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Pandora Papers: How heads (of state) roll

The week in corruption, 15 October 2021

President of Chile Sebastian Piñera speaks to the press after the G20 Leaders Summit in Argentina

Photo by Matias Baglietto on Shutterstock

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In January it was already clear that 2021 was going to be a rough year for some unscrupulous heads of state.

Now 35 leaders find themselves in hot water for reportedly offshoring their wealth through anonymous companies. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš – whose party narrowly lost last week’s parliamentary election – may have been the Pandora Papers’ first political casualty but likely not the last.

In Chile, the Pandora Papers have caused a political earthquake a month before the general election as new details about the offshore business dealings of President Sebastián Piñera have emerged.

This week, a group of parliamentarians initiated impeachment proceedings against President Piñera over his role in a controversial 2010 mining deal. This comes on top of last week’s announcement that the public prosecutor's office will investigate the President for corruption and tax-related offences.

Thanks to the Pandora Papers investigation, we now know that in December 2010, nine months into his first presidential term, Piñera’s family sold their stake in the Dominga mining project to a close friend and business partner, Alberto Délano. The leaked documents reportedly show that the parties signed two contracts: one in Chile for US$14 million and another in the British Virgin Islands for US$138 million.

The prosecutors now say the second contract signed in the British Virgin Islands was not previously disclosed when the Dominga deal was under a judicial investigation in 2017. Perhaps as a result, Piñera was acquitted.

What’s more, the leaked documents show that the amount was to be paid in three instalments and that the third payment came with an alarming condition: the government cannot strengthen environmental protections in the Dominga mining operations area.

The allegation that the President assured a personal friend and business partner that the proposed mining area would not be designated as a nature reserve – thereby advancing his own financial interests – points to possible misconduct and regulatory capture.

The role of anonymous companies in cross-border corruption and money laundering is well-established. But as this case shows, secretive corporate structures can also enable private interests to capture policy- and decision-making and cause further harm to the environment.

What more evidence do we need before making it impossible for public officials and businesspeople to hide behind anonymous shell companies?

Several countries in Latin America have committed to or have already taken steps towards creating beneficial ownership registers, which would help prevent such abuses. Our colleagues at Chile Transparente are urging the Chilean government to follow suit.

We remain convinced that a new global standard that requires public registers of beneficial ownership is urgently needed.

Next week, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will convene for a plenary to discuss possible revisions to the standard on company ownership, among other things. We know that proposals like ours will generate heated debates – but we’re staying optimistic. Should the FATF heed civil society’s repeated calls, the revised standard would also prompt the Chilean government to finally take action.

We’ll be watching the outcomes of these deliberations very closely. If the FATF’s voting members needed yet another nudge, the Pandora Papers should be it.

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