Transforming the Pandora Papers into Asset Recovery: 5 stories, 5 cases?

Launched Sunday 3rd October, the Pandora Papers are the latest – and largest – ICIJ leak to cause ripples across the world through exposing the systems, structures and individuals used as part of the shadow economy.

As has been widely reported, the Pandora Papers are a trove of 2.94 TB of data – the equivalent of “almost a million Bibles of data”. By contrast, the Panama Papers were 2.6 TB and the Paradise Papers 1.4 TB.

With this amount of data, the teams of journalists have only been able to dig out a fraction of the potential stories and, as with the Panama Papers, it looks set to provide a basis for further investigative work for years to come – indeed our Investigate trainees used these databases to do just that in 2019.

However, many stories have already come out that not only expose the systems used to disguise wealth, but also that have raised questions of corruption. This blog explores five of these and the potential for these ultimately becoming cases of asset recovery.

Riad Salameh (Lebanese central bank governor)

The Pandora papers revealed new companies owned by or associated to Salameh: AMANIOR, which he fully owns and is director of, and Toscana owned by his son, and shed more light on FORRY Associates Limited, owned by his brother and subject to an ongoing Swiss investigation into possible embezzlement of USD 300 million in central bank funds. Salameh himself is under investigation as of June 2021 by French authorities for criminal association and money laundering. Salameh has denied any wrongdoing, although there have been claims that even the directorship of AMANIOR is illegal due to his position as Central Bank Governor under the Lebanese constitution.

Asset recovery potential: These documents shed more light on ongoing investigations, which may assist in any future prosecutions and eventual recovery. Salameh himself has recently been ruled as immune from prosecution within Lebanon by the Court of Cassation.

UK Crown Estates / Aliyev family (Azerbaijan)

The papers showed how the Crown Estate (Royal lands publicly managed) in the UK bought property in the UK worth GBP 67 million from companies associated with the Aliyev family, who have ruled Azerbaijan since the early 1990s. This is part of GBP 400 million predicted to have been traded by the family in UK property in the past 15 years.

Asset recovery potential: Calls for investigations into money laundering have been made in the UK.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso (President of Congo)

The leak revealed that President Sassou-Nguesso owned Inter African Investment Ltd., a company “that controlled diamond mines that are among the country’s most valuable assets”.  This company was incorporated in the BVI, owning another BVI company, which ultimately held a majority of shares in Escom Congo, which has the rights to the diamond mines.

Asset recovery potential: while documents appear to implicate Sassou-Nguesso in the scheme, the potential for investigation appears slim currently.

Sebastián Piñera (President of Chile)

The Pandora Papers unveiled that a family mining business had been sold in 2010, nine months after taking power, with some part of the deal conditional on the government not implementing environmental protection over an area where mining was taking place. The government did not institute the environmental protection and the sale was completed. Piñera’s business manager has stated that the President has not had direct involvement in the company’s affairs for 12 years and was not informed of the sale. A judicial investigation has also ended.

Asset recovery potential: Until and if evidence surfaces here of a connection in the decision and the sale, there is no confirmation of corruption having taken place.

Paulo Guedes (Brazilian Economy Minister)

The leak revealed that Guedes was a shareholder in Dreadnoughts International Group, registered in the British Virgin Islands. At least USD 8 million was invested in the company in 2014, in the name of his wife and daughter. Minister Guedes has put out a statement that all his financial activities, including in Dreadnaughts, have been duly declared to tax and other authorities. However, during his time in power he has a pushed for a tax reform to reduce pressure on private money in tax havens. Therefore, there is the potential for conflict of interest, as he did not publicly declare this ownership on appointment.

Asset recovery potential: Unlikely. There may have been conflict of interest, but it is not clear that any money was obtained through his position directly.