Matt Nippert is a business investigations journalist.

Matt Nippert: Panama Papers show us murk

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The Panama Papers reveals the complexities of international business and crime, Matt Nippert writes. Photo / File
The Panama Papers reveals the complexities of international business and crime, Matt Nippert writes. Photo / File

It was always going to be murky. The making public of details this morning of 230,000 entities constructed by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca may have raised expectations the scope of the Panama Papers scandal would finally become clear, but it has instead laid bare the complexities of international business and crime.

A small Herald team, including a data specialist capable of wrangling the entire dataset and matching it against official records, has spent the morning poring over the results. So far we've found more than a dozen people and entities which justify ongoing interest and investigation, including several facing criminal charges abroad and New Zealanders with chequered reputations who seem to be repeating old tricks.

The richest person in an Eastern European country appears to have used Mossack Fonseca to safeguard his wealth and provides a contact address in Mount Eden.

The bewildering shuffling of jurisdictions sees British Virgin Islands entities registered with ostensibly New Zealand directors and Swiss shareholders.

The Cook Islands and Niue also figure in structures which feature the names of prominent United States and United Kingdom investors. The head of a United Kingdom property investment fund worth about $1 billion is named as the shareholder of the fund, based in Asia, through Niue. The address for the ownership skips back through Niue to an address in Brazil to Panama.

The richest person in an Eastern European country appears to have used Mossack Fonseca to safeguard his wealth and provides a contact address in Mount Eden. A member of the Russian mafia appears to have used a North Shore law firm to go into business with teacher of Japanese massage therapy.

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The New Zealand angles range from boring to ridiculous. Local company officers named in the database appeared to be largely lawyers and accountants working for small firms, mostly as directors for trust companies alongside counterparts from jurisdictions like Switzerland. New Zealand rich-listers also make an appearance, although their use of offshore structures will be news to no one.

Many of the files concerns Latin American clients, lending weight to reports Mossack Fonseca had launched an Auckland office to drive the well-heeled there into using New Zealand trusts and structures.

While the vast majority of clients from that continent will prove benign, investigations this morning have turned up at least two cases where those facing claims of corruption or money-laundering in their home countries were found to have offshore vehicles set up here by Mossack Fonseca that cover the period of their alleged offending.

These cases will require significant work to reach a publishable standard, particularly given the database released today includes only the most basic of details, often not enough to even confirm the identities of those apparently involved. Other media outlets, including Radio New Zealand and TVNZ have for more than week had access to a larger cache featuring internal correspondence and supporting documentation.

But for now, we'll have to console ourselves with some low-hanging fruit. The appearance of the late Alan Hubbard's investment in a Brazilian mining venture, and rogue company agent and Elvis impersonator Darryl Jensen's role providing a business address for a key figure in the Unaoil bribery scandal, represents the early pickings of a difficult harvest.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Matt Nippert is a business investigations journalist.

A Fulbright scholar with a masters from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, Matt has spent the past decade in newsbreaking roles at the New Zealand Listener, National Business Review, Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times before joining the Herald in 2014. His work has won numerous awards and he is the reigning Canon reporter of the year. His stories include horrific abuse at a state-run boys home on Great Barrier Island, malfeasance at South Canterbury Finance, systematic tax avoidance by multinational companies, and the sudden resignation of justice minister Judith Collins. Nippert has a regular sideline as a broadcast commentator and is one of only a few journalists who honestly enjoys numbers and spreadsheets. His PGP key is available on request.

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