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Journalist explains the immediate international fallout of the Pandora Papers

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

International fallout continues over what's being billed as, quote, "the largest investigation in journalism history." Leaked documents known as the Pandora Papers reveal how some of the world's richest and most powerful, along with their inner circles, are moving and hiding money through the offshore financial system. Among them, the presidents of Ukraine, Kenya and Ecuador, the prime minister of the Czech Republic and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some governments launched investigations within hours of this reporting surfacing. I spoke about it with Spencer Woodman of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an organization leading this reporting across several major news outlets.

Just to set the stage for us, offshore kind of banking - it's not illegal. So what was your investigation looking at?

SPENCER WOODMAN: So the investigation was looking at 12 million leaked files from a series of different offices in offshore jurisdictions around the world. These included the British Virgin Islands, Panama. The list goes on and on. I mean, there are just absolutely numerous jurisdictions. Every country in the world is named in these files. It is not illegal to have tax havens, but they do attract a great deal of illegal activity. They also attract a lot of activity that is perfectly legal by the letter of the law. And that is kind of what is at the heart of this investigation - is to show readers just how far politicians, powerful people, billionaires can go in terms of evading taxes and evading scrutiny, even when they're sticking to - strictly to the law.

CORNISH: To that end, more than 300 politicians and public officials in 91 countries and territories have been linked to this investigation. What's been the fallout so far?

WOODMAN: So far, we've had, I think, about six or seven national government agencies in places like Spain, Mexico and Pakistan say that they are going to launch investigations into some of their most high-profile citizens in response to our reporting. One kind of interesting one was Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, responded to one of our stories that was actually about his inner circle owning offshore companies and apparently shielding a great deal of wealth in those firms. He responded yesterday on Twitter, saying that he was going to investigate, launch a thorough investigation and act appropriately if any wrongdoing was found of everyone named in our reporting.

CORNISH: So the Panama Papers back in 2016 - that was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, and that was looking at offshore financial services, only it just happened to be out of Panama. This is so much bigger in scale in terms of look at the financial system. What are the two new insights into how the system operates that are remarkable?

WOODMAN: I think what was jaw-dropping for us was just the scale to which heads of state and other high-level politicians are deeply invested in the industry of offshore finance. I mean, these are the people who would have the power to make a more equitable, a more just global economy and in many cases, without disclosing properly that they have moved money to tax havens and various secretive jurisdictions around the world via shell companies and secretive trusts.

CORNISH: You're describing a system where there is no incentive for any particular player to slow it down or change it.

WOODMAN: Yeah. And again, you know, this does come back to the political system. This investigation shows that there are great disincentives for politicians to dismantle a system that, in many cases, they and their close associates are using to play by a different set of rules.

CORNISH: Spencer Woodman is a reporter at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Thank you for your time.

WOODMAN: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.