, in June 2014, the advocacy groups U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Citizens for Tax Justice released a report that used the same methodology employed by the GAO. One of the findings: 72 percent of the Fortune 500 companies had subsidiaries in tax havens.

This is all way too serious for me. Can’t I just have some fun?

Sure! ICIJ has created a game that allows you to pick one of three characters and play through different scenarios for hiding your wealth in a tax haven.

Or you could try to get your head around the whole thing with this piggy bank analogy.

Finally, how about watching Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson get very awkward as a reporter confronts him about his involvement? (Note: Gunnlaugsson has since resigned, following massive protests.)

Tina Irgang is the production editor for SmartCEO. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.