Law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in setting up offshore companies in tax havens, was behind the leak, which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has called “the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken”, according to reports.
Following a year-long investigation, emails, bank records and client documents spanning from 1977 to 2015 were leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
They were then shared with the ICIJ, as well as BBC Panorama and the Guardian – both based in the UK.
Friends and associates of Russian president Vladimir Putin were implicated for manipulating as much as $2bn (£1.4bn, €1.75bn) through a number of banks and shadow companies, according to the ICIJ.
The documents also reference offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan.
In the UK, six members of the House of Lords, three former Conservative MPs and dozens of donors to political parties were named.
In addition, more than 30 people and companies blacklisted by the US government for their involvement with, among other things, drug barons and terrorist organisations were implicated.
Crawford Spence, a professor of accounting at Warwick Business School said: “That the global elite ensconce their money in offshore tax havens and byzantine corporate structures is nothing new.
“However, these latest revelations concerning Mossack Fonseca are novel in that they show how elites from different walks of life come together in order to avoid scrutiny of their affairs by state authorities and the public more broadly.
“Thus, we see that Mossack Fonseca deals with concert cellists and Russian gangsters, Middle Eastern dictators, celebrity life coaches and European heads of state, such as the Icelandic prime minister. That one shady law firm in Panama has such a broad and high profile client base really is astonishing.
“The firm itself has denied any wrongdoing, but anyone found to be on their client list will surely be feeling nervous about being shown to share legal advice with Colonel Gaddafi and Bashar Al Assad. Thus far, this has been a journalistic investigation, but national tax and fraud authorities need to look very closely at these documents.”
Hidden and manipulated
While most offshore services are legal and above board, the documents indicate that banks, lawyers and other peripheral professional services often fail to follow the letter of the law, with some offshore “middlemen” hiding suspect activity or manipulating records.
The investigation shows major banks are often central players in the creation of shell companies often in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Panama, and other offshore tax havens.
Nearly 15,600 paper companies have been set up for clients by banks including UBS and HSBC in a bid to evade the tax man, the ICIJ has reported.
Officials from FIFA and Argentine football superstar Lionel Messi were also named in the documents.