ELISE WORTHINGTON: This is a story about a parallel universe, where the super-rich hides eye-watering amounts of money around the world.
GERARD RYLE: We’re talking about presidents, we’re talking about prime ministers, we’re talking about rock stars, we’re talking about porn stars and people that have been convicted of crimes all over the world.
Their methods are usually highly guarded secrets. But, hidden in an elaborate paper trail, they’re now exposed for all to see.
ANTHONY WATSON: It’s a shell game. They hide the assets; they suppress the income; they hide the actual beneficial owners. To unscramble these incredible structures that you find takes a long time.
The keepers of these secrets are lawyers and accountants, who work through a global network of trusts and shell companies based in tax havens worldwide.
LAKSHMI KUMAR: Without checks, gatekeepers have carte blanche and can ride roughshod over the financial landscape with no questions and no accountability.
They pay the fine, and then it’s just business as usual.
JOHN CHEVIS: I think some of the best money’s to be made if you’re willing to turn a blind eye to who you’re dealing with and where their money might’ve come from. I think there’s perfect money to be made, sadly.
DEBRA LAPREVOTTE: You have a handful of people who loot the resources of a country.
Imagine the good that could have been done with $5 billion. The roads, the infrastructure, schools, medicine, education, healthcare. All of that could’ve been, and all of that was taken away by a handful of people.
The rich, famous, and sometimes infamous private fortunes are concealed through lucrative financial holdings and expensive real estate. Australia has become a prime destination for them to stash their cash.
PETER WHISH-WILSON: I think the outrage that Australians would express if they knew that corrupt money was buying their local jewels in the crown and competing against locals at auctions; I think they’d be furious about that.
NATHAN LYNCH: In real terms, that means that your children or yourself might be going to buy a property, and, when they’re at an auction, there could be a person there in a suit looking very, very sharp and legitimate. Still, they could be a proxy acting for a foreign kleptocrat or a politically exposed person.
Four Corners investigate how politicians, criminals, and the super-wealthy move millions through a parallel economy open only to those who can afford it. And we reveal how an Australian accountant made a fortune helping high-risk clients keep their riches away from prying eyes.
The investigation begins in Singapore.
This glittering island financial hub is an ideal place to set up complex business structures.
PETER WHISH-WILSON: Their corporate tax rate of 17% has traditionally been lower than other foreign jurisdictions. So, that’s attractive to companies that want to set up business there and pay less tax.
And, of course, if you’re going to go to the effort of setting up a headquarter in a country like Singapore and you’re a big multinational firm. You’re involved in profit-shifting activities and a whole range of other things that are undoubtedly immoral and unethical. You’re also going to demand from the Singapore government layers of regulations to hide your identity and what you’re doing. It’s a recipe for setting themselves up for scandal.
For the last 40 years, Singapore has been home to a little-known business run by an Australian accountant named Graeme Briggs.
He set up his company, Asiaciti, here in the 1980s.
(ELEVATOR DOOR DINGS) Today, it’s a global business with clients on every continent.
GERARD RYLE: It’s one of the largest offshore service providers in the world. And it’s run by an Australian man. They have all sorts of legitimate clients, big banking, big banks, big accountancy firms. Asiaciti essentially sets up offshore companies for people who want privacy. Asiaciti is part of a growing industry of professional wealth managers helping the super-rich manage their cash.
LAKSHMI KUMAR: It’s lawyers, accountants, investment advisors. You know, anyone who helps with the private equity, venture capital fund, real-estate agents. All of them are gatekeepers. And when we use the term ‘gatekeepers,’ it really… ..is these are the individuals that are meant to guard the financial system, because they have the expertise, they have the know-how to navigate the nitty-gritty of what is otherwise a very complex system to navigate.
When we’ve looked into it, we’ve found that individual entities providing these services, for them in isolation, are hugely profitable. So, you know, there’s the ongoing advice. There are fees for setting up these structures. There’s a trailing revenue model because you’re continually managing these structures.
So, for those individual businesses that are active in this space, it’s hugely profitable. Asiaciti prides itself on trust and discretion, keeping the confidential information of its high-profile clients secret. An anonymous source has leaked millions of internal documents from Asiaciti and 13 other offshore providers to media worldwide through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
GERARD RYLE: Interestingly, we’re seeing somebody who no-one’s ever heard of. You’re talking about Graeme Briggs – an accountant, somebody who’s gone to Singapore, built a business, and now he’s the center of what will be, I think, a political storm around the world. Graeme Briggs is a 75-year-old grandfather with a taste for the finer things in life.
He owns a multimillion-dollar mansion on a vineyard in the Mornington Peninsula.
Graham lives in Victoria. He collects art. He likes fine wine, particularly Italian wine. He also contains Japanese fountain pens. So, he’s somebody with expensive tastes. But he also mixes with people from all over the world, very wealthy, important clients, but also some people who are very high public figures.
The leak reveals Graeme Briggs amassed a $62-million fortune that includes more than $10 million in real estate, a $4-million rare-pen collection, and $400,000-worth of fine wine. Like the fortunes of those he’s managed, much of Graeme Briggs’s wealth is held through a complex offshore company and trust structure.
One of the trends emerging in the documents in the Pandora Papers is that this offshore world lobbies behind the scenes; it lobbies governments to allow the offshore world to occur. So, Graham was mainly involved in turning Samoa into a tax haven.
The island nation of Samoa is a speck in the ocean halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.