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Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Shell Game

The unravelling of the India leg of the global off-shore investigation that took the world by storm.

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar , Ritu Sarin , P Vaidyanathan Iyer | Published: November 10, 2019 10:51:24 am
panama papers, panama papers investigation, Mossack Fonseca, indian express news, indian express investigations (From left) P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Ritu Sarin, Jay Mazoomdaar of The Indian Express. (Neeraj Priyadarshi)

Having accessed the leaked data, the three reporters had embarked on the search in the spirit of ‘feeling lucky’ and entered, wishfully, names from a list of public figures in business and politics. To their surprise, some of these searches immediately returned positive. Soon enough, though, dawned the first of many sobering realisations. It turned out that most of these hits were inconsequential. Those names figured in the data dump because Mossack Fonseca staff themselves had searched for information on prospective clients who had approached them from around the world.

The innocuous ‘World-Check’, as it was called internally, was run every time the firm got a new client request to find adverse references on the person. The searches were structured such that they threw up partial name matches as well. For example, a global check on a prospective client named Rahul would return numerous results on all possible Rahuls, from Bajaj to Gandhi, in public life (incidentally, the records did have details of one Rahul Gandhi who served as chief financial officer of an energy company in Nevada, USA). Or, for example, a World-Check report on a certain Maneven Trading Limited contained a link to this photo caption: Salman Khan on Tuesday called Narendra Modi ‘a good man’, even ‘a great man’. Clearly, the abundance of what seemed to be ‘big names’ in search results actually had nothing to do with Mossack Fonseca’s client list.

Undaunted, the team of three dug in to process the leaked data the hard way — one file at a time.

The first break of the address hunt came from Ritu in the last week of February. It took some manoeuvring. When she reached an address in upscale Panchsheel Park found in several Mossack Fonseca documents, a palatial bungalow with high walls and a dozen uniformed security guards in a large guard room confronted her. But there was no nameplate outside. Evidently, the occupants of the bungalow wanted to live in anonymity. A casual question about who their employers were initially drew hostile stares from the guards and later a rude rebuff for disturbing them at their ‘work’, which was letting the owners’ fancy cars zip in and out of the imposing gates.

Ritu thought it best to return to Panchsheel Park after a few hours when the shift of the guards changed. This time, she had her cover story ready. This was a challenge every reporter trying to confirm or discover identities of Mossack Fonseca’s clients would face: how to cross the first hurdle of confirming an identity so that subsequent hard questions about their offshore interests could be asked. It was also an SOP (standard operating procedure) for the reporters on the Panama papers assignments that even if the address and identity of a Mossack Fonseca client could be confirmed, say, via some form of Google search, physical verification of the site was a must to ensure a foolproof check.

When she came back to Panchsheel Park, Ritu told the guards she was preparing a telephone directory for the colony. Who should she put down for this house? The answer from this security guard was prompt: ‘Don’t you know, madam? This is the house of…”

As Vaidy entered the room, he smelt alcohol. (Anurag) Kejriwal took time to open up. First, he said he had little to do with offshore entities. When confronted with some details, he seemed to remember having opened an entity since he was in the business of metal trading. But then, Kejriwal and his wife were linked to three offshore entities and two foundations as well. Vaidy spent about an hour with him, and took elaborate notes on all the clarifications that he gave. Kejriwal said his political career would be affected if The Indian Express were to write about him. It took a while to convince him that his entire explanation would be carried in the newspaper. He, however, was aware of the pitfalls. Though a chartered accountant had facilitated the setting up of the entities, he realised these could land him in problems and nothing really remained a secret. He said the entities were folded up in 2010.

Since the publication of the Panama Papers, Anurag Kejriwal has joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and changed his profile name on Twitter to Chowkidar Positive Kejriwal, just like hordes of BJP supporters did in the run-up to the general elections of 2019.

In March 2016, days before the Panama Papers investigation hit the stands, the ED sent a letter rogatory to Singapore seeking details on Advantage Strategic Consulting Singapore Private Limited, a subsidiary of Advantage Strategic Consulting Private Limited (India) where Karti Chidambaram held a majority stake before exiting in 2012. Looking into the details of the Singapore company, Jay spotted a direct connection between the investigations into Aircel-Maxis and the Panama Papers…

Curiously, a number of internal ‘search reports’ prepared by Mossack Fonseca referred to Karti Chidambaram’s companies in India and Singapore as SOE or State Owned Enterprise! The irony of the son’s association to state power was unmistakable.

The volume of potentially illicit wealth already unearthed by the agencies in the Panama Papers probe notwithstanding, the lack of transparency in how the income tax department and the Enforcement Directorate, and indeed the MAG (Multi-Agency Group) itself, picked individuals for either a search operation or subsequent prosecution has disappointed many. In their status reports submitted to the PMO and later to the Supreme Court, the MAG only provided the number of individuals raided and prosecutions filed, without naming anyone. With the investigating agencies working under a cloak of secrecy and all ‘under investigation’ matters being kept out of the ambit of the RTI Act, the identities of those sent notices and the details of offshore assets traced were not revealed. This, understandably, resulted in questions being asked as to whether the ‘big fish’ named in the Panama Papers had been let off the hook and only the ‘small fry’ were being dragged to court.

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