PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: This G8 also launched a bold, new pro-business agenda to get to grips with the problems of tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance and corporate secrecy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s British Prime Minister David Cameron at this week's G8 Summit of some of the world's biggest economies. He’s talking, among other things, about offshore tax havens.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: Let’s be clear, if you want a low tax economy, which I believe is fundamental to growth, you have to collect the taxes that are owed. That is only fair for companies and for people who play by the rules.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Twenty-one to thirty-two trillion dollars are currently in tax havens worldwide, according to the advocacy group, the Tax Justice Network. But that's not why tax havens were discussed at this week's G8. They were discussed because a stupendous 260 gigabytes of incriminating information about them were released in April in a report called “Offshore Leaks,” generating one headline after another everywhere, but in the US. Gerard Ryle is the director of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and he coordinated the “Offshore Leaks” reporting effort. He says that while the shenanigans detailed in these leaks are not always illegal, they are certainly illuminating, important and often outrageous.
GERARD RYLE: The Tax Justice Network, which you quoted earlier, they estimate that up to 30 percent of all world wealth is now held in tax havens. And it’s a fact that about half of all world trade goes through there. People are wondering why, why Greece was having issues. It's because people don't want to pay taxes. You avoid taxes by going offshore and playing by different rules. The secrecy allows all sorts of bad things to happen. There are Ponzi schemes that have taken place over the last 20 or 30 years. Every one of them have gone through tax havens. This is a world that the public never gets to see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So just what was in this leak?
GERARD RYLE: Well, you’re looking at about 2.5 million records, and they’re from two offshore providers. These are people that set up offshore entities for people around the world, including banks and, and big accounting firms. There’s about 30 years’ of records of these two companies, pretty much everything that they kept in their chronicle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did this project begin? You were working on a story for the Sydney Morning Herald?
GERARD RYLE: I was a – an investigative reporter for many years in Australia, and one of the stories that I came across was a very strange fraud that took place. This guy came along, claiming to have invented a pill that if you put it in your motor vehicle, it allows your fuel to last longer. It didn't exist. What he was doing, instead, is taking money from people, claiming to be about to launch on the British Stock Exchange. But what he was doing is putting all the money into offshore bank accounts and then repatriating that money back to Australia, as if it were sales of a product.
Once I realized that there was a world out there that could be used in this way, it led to a lot of information about other schemes that were being used to fraud people in the offshore world. And one day I managed to get ahold of these 2.5 million files.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean, you happened to bump into these files? They were, you know, sitting next to you at a bar?
GERARD RYLE: No, they arrived in the post. It was a computer disk full of information. It didn't come as a surprise that I was going to get it, but I quickly realized that there was information in these files from about 170 different countries and that I had a lot of information that other reporters around the world would really like to know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this disc was just sitting there, unexploited for material, until you got to the ICIJ in 2011. How did you organize the reporting? How did you roll it out?
GERARD RYLE: So, suddenly I had access to the rest of the world. And what I did as part of my job was to get reporters together, tell them about what I had and start sharing it. In Washington, we had a two-day session where we outlined it all. This was in January 2012. And as we went through the project, it grew and grew, to the point where we had reporters in about 40 countries and more than 80 reporters working on it. And by the time we launched, we launched simultaneously in 37 different countries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give me some of the impact those stories had.
GERARD RYLE: Well, we've managed to get government inquiries in almost 10 different countries, including in the US, in Australia, in Great Britain. We had the deputy speaker of the Mongolian Parliament who subsequently had to resign because we found him with not just an offshore entity but a Swiss bank account with a million dollars in it. The biggest banker in Austria, who was in charge of basically spreading loans right across Eastern Europe, has also had to resign because of their connections to this offshore world. They were so big in Austria that they actually set up a special commission called the Offshore Leaks Commission, to investigate the names.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, there it is, all around the world, grabbing headlines, causing scandals, except, it seems, here in the United States. Why isn’t it big here, do you think?
GERARD RYLE: It was quite surprising to us. There were about 4,000 US names, and we thought it would have the same resonance here as it has had everywhere else. But I think it's because people here can't get their head around that the story’s about the system, rather than the big names.
When we were going around to the American newspapers with the story, because that's what we do, they just wanted to know about names: give us a big name. And once the big name wasn’t there, they moved on and they weren’t as interested in the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A week ago Friday, the ICIJ posted a heavily redacted version of this database online. What are you hoping the public does with that?
GERARD RYLE: We were criticized initially by some members of the public for not going far enough, and they wanted more information. So what we have done is we've published a very basic database of the names and the entities that are in these secret files that allows the public to go in there and search, and then it allows them then to, to tell us about it, so that we can then publish new stories based on the information that the public finds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you gotten any tips?
GERARD RYLE: We’ve had about 300 replies in the first two to three days. We had more than three million page views. And yes, we’ve had some fantastic stories come out it, in countries we haven’t actually been working in. Bangladesh and India, they were the the two major, big revelations for us. But, in fact, there were some very interesting tips coming out of the US. And we have to verify what people are saying, but they claim to be identifying fairly high profile individuals in the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you see in this a model for future collaborations.
GERARD RYLE: It wouldn’t work with every story, but we think in many ways this is a pioneering operation and something that we can repeat, hopefully, over and over again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gerard, thank you very much.
GERARD RYLE: Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gerard Ryle is the director of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium Of Investigative Journalists.