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Pandora Papers: Biggest offshore leak ever includes 1,200 Belgians

15:37 05/10/2021

The largest co-operation among journalists in the world has led to the Pandora Papers, a major leak of thousands of names of people who have hidden money in tax havens. More than 1,200 Belgians appear on the list.

It looks – and sounds – a lot like the Panama Papers of 2016, but the Pandora Papers is even bigger – the biggest leak of offshore accounts ever. Nearly 12 million documents, including emails, images and spreadsheets, were leaked by offshore providers in the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea region.

The documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, DC, which worked with 600 journalists in 117 countries to pour over the documents over a period of several months. In Belgium, Knack, De Tijd and Le Soir co-operated on the investigation.

Offshore banking involves putting money in a bank with an offshore license, with little regulation. It can also mean owning property or other assets through a company – or string of companies – located in countries that make starting a tax-free company very easy.

‘A writer, a rapper, a prince’

While taking advantage of offshore structures isn’t in itself illegal, tax dodging is. Some taxes can be legally avoided by setting up companies in tax havens, but often they are used to hide money that is taxable. Tax havens are also used to hide assets gained through criminal activity.

The list of names in the Pandora Papers – named after the proverbial box – includes world leaders, celebrities and members of nobility. Names popping up in global headlines this week include former UK prime minister Tony Blair; German model Claudia Schiffer; Nicos Anastasiades, president of Cyprus; British musician Elton John; Andrej Babis, prime minister of the Czech Republic; former Spanish king Juan Carlos I; former Beatle Ringo Starr and Spanish singer Julio Iglesias.

There are, according to the three Belgian media, a bit more than 1,200 Belgians and Belgian families on the list. While not all names have been released (yet), they speak of not just the usual suspects in old money families but “a crime writer, a surgeon, a professor, a Brussels rapper, a radio DJ and a prince.” *

But there are many names we already know. Several Solvay families – descendants of Alfred and Ernest Solvay, who founded the chemical company of the same name – are on the list. Together, they own hundreds of thousands of shares in Solvay and have parked them overseas, apparently to avoid paying taxes on the dividends.

The Solvay building in BrusselsThe Brussels-based Solvay company announced a restructuring plan earlier this year, with the loss of several hundred jobs  ©Virgine Lefour/BELGA

 “In the case of the Solvays, we got a hold of confidential records from meetings with their tax advisors and asset managers,” says reporter Lars Bové of De Tijd. “They literally talk about taxes that they will want to avoid and hiding wealth via these methods.”

Other names on the list are diamond dealers, including father and son Dilip and Vishal Mehta; bankers, including KBC board member Theo Roussis; former Dexia CEO Wouter Devriendt, and former VRT CEO Paul Lembrechts.

A complete list of all 1,217 Belgians may never surface. “It’s not really the intention to just drop names,” says Bové. “We are trying to expose certain phenomena, certain things that are playing out. Our goal is to show what is happening in these tax paradises.”

You can be sure that federal authorities are lining up to study the constructions and identify potential tax evasion. “Tax dodging through offshore constructions is fraud, pure and simple,” federal finance minister Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V) told VRT.

* Before you start wagging your finger at Prince Laurent, do realise that several members of the Belgian nobility are allowed to carry the title ‘prince’. Anyone who is a direct descendant of Leopold I can call himself a prince. There are currently about a dozen princes in Belgium

Photo top: Shutterstock

Written by Lisa Bradshaw