Investigating with drones, stone tablets and the web (yes, LinkedIn, too)

This video was taken by a drone and then posted on a popular web portal in China. It provides an aerial view of the luxurious home of the son of Zhou Yongkang, the country’s security chief. There’s not much commentary here, just tracking shots of a white, two-story mansion built in the traditional style.

But the real evidence showing corruption in the Zhou family wasn’t dug up by drones.

Instead, it was names etched on tombstones in a village in China’s Jiangsu Province that allowed reporters to find the corruption trail. In China, names of family members, living and dead, are recorded on stone tablets in family burial plots. As Michael Forsythe and his team of New York Times reporters recounted recently, that’s how they found the names of Zhou’s first and second wives, his two sons, his brothers and in-laws.

Despite all the wonders of the digital era, a lot of information that journalists need is (still) not online, but in reams of paper gathering dust in government offices – or even in stone tablets in forgotten burial plots. Some of it is not even recorded at all, but resides in people’s heads.

The eureka moment often comes when information from humans or from paper (or stone, as the case may be) is matched with what’s available in digital format. In the case of Zhou, what the Times found was a trail of illicit wealth, none of it in the official’s name. That discovery was made by matching the names on the stone tablets with those on corporate records found on the website of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the government agency that keeps track of companies. They got paper records from the agency as well.

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Are wealth disclosures dangerous?

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. A week later, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required Congress and other officials to post their disclosures online.

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. On the same day, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required officials to post their disclosures online.

About a third of all countries in the world now require officials to publicly disclose their assets. Institutions like the World Bank and the OECD see this as a good thing. Asset declarations, they say, are crucial tools for fighting corruption and holding officials accountable. As an investigative journalist in the Philippines, I found asset statements vital to digging into conflicts of interest and the illegal accumulation of wealth by those in public office. Asset statements are mother lodes of information – and journalists in Russia, South Africa, Bosnia and Thailand, to name only a few, have found them crucial to their investigations of official wrongdoing.

There is as yet no global consensus on the merits of asset transparency. Last week, Chinese authorities detained six anticorruption activists who had been demanding that senior Communist Party officials declare their wealth. The demands come in the wake of exposés in the U.S. press, including a report that recently won the Pulitzer Prize, on the billions – yes, billions – illegally amassed by the so-called Red Nobility.

But the pushback on official disclosures comes from an unlikely quarter as well. Last Monday On April 15, President Obama signed a law that reversed a provision in The STOCK Act of 2012, which required members of Congress, legislative staff and senior officials of the executive branch to post their financial disclosures online. As my former student Sasha Chavkin pointed out in an informative piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, the 2012 law also came on the heels of scandal – a 60 Minutes exposé on insider trading by congressmen.

For some time now, critics of asset transparency have been saying that wealth disclosures are unnecessary violations of privacy. Rather than disincentivizing corruption, they say, disclosures only provide fodder for “asset porn.” More importantly, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in Washington, DC said in a recent study that these disclosures, if posted in online databases, pose dangers to law enforcement and national security. NAPA also asserted that asset disclosures have “limited value” in terms of detecting conflicts of interest or insider trading.

On April 15, for the first time ever, French government ministers were required to publicly declare what they own, in what has been called a historic Great Revelation or Le Grand Déballage. Like elsewhere, the demand for wealth disclosure was stoked by scandal.

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The offshore exposé: bigger than Wikileaks’ ‘cablegate’

offshoreIt’s possibly the biggest single leak of documents in the history of investigative reporting. This week, the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a series of stories based on 2.5 million documents that its director, Gerald Ryle, had obtained while he was still doing journalism in Australia.

In the last 15 months, 86 journalists in 46 countries have been poring over the document cache. ICIJ, housed in the Center for Public Integrity, coordinated the investigation from DC, using a secure messaging system  to communicate with a worldwide team of journalists and free- text retrieval software and programmers in three continents to mine the information from the documents (for more, read this account of how this amazing project was put together).

In recent years, there’s been great work done on the offshore economy, including astounding estimates made by economists, advocacy groups, international financial institutions and academics of the trillions of dollars of global wealth that is stashed in offshore havens. What makes the ICIJ’s exposé such a blockbuster, however, is that it names names, in effect puncturing huge holes in the armor of secrecy that makes offshore havens so attractive.

The ICIJ  reports this week expose an array of individuals, including politicians (everyone from  a Kuwaiti sheikh to Imee Marcos in the Philippines to members of the Azerbaijani ruling  family), businessmen, criminals, and even a songwriter and art collector who have stashed their assets overseas. Up  till now, those assets – at least those in 120,000 offshore companies and trusts now on ICIJ’s database – were cloaked in secrecy, kept away from the prying eyes of journalists, government regulators and tax collectors. But no longer.

Offshore companies are not illegal. There are legitimate reasons for housing a company offshore. But because offshore havens guarantee their clients secrecy, they have become natural havens for corruption, organized crime and tax evasion.

In a tweet last night, ICIJ said it is contemplating making a public release of its data. If that happens,  more secrets are likely to emerge as journalists and others who were not originally part of the collaboration dig into the data and find their own stories. This indeed could be bigger than Wikileaks’ “cablegate,” not just in terms of the size of the leaked documents (Wikileaks had about 250,000  US State Department cables) but also in terms of the international journalistic collaboration. (Disclosure: I am a member of ICIJ and my former organization, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, was part of the Offshore Project). Read the rest of this entry »


8 Ways to Commit Grand Corruption (Part 2)

Large bribes paid to public officials are difficult to track. Hardly ever are the bribes delivered in suitcases of cash  – although that has been known to happen. More often than not, bribes are paid through bank transfers made to “corporate vehicles” – companies, foundations and trusts – that have been set up to conceal illegally acquired wealth. As The Puppet Masters, a recent study by the World Bank, says, there’s a whole industry of  “service providers” – law firms, notaries and secretarial companies – that exists mainly to help clients hide  illegally acquired assets by setting up companies and other structures that obscure their real ownership. Read the rest of this entry »


How to track looted wealth

I am off to the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors, which will be held in Boston this year. I will be on a panel on international corruption together with Claudia Mendez Arriaza of the Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico and  the New York Times’ David Barstow, who shook Walmart with his blockbuster story on payments totaling $24 million that the company made to Mexican officials.

I will be talking about tracking looted wealth. Here’s a preview of my presentation,  published in The Global Muckraker, a blog put out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:

It’s estimated that every year, over a trillion dollars flow illicitly out of the world’s economies. These are the proceeds of corruption, crime and tax evasion. A lot of that money ends up in bank accounts, companies and various assets overseas. The Global Financial Integrity Task Force says that a good portion of  it – about $2 trillion of the $10 trillion in deposits held by non-residents in offshore centers – has found its way to the United States.

It’s hard to document these illicit financial flows: banking secrecy and the opacity of corporate information in offshore jurisdictions, including the U.S., cover up the money trail. But it’s not impossible. Read the rest of this entry »


How to hide your wealth 101

There is nothing more damaging for public officials than to have their secret and hard-to-explain assets exposed to the public. You’d think that they would have learned by now. And yet…

In the past weeks, I have been following from afar the travails of Renato Corona, the chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. Corona is in the midst of an impeachment trial and was found to have deposited millions of dollars in undisclosed bank accounts. As chief justice he should have known: Bank secrecy is not inviolable. As regulators worldwide crack down on money laundering and compel banks to be more accountable for their depositors, full secrecy is no longer guaranteed.

So here’s some unsolicited advice to those in public office: Be careful where you put your money. Be discreet about acquiring assets. Don’t be sloppy when you hide your wealth. Otherwise you’ll prove true what I’ve suspected all along: only the uninitiated and indiscreet get caught. Read the rest of this entry »


Globalizing stolen assets: greed, fear & a taste for the luxury goods of the West

Harvard professor and China expert Roderick MacFarquhar had an insightful op-ed in today’s New York Times, where he talks about why the Chinese elite are stashing their assets overseas and sending their children abroad for schooling. It’s not pure greed, he says, but fear.

China’s Communist leaders cling to Deng Xiaoping’s belief that their continuance in power will depend on economic progress. But even in China, a mandate based on competence can crumble in hard times. So globalizing one’s assets — transferring money and educating one’s children overseas — makes sense as a hedge against risk. (At least $120 billion has been illegally transferred abroad since the mid-1990s, according to one official estimate.)

Such massive asset transfers are happening not just from China, but other places as well, such as Russia and the resource-rich states of Africa, where the acquisitiveness of political leaders have earned some global notoriety. But is it really just fear that motivates the accumulation and transfer of wealth? Is it also not the sheer enjoyment of what money can buy? Read the rest of this entry »