The Polynesian ‘Rock’ That Made Millions From Panama Papers’ Crooks
How Niue, a coral outcropping with just 1,190 residents, rolled out the welcome mat for Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the center of the massive records leak—and made a tidy profit.
Before Nevada, there was Niue.
Niue being a Polynesian speck of a nation that became known as Savage Island after it thrice repulsed Captain James Cook in 1774. It proved considerably more welcoming when the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca proposed setting up shell companies there in 1994.
The founder of the firm, Jurgen Mossack, seems to have received his moral grounding in his infancy, when his father went from serving with the Nazi Waffen-SS to volunteering to work for U.S. intelligence, spying on Cuba.
Raised in Panama with such ethics as a guiding example, the son became a corporate lawyer and set to creating shell companies as permitted by the local laws.
But Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega became so excessively corrupt and so openly in cahoots with the Medellin cartel that other criminal organizations apparently became leery of hiding their money there.
Mega crooks like to stash their ill-gotten gains in a place that maintains at least the appearance of being legit. Mossack found just the spot in the British Virgin Islands, which obligingly adjusted its laws accordingly.
But word spread and other hustlers flocked to the BVI. Mossack quickly wearied of the competition and went in search of a principality that would be his firm’s alone.
He set out to make Mossack Fonseca the first law firm to have its own country.
And he found it in a coral outcropping in Polynesia officially known to its 1,190 inhabitants as “the Rock.” The official name, Niue, translates to “Behold the Coconut.”
“If we had a jurisdiction that was small, and we had it from the beginning, we could offer people a stable environment, a stable price,” he later told a reporter.
Niue had so little business of any kind beyond hardscrabble farming that it happily let Mossack prepare legislation allowing the creation of shell companies that could operate in total secrecy in 1996. The new setup called for the paperwork to be available not just in English but also in Russian and Chinese, no doubt a welcome addition for crooks from those realms.
Niue received only a modest fee for each new company, but the money quickly added up, as there were soon many more shell companies than there were Niue-ians. The tiny nation was bringing in $1.6 million a year, enough to meet 80 percent of the government’s $2 million budget.
But then the U.S. government issued a communiqué describing Mossack’s setup with Niue as “awkward” and suggesting it was facilitating “the laundering of criminal proceeds from Russia and South America.” The Bank of New York, which itself had been accused of laundering billions of Russian mob money, joined Chase Manhattan in blacklisting Niue.
The banks were shocked, simply shocked.
That was in 2001. Niue let its relationship with Mossack expire. The country still had an annual budget to meet, and it subsequently sought to buoy its finances with a unique kind of currency manipulation: issuing coins with Disney characters on one side and Queen Elizabeth on the other.
I got a Donald with Liz! Trade you for a Mickey with Liz.
In the meantime, the state of Nevada was poised to make itself the financial Niue of America. Supporters of a 2001 bill allowing the creation of shell companies pledged that $30 million of the resulting fees would go toward pay hikes for public school teachers. State Sen. Dina Titus declared herself in passionate opposition.
“Nevada has sold its soul, tarnished its already shaken reputation today, in exchange for a $30 million Band-Aid,” Titus said while the legislation was being debated.
She suggested that Nevada should post a sign:
“Sleazeballs and Rip-Off Artists Welcome Here.”
Titus made herself fit right in as she proceeded to vote for the measure. The bill passed, and those welcomed by the new law prominently included Mossack Fonseca.
As now alleged in a civil dispute in federal court in Las Vegas, among the many shell companies Mossack Fonseca concocted in Nevada were 123 used to launder $65 million that had been siphoned from public works projects in Argentina by a buddy of former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner and her now-deceased husband, Nestor Kirchner.
When attorneys seeking to recover the funds subpoenaed Mossack Fonseca for its records, it resisted. The firm said that the shell companies had in fact been created by an independent entity called M.F. Corporate Services (Nevada) Limited, aka MF Nevada.
“MF Nevada and Mossack Fonseca do not have a parent-subsidiary relationship nor does Mossack Fonseca control the internal affairs or daily operations of MF Nevada’s business,” Jurgen Mossack told the court in a sworn statement.
That was before this month’s massive leak of Mossack Fonseca’s records going back nearly four decades. The records reportedly establish that M.F. Corporate Services is in fact owned by Mossack Fonseca. The records are said to further document efforts by Mossack Fonseca to hustle any relevant documents back to Panama and to mobilize its techies to render its computers and phones “obscure to investigators.”
Meanwhile, Mossack Fonseca continues to operate in a host of places, among them Nevada and another Niue wannabe, Wyoming. The firm has issued a statement denying what its own records seem to make undeniable.
“Recent media reports have portrayed an inaccurate view of the services that we provide and, despite our efforts to correct the record, misrepresented the nature of our work and its role in global financial markets,” a statement read.
The government of Niue could not be reached for comment. Maybe instead of coins featuring Disney characters, its Treasury Department could issue ones with big crooks who are alleged to have benefited from a firm whose moral core appears to the same indecent expediency that enabled a member of the Waffen-SS to be employed rather than banished.