Must-read ICIJ investigative project reports

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is an independent, international network of over 200 investigative journalists in more than 70 countries worldwide. Their reporting focuses on international crime, corruption, and transparency of political and financial power held by governments and corporations. ICIJ works worldwide with local media partners to publish complex investigative reports often focusing on organizational corruption at the highest levels of power and the impact their activities have on people and communities in their home countries as well as in the developing world.

Like this blog’s earlier feature on the work of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), reporters associated with ICIJ often follow highly complicated financial trails at major banking institutions and supporting organizations in the financial services industry, in order to uncover tax evasion, theft of national assets, bribery, and other financial crimes.

  • Luxembourg Leaks (2014): This blog has previously discussed the Luxembourg Leaks in the feature post on whistleblowers in the financial services industry. This investigative report was based on documents provided to ICIJ by, among others, a French employee of the Big 4 accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The ensuing investigation showed that Big 4 firms were facilitating registration of multinational companies in Luxembourg in order to evade local taxes and take advantage of banking secrecy laws that would prevent disclosure of even the existence of their offshore accounts to their home countries. Companies named in these papers included IKEA’s Australian operations, Pepsi, Disney, and the Koch Brothers’ business empire. 
  • Swiss Leaks (2015): Continuing in the vein of uncovering undisclosed accounts and financial arrangements maintained under the protection of a banking secrecy regime, this investigation revealed HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) maintained banking relationships with clients connected to arms trafficking, blood diamonds, and bribery. Many of the clients serviced by HSBC were connected to discredited political regimes in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. These were clients who due to their illegal or sanctioned activity would not be accepted for banking services in other countries. The documents showed that HSBC not only accepted them but repeatedly assured them that their wealth would be shielded from tax authorities or other inquiring government entities. 
  • Evicted and Abandoned (2016): This investigation ran an external audit on projects funded by the World Bank and determined that many of them were in complete non-compliance with the bank’s own policies, causing physical and economical harm to the people it purported to support. The International Finance Corporation, which provides private sector loans on behalf of the World Bank, has given financing to governments and corporations accused of egregious human rights violations. In some cases these financing activities continued after evidence of the violations was made public. Funds from World Bank projects were misappropriated and diverted by local governments to fund violent and harmful campaigns against the people who were supposed to be helped, and social and environmental impact was disregarded in funding projects. 
  • The Panama Papers (2016): Receiving widespread media attention and igniting local investigations in many countries and by many financial institutions, the Panama Papers project was one of the biggest stories in money laundering investigation of recent years. ICIJ worked on this project in collaboration with OCCRP and Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German media organization which originally received the cache of documents from Mossack Fonseca, a trust company in Panama that facilitated legal incorporation of offshore shell entities for many of the world’s wealthiest people and powerful political figures. Many of these shell entities were later involved in illegal activities including tax evasion, fraud, and money laundering. 
  • The Paradise Papers (2017): The most recent of ICIJ’s reports, like the Paradise Papers, this details the facilitation of secret financial arrangements by offshore service providers, this time including one of the world’s most high-profile law firms working in this industry. This time the focus was on legal incorporations in Bermuda, Singapore, and Mauritius. The Paradise Papers differ somewhat from the Panama Papers in that they do not purport to uncover widespread illegal activity, but rather legal activity that is secret or inconsistent with representations otherwise made to the public. Political figures in the US, the UK and Canada, and their donors or other financial supporters, were included this time with information exposing their previously undisclosed offshore arrangements and ownership stakes. The Paradise Papers also provided great detail on the “tax engineering” of many major companies, including Apple, Nike, Allergan, and commodities giant Glencore.   While currently legal, it is expected that the public controversy over these increasingly “creative” tax arrangements may lead to deeper regulatory inquiry as to whether they should remain legitimate practices going forward. 

Like OCCRP, ICIJ has become a highly-regarded media organization in the twenty years since its formation. The work that the journalists of ICIJ do to investigate and expose corruption and crime is critical for the effort to enforce expectations that those in positions of power be held accountable for their actions, which even if legal, can be ethically unacceptable and abusive of the people they purport to serve. These investigations serve a crucial public service in exposing both criminal activity and legal arrangements which nonetheless may not meet society’s standards for transparency or lead later to the facilitation of illegal activity.

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