Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Conflict of interests

Panama Papers Source Offers Documents To Governments, Hints At More To Come

Source known only as John Doe says income inequality “one of the defining issues of our time” and calls on governments to address it.

The anonymous whistleblower behind the Panama Papers has conditionally offered to make the documents available to government authorities.

In a statement issued to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the so-called “John Doe” behind the biggest information leak in history cites the need for better whistleblower protection and has hinted at even more revelations to come.

Titled “The Revolution Will Be Digitized” the 1800-word statement gives justification for the leak, saying that “income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time” and says that government authorities need to do more to address it.

Süddeutsche Zeitung has authenticated that the statement came from the Panama Papers source. The statement in full:

The Revolution Will Be Digitized

John Doe

Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. It affects all of us, the world over. The debate over its sudden acceleration has raged for years, with politicians, academics and activists alike helpless to stop its steady growth despite countless speeches, statistical analyses, a few meagre protests, and the occasional documentary.

Still, questions remain: why? And why now?

The Panama Papers provide a compelling answer to these questions: massive, pervasive corruption. And it’s not a coincidence that the answer comes from a law firm. More than just a cog in the machine of “wealth management,” Mossack Fonseca used its influence to write and bend laws worldwide to favour the interests of criminals over a period of decades. In the case of the island of Niue, the firm essentially ran a tax haven from start to finish. Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack would have us believe that their firm’s shell companies, sometimes called “special purpose vehicles,” are just like cars. But used car salesmen don’t write laws. And the only “special purpose” of the vehicles they produced was too often fraud, on a grand scale.

Shell companies are often associated with the crime of tax evasion, but the Panama Papers show beyond a shadow of a doubt that although shell companies are not illegal by definition, they are used to carry out a wide array of serious crimes that go beyond evading taxes. I decided to expose Mossack Fonseca because I thought its founders, employees and clients should have to answer for their roles in these crimes, only some of which have come to light thus far. It will take years, possibly decades, for the full extent of the firm’s sordid acts to become known.

In the meantime, a new global debate has started, which is encouraging. Unlike the polite rhetoric of yesteryear that carefully omitted any suggestion of wrongdoing by the elite, this debate focuses directly on what matters.

In that regard, I have a few thoughts.

For the record, I do not work for any government or intelligence agency, directly or as a contractor, and I never have. My viewpoint is entirely my own, as was my decision to share the documents with Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), not for any specific political purpose, but simply because I understood enough about their contents to realize the scale of the injustices they described.

The prevailing media narrative thus far has focused on the scandal of what is legal and allowed in this system. What is allowed is indeed scandalous and must be changed.

But we must not lose sight of another important fact: the law firm, its founders, and employees actually did knowingly violate myriad laws worldwide, repeatedly. Publicly they plead ignorance, but the documents show detailed knowledge and deliberate wrongdoing. At the very least we already know that Mossack personally perjured himself before a federal court in Nevada, and we also know that his information technology staff attempted to cover up the underlying lies. They should all be prosecuted accordingly with no special treatment.

In the end, thousands of prosecutions could stem from the Panama Papers, if only law enforcement could access and evaluate the actual documents. ICIJ and its partner publications have rightly stated that they will not provide them to law enforcement agencies. I, however, would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement to the extent that I am able.

That being said, I have watched as one after another, whistleblowers and activists in the United States and Europe have had their lives destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in after shining a light on obvious wrongdoing. Edward Snowden is stranded in Moscow, exiled due to the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. For his revelations about the NSA, he deserves a hero’s welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment. Bradley Birkenfeld was awarded millions for his information concerning Swiss bank UBS—and was still given a prison sentence by the Justice Department. Antoine Deltour is presently on trial for providing journalists with information about how Luxembourg granted secret “sweetheart” tax deals to multi-national corporations, effectively stealing billions in tax revenues from its neighbour countries. And there are plenty more examples.

Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution, full stop. Until governments codify legal protections for whistleblowers into law, enforcement agencies will simply have to depend on their own resources or on-going global media coverage for documents.

In the meantime, I call on the European Commission, the British Parliament, the United States Congress, and all nations to take swift action not only to protect whistleblowers, but to put an end to the global abuse of corporate registers. In the European Union, every member state’s corporate register should be freely accessible, with detailed data plainly available on ultimate beneficial owners. The United Kingdom can be proud of its domestic initiatives thus far, but it still has a vital role to play by ending financial secrecy on its various island territories, which are unquestionably the cornerstone of institutional corruption worldwide. And the United States can clearly no longer trust its fifty states to make sound decisions about their own corporate data. It is long past time for Congress to step in and force transparency by setting standards for disclosure and public access.

And while it’s one thing to extol the virtues of government transparency at summits and in sound bites, it’s quite another to actually implement it. It is an open secret that in the United States, elected representatives spend the majority of their time fundraising. Tax evasion cannot possibly be fixed while elected officials are pleading for money from the very elites who have the strongest incentives to avoid taxes relative to any other segment of the population. These unsavoury political practices have come full circle and they are irreconcilable. Reform of America’s broken campaign finance system cannot wait.

Of course, those are hardly the only issues that need fixing. Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand has been curiously quiet about his country’s role in enabling the financial fraud Mecca that is the Cook Islands. In Britain, the Tories have been shameless about concealing their own practices involving offshore companies, while Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the United States Treasury, just announced her resignation to work instead for HSBC, one of the most notorious banks on the planet (not coincidentally headquartered in London). And so the familiar swish of America’s revolving door echoes amidst deafening global silence from thousands of yet-to-be-discovered ultimate beneficial owners who are likely praying that her replacement is equally spineless. In the face of political cowardice, it’s tempting to yield to defeatism, to argue that the status quo remains fundamentally unchanged, while the Panama Papers are, if nothing else, a glaring symptom of our society’s progressively diseased and decaying moral fabric.

But the issue is finally on the table, and that change takes time is no surprise. For fifty years, executive, legislative, and judicial branches around the globe have utterly failed to address the metastasizing tax havens spotting Earth’s surface. Even today, Panama says it wants to be known for more than papers, but its government has conveniently examined only one of the horses on its offshore merry-go-round.

Banks, financial regulators and tax authorities have failed. Decisions have been made that have spared the wealthy while focusing instead on reining in middle- and low-income citizens.

Hopelessly backward and inefficient courts have failed. Judges have too often acquiesced to the arguments of the rich, whose lawyers—and not just Mossack Fonseca—are well trained in honouring the letter of the law, while simultaneously doing everything in their power to desecrate its spirit. The media has failed. Many news networks are cartoonish parodies of their former selves, individual billionaires appear to have taken up newspaper ownership as a hobby, limiting coverage of serious matters concerning the wealthy, and serious investigative journalists lack funding. The impact is real: in addition to Süddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ, and despite explicit claims to the contrary, several major media outlets did have editors review documents from the Panama Papers. They chose not to cover them. The sad truth is that among the most prominent and capable media organizations in the world there was not a single one interested in reporting on the story. Even Wikileaks didn’t answer its tip line repeatedly.

But most of all, the legal profession has failed. Democratic governance depends upon responsible individuals throughout the entire system who understand and uphold the law, not who understand and exploit it. On average, lawyers have become so deeply corrupt that it is imperative for major changes in the profession to take place, far beyond the meek proposals already on the table. To start, the term “legal ethics,” upon which codes of conduct and licensure are nominally based, has become an oxymoron. Mossack Fonseca did not work in a vacuum—despite repeated fines and documented regulatory violations, it found allies and clients at major law firms in virtually every nation. If the industry’s shattered economics were not already evidence enough, there is now no denying that lawyers can no longer be permitted to regulate one another. It simply doesn’t work. Those able to pay the most can always find a lawyer to serve their ends, whether that lawyer is at Mossack Fonseca or another firm of which we remain unaware. What about the rest of society?

The collective impact of these failures has been a complete erosion of ethical standards, ultimately leading to a novel system we still call Capitalism, but which is tantamount to economic slavery. In this system—our system—the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters, who exist in a world apart where the intangible shackles are carefully hidden amongst reams of unreachable legalese. The horrific magnitude of detriment to the world should shock us all awake. But when it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause for even greater concern. It signals that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner. So now is the time for real action, and that starts with asking questions.

Historians can easily recount how issues involving taxation and imbalances of power have led to revolutions in ages past. Then, military might was necessary to subjugate peoples, whereas now, curtailing information access is just as effective or more so, since the act is often invisible. Yet we live in a time of inexpensive, limitless digital storage and fast internet connections that transcend national boundaries. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots: from start to finish, inception to global media distribution, the next revolution will be digitized.

Or perhaps it has already begun.

CASE STUDY: Dr. Willie Soon, a Career Fueled by Big Oil and Coal

Download (PDF, 424KB)

Hong Kong’s third-world water management system in urgent need of repair

20 March 2015

Asit K. Biswas

Over the past several decades, Hong Kong’s water supply and wastewater management practices have been on an unsustainable path. Poor planning, absence of sustained interest from its top policymakers, an uninformed public, lack of regular media scrutiny and a series of poor policy interventions have ensured that, today, it lags behind nearly all cities of similar levels of economic development in its management of water.

Hong Kong is a net water importer. Currently, 70-80 per cent is imported from Guangdong’s Dongjiang through multiple agreements. The Audit Commission reported in 1999 that the planners had so badly overestimated city water requirements in the 1989 agreement that some 716 million cubic metres of water literally went down the drain, which cost taxpayers, between 1994 and 1998, HK$1.7 billion.

Even after this sad performance, the next agreement was even worse. The requirement was again another overestimate. Consequently, between 2006 and 2012, the city had to pay for seven years of water imports but in reality used only about six years of water. This over-estimation cost the taxpayers another HK$2.8 billion.

As an adviser to 19 governments, I am not aware of a single city anywhere in the world which has consistently overestimated water requirements so badly for over two decades.

Not only has overestimation been a serious problem, but also no serious policy measures were taken to manage domestic and industrial water demands. At present, average water use in Hong Kong is about 220 litres per capita per day, a figure that is higher than in 2003. This is bad management since in nearly all similar cities of the world, the usage trends are generally declining because of better management practices and increasing awareness of the people that water is a scarce resource.

Accordingly, inhabitants of cities like Hamburg and Barcelona use about half that of an average Hongkonger. In Singapore, per capita water use has steadily come down in recent decades. It is now 152 litres per capita per day, which is still on the high side. An average Hongkonger uses 45 per cent more.

One of the reasons for this very high usage is because water and wastewater provisioning has been subsidised at higher levels with each passing year. The water tariff has remained the same since 1995, but costs of services have gone up steadily. This has resulted in some ridiculous situations, like the city providing private bottled water companies with highly subsidised water, which at the retail level is being sold at over 1,000 times the cost of city water.

The present pricing structure means that a round 14 per cent of Hong Kong residents do not pay for water and sewerage services. Each household now receives completely free 12 cubic metres of water every four months irrespective of their ability to pay. This is in contrast to Singapore, where its national water agency, PUB, not only completely recovers its costs but also makes a profit.

Furthermore, in Hong Kong, there have been no consistent attempts to educate the citizens on the importance of water as a strategic resource. This is again in sharp contrast to Singapore, where the population is regularly made aware of the value of water. The interactive permanent exhibitions of wastewater treatment and water management at its NEWater Visitor Centre and Marina Barrage have become major tourist destinations.

When compared to other Asian cities of similar levels of per capita gross domestic product, like Singapore, Tokyo or Osaka, urban water management in Hong Kong comes out very poorly. But even when compared to some cities in developing countries, like Cambodia’s Phnom Penh, Hong Kong does not fare well.

For the past 15 years, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has outclassed Hong Kong. Like in Hong Kong, Phnom Penh residents receive clean water which can be drunk straight from the tap. Both the poor and the rich pay for water at affordable prices, and no one receives free water, as in Hong Kong.

Phnom Penh’s water authority, a public-sector autonomous corporation, has been consistently profitable for over a decade and receives no subsidy. All its performance indicators have been consistently better than Hong Kong’s, with many of them better than in London or Los Angeles. Its planning and execution have also surpassed Hong Kong’s. For example, Phnom Penh’s bill collection ratio is almost 100 per cent, and unaccounted-for losses from the water system are about 6.5 per cent, compared to about 17 per cent in Hong Kong.

The question the Hong Kong public and policymakers need to ask and answer is: how did a third world city like Phnom Penh, which has limited technical and administrative capacities, no private sector to speak of, inadequate educational and management facilities and poor governance practices, manage to leapfrog a world-class city like Hong Kong so thoroughly in little over a decade?

Urban water management is not rocket science. There is no reason why any city of more than 200,000 people cannot have a good water system. It is high time for Hong Kong to do some serious soul-searching and find solutions which can radically improve its present urban water system.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. An adviser to 19 countries, he received the Stockholm Water Prize, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in the area of water, in 2006.

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1742839/hong-kongs-third-world-water-management-system-urgent-need

Examples of monthly Govt remuneration (for part time work) – ARE THEY WORTH IT ?

Download (PDF, 288KB)

Shek Kwu Chau incinerator proposal reflects worry over government power abuse

29 January, 2015

Comment›Insight & Opinion

Tom Yam

Should a government department regulate itself? To take a specific example, should the Environmental Protection Department propose an infrastructure project that has an impact on the environment, evaluate the environmental effects of that project, then approve the project as environmentally sound?

This is essentially the question before the Court of Final Appeal in a case concerning the department’s proposal to build the world’s most expensive incinerator off the island of Shek Kwu Chau. Wearing three hats as advocate, assessor and approver, the department’s director, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, has taken the incinerator project through all three processes.

The department has championed the incinerator for 15 years, despite significant local opposition. Its assistant director Elvis Au applied for an environmental permit. Another of its officers, then assistant director Tse Chin-wan, with the help of consultants engaged by the department, managed the environmental impact assessment, resulting in the approval of its report by the department and the issuance of the statutory environmental permit.

The court is now considering whether the department’s director has the power to approve the impact assessment report, prepared and submitted on her behalf, and grant the permit to herself. If the court decides she has this power, the department can proceed with the project. If not, the environmental permit will be invalidated and another impact assessment study will have to be conducted.

The issue goes to the heart of whether it is in the public interest for a government agency to police itself. It raises concerns about the vested interests of bureaucrats versus the rightful interest of citizens in minimising the risks to their health and environment.

The proposed incinerator, opponents say, will use polluting technology, produce toxic ash, disrupt the marine habitat, despoil a pristine island and destroy rather than protect the environment. But how impartial can an environmental protection official be in assessing a project which he has proposed, in which he has invested years of his career?

The self-regulation issue is related to the larger question of how major infrastructure projects in Hong Kong are conceived, analysed, evaluated and approved. In many cases, it appears that insufficient due diligence was done by professionals independent of the government agency proposing the project. Consultants are often hired to produce “the right answer” rather than an objective assessment; those who rely on government contracts will please the client rather than jeopardise future business. Such self-regulation enables government departments to release minimal information on the rationale, impact, financial and operational details of a project.

The Development Bureau’s reclamation plans for the East Lantau Metropolis is an example. The justification for such a colossal development, such as population, housing and transport needs, has neither been established nor quantified. Yet the bureau
intends to request HK$226.9 m
illion to explore building artificial islands in the waters between Hong Kong and Lantau islands.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1694760/shek-kwu-chau-incinerator-proposal-reflects-worry-over

Why aren’t Hong Kong’s environmental officers protecting the environment?

03 February, 2015

Comment›Letters

The Finance Committee’s vote to approve the funding for the integrated waste management facility off Shek Kwu Chau will have a serious impact on one of Hong Kong’s lesser known and vulnerable mammals, the finless porpoise, jeopardising the future of this threatened species.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, the undersecretary for the environment, and Mr Elvis Au Wai-kwong, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department, are both strong proponents for the construction of the mega incinerator. Conversely and somewhat puzzlingly, both are members of the steering committee for the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan; Loh holds a prominent position as vice-chairwoman, and Au attends as a representative of the Environmental Protection Department.

It is astonishing to find these two high-ranking civil servants holding opposing positions with fundamental conflicts of interest. On the one hand, they are responsible for the proposed destruction of the marine environment while, on the other, they serve as entrusted guardians and advisers for Hong Kong’s nature conservation and biodiversity.

The environmental impact assessment report for the incinerator clearly confirms from the survey maps of the west coast of Shek Kwu Chau (south of Lantau Island) that this is an extremely important habitat hotspot for the finless porpoise. It is therefore mystifying that officers can miss the key material facts in the data and propose to construct the incinerator at the exact same marine location, thus obliterating the primary habitat of the finless porpoise.

Why bother carrying out the lengthy process of the environmental impact assessment and public consultation, if this core factual evidence is then completely ignored?

In their privileged position as public servants and members of the steering committee for Hong Kong’s biodiversity plan, one would think they would show unquestionable, ethical and integral commitment to protect the finless porpoise by creating a marine park and not allowing a repeat of the currently unfolding tragedy happening to the habitat of the pink dolphins.

Responsible societies show unequivocal resolve, empathy and respect for their biodiversity, ensuring a green heritage for future generations, so why not Hong Kong? Or will the Hong Kong government continue to deceive us with meaningless conservation policies and which will continue to eradicate our precious irreplaceable biodiversity?

I would request Christine Loh and Elvis Au explain their fundamental conflicts of interest.

Paul Melsom, Lantau

http://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/1700329/why-arent-hong-kongs-environmental-officers-protecting-environment

‘Charity’ big tobacco and big beverage and big oil front group that does not pay any tax since inception

http://www.guidestar.org/PartnerReport.aspx?ein=52-1852434&Partner=Demo

Download (PDF, 66KB)

Download (PDF, 1.88MB)

State Department Keystone XL Contractor ERM Bribed Chinese Agency to Permit Project

Mon, 2014-12-01

Environmental Resources Management (ERM Group), the consultancy selected by TransCanada to conduct the environmental review for Keystone XL‘s northern leg on behalf of the U.S. State Department, is no stranger to scandal.

Exhibit A: ERM once bribed a Chinese official to ram through major pieces of an industrial development project. ERM was tasked to push through the project in Hangzhou Bay, located near Shanghai.

Accepting the bribe landed Yan Shunjun, former deputy head of the Shanghai Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, an 11-year prison sentence.

Yan “allegedly took bribes of 864,000 yuan (126,501 U.S. dollars), 20,000 U.S. dollars and 4,000 euros from seven contractors,” explained Xiuhuanet. “Yan was also accused of illegally setting up a channel to speed up environmental impact assessment processes, which are essential for companies wanting to build factories.”

BP, one of the companies standing to gain if Keystone XL North receives a presidential permit from the Obama administration as a major Alberta tar sands producer, was also mired in the Chinese ERM Group scandal.

“Two firms on ERM’s bluechip client list, BP and Sinopec, are big investors in a petrochemical complex on the site, but the Chinese authorities apparently saw no conflict of interest in awarding the environmental evaluation to ERM,” explained London’s Sunday Times.

In a sense, history has repeated itself.

Hopenhagen to Paris

Back in 2009 when news arose of ERM’s bribery and corruption, Chinese environmental campaigners worried the incident could portend a lack of commitment to tackling climate change in the months leading up to the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Now, five years later, with the Lima COP20 underway and the critical UN climate summit in Paris looming, the recent climate deal signed between the U.S. and China has taken center stage.

But Keystone XL will soon be front and center once again in early 2015 in the halls of Congress and the White House.

Environmentalists fear that opening another route between Alberta and the U.S. Gulf Coast for tar sands crude would ensure the deal struck between the two carbon-emitting giants becomes a moot point, or worse.

Bribery as “Investment”

A commenter on People’s Daily, the state-owned newspaper in China, wrote that bribery was merely the cost of doing business and an “investment” of sorts.

“Foreign firms have quickly learnt the philosophy of guangxi [connections],” wrote the commenter. “Their rule has become, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’”

ERM, in turn, denied any wrongdoing on its end, even though it had doled out the payments landing Yan in jail to begin with.

“ERM Group had no advance warning of any of the alleged payments to the former deputy director of the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau,” ERM declared to the Sunday Times.

“To suggest otherwise is damagingly inaccurate. We are committed to: conducting our business with integrity, applying ethical principles to our relationships with clients.”

KXL, ERM: Institutionalized Corruption

In the U.S. context as it pertains to Keystone XL, ERM’s conduct has been far less ham-handed than it was in China.

By procedure and by law, the company applying for the permit gets to pick and pay for the contractor conducting the environmental review on behalf of the State Department. In this case, it meant TransCanada selected ERM Group to give it a rubber stamp of approval for KXL.

In other words, the State Department has legalized a de facto form of “institutionalized corruption” for handling environmental reviews for cross-border pipelines like Keystone XL’s northern leg. Sierra Club attorney Doug Hayes described it as a “built-in conflict of interest” in a 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek article.

ERM Group, with a track-record of rubber-stamping ecologically hazardous projects in places ranging from central Asia to Peru to Alaska to Delaware and China, has proven itself once again a key tentacle of the “carbon web” for Keystone XL.

The question remains, though: will the sordid episode in the city near Shanghai serve as a teachable moment as applied to the tar sands pipeline described as a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet”?

We’ll find out, and likely soon.

http://www.desmogblog.com/2014/12/01/state-department-keystone-xl-contractor-erm-bribed-chinese-agency?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitterfeed