Putin’s Wealth: No ‘smoking gun’ but some ‘smoking watches’

Certificate showing that the wife of the Russian first deputy prime minister is the sole shareholder of a British Virgin Islands company that made millions from a “loan” it gave to a Russian steel conglomerate.

Last month, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London and the Al Jazeera program, People and Power, released the provocatively titled investigation, “Putin: The Richest Man on Earth?”

The report examined Putin’s assets and allegations that he had amassed vast amounts of wealth. The Bureau employed a tried and tested way of uncovering the hidden assets of politicians: its reporters used asset declarations as a starting point and then unearthed proof that other, hidden, and more substantial assets had been acquired through questionable means. This method has been used with some success elsewhere, notably in the Philippines, where journalistic investigation into the assets of the president led to his ouster and by prosecutors in the ongoing trial of the Supreme Court chief justice, who was found to have had millions of dollars in undeclared bank accounts. In Thailand, reporters have used then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s asset declarations to show that he had violated divestment laws, an exposé that came close to forcing him out of office in 2001. Up to now, Thaksin is still facing lawsuits alleging he had falsified his asset disclosures. Read the rest of this entry »

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On the trail of Bo Xilai 2: Beyond China and Hong Kong

Page from a Hong Kong corporate filing shows that Hitoro Holdings, in which Gu Kailai’s sister is a director, is mostly owned by a British Virgin Islands company called Informatic Resources Limited.

Like many members of the Communist Party elite, recently purged Politburo member Bo Xilai and his family members did business in Hong Kong and the West, making it easier for journalists to find a document trail. Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, a high-powered lawyer, practiced in the U.S. and lived in the U.K. for some time. The couple also sent their son to a posh boarding school in England then on to Oxford and later Harvard, where he is currently in graduate school.

Last November, the son, Bo Guagua, provided Exhibit A for a Wall Street Journal essay on China’s princelings. The article opened with a bright red Ferrari the young Bo was supposedly driving around while in Beijing. As the piece said cheekily, he “was driving a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and as red as the Chinese flag, in a country where the average household income last year was about $3,300.”

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Follow the family: On the trail of Bo Xilai 1

Hong Kong-based Next magazine followed the trail of corruption left by the recently disgraced Chinese Communist party official Bo Xilai and his glamorous wife, who has been implicated in the alleged murder of the U.K. businessman Neil Heywood.

No recent political scandal has been more riveting than the one that has been swirling around Bo Xilai, the recently purged Chinese Communist Party official now in the international spotlight.

As most of the media focused on Bo’s precipitous fall from grace and its implications on the Party leadership, a feisty Hong Kong magazine began sniffing the corruption trail. In two weeks of intense reporting, the Hong Kong-based, Chinese-language Next Magazine uncovered previously unknown business dealings by Bo and his glamorous wife.

In subsequent weeks, reporters at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Bloomberg, would be on that trail, too, trolling public records databases around the world to piece together information about the couple, information that in the pre-digital days would have been difficult to find.

This is the new era of investigative reporting. Governments and companies are publishing increasing amounts of information online – yes, even in China. And the ability to find and mine that information is now an essential part of any journalist’s toolkit. Read the rest of this entry »


Follow the houses 2: A DIY Guide

The rock star Sting is among those who bought an apartment on 15 Central Park West, where a Russian billionaire recently purchased an $88-million penthouse.

It’s hard to find assets squirreled away in Swiss banks or buried in an offshore company in the Bahamas. Houses, however, are difficult to hide. As anyone who owns a house knows, a real-estate purchase leaves a trail of public records. That’s why they provide relatively easy pickings for investigative journalists. Reporters may not be able to find evidence of bribery or of other corrupt acts, but with some real-estate sleuthing, it’s possible to trace where the proceeds of crime or corruption went.  Following the houses, therefore, can be as productive as (and sometimes easier than) following the money.

It helps that land records are publicly available in most places – if not online, in public registers accessible to citizens. The New York Times’ recent piece on Russian billionaires gobbling up  $1-billion worth of the fanciest real estate in Manhattan and elsewhere in the United States was made possible in part by the availability of real-estate records stored in online databases throughout the U.S.

In New York, it’s possible to search ACRIS, the city’s online property registry, by party (owner) name or address. Last year, my students were looking into investments made by a shadowy Chinese company in Guinea.

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Follow the money (and the houses)

Demonstrators outside Estrada's 'Boracay' mansion.

I didn’t know much about real estate until 2000 when my colleagues and I  at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism were checking out rumors that then President Joseph Estrada —  a former movie actor famous for his boozing and womanizing — was building fabulous houses for a string of mistresses. It turned out that the houses were just the most visible manifestations of the deep-seated corruption that was taking place during Estrada’s reign.

Since then, I’ve become house-conscious and have kept an informal tally of officials around the world whose crimes and misdeameanors have come to light because of their mania for mansions (cars are a close second, especially Ferraris and Bentleys, followed by private jets and yachts). Whether in the United States or Nigeria, South Africa or Bosnia, public officials have a penchant for using the people’s money to acquire real property. It wasn’t just Imelda Marcos who suffered from a publicly-financed edifice complex. (See my photo collection, Mansion Mania, on Pinterest.)

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