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U.S. makes Panama Papers list

By Kay Bell ·
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Posted: 2 pm ET
Mossack Fonseca describes itself as a leading global company providing legal and trust services. It specializes in the incorporation of offshore entities. PxI8/Getty Images

Mossack Fonseca describes itself as a leading global company providing legal and trust services. It specializes in the incorporation of offshore entities. PxI8/Getty Images

U.S. tax officials are rightfully concerned about the amount of American money that escapes taxation because it is stashed in accounts in other countries. That's why the IRS and U.S. Treasury make the most of laws established to track money in ostensible foreign tax havens.

But for folks in other parts of the world, the United States is a tax haven, too.

That's not a big secret. International studies regularly list the United States as a great place for the globally rich and famous to hide their money from their governments' tax collectors.

Global tax evasion

That perception was emphasized once again with the release of the Panama Papers. That's the name given to around 11.5 million documents leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. An anonymous source gave the records to a German newspaper, which then shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, which passed them along to its network of international media partners.

Many of the locales where Mossack Fonseca says, per its website, that it provides "comprehensive legal and trust services" also are on international lists of official tax haven countries.

U.S. tax-haven states

Also among the Panamanian firm's service areas are Nevada and Wyoming.

Business in those 2 Western states must be good.

ICIJ analysis of the Panama Papers shows that the United States is one of the top 10 countries where Mossack Fonseca worked with intermediaries.

ICIJ says the firm worked with more than 14,000 banks, law firms, company incorporators and other middlemen in these countries to set up companies, foundations and trusts for customers.

Global leaders' accounts revealed

The documents also are raising questions because some of the names found in the leaked material read like a Who's Who of world leaders, including Russia's President Vladimir Putin, former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and Alaa Mubarak, son of Egypt's former president.

Of course, these papers do not necessarily prove tax cheating. Simply owning a financial account in a foreign country is not illegal. There are plenty of reasons other than evading taxes for such financial moves.

But the existence of so many accounts located beyond the owners' borders does raise questions.

And today, Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned in the wake of the Panama Papers' revelation about a company he and his wife set up in 2007 in the British Virgin Islands through Mossack Fonseca.

I'm trying hard not to sound jealous or judgmental here, but is it really surprising that the rich and famous, be they the run-of-the-mill wealthy or leaders of nations, will take whatever steps they deem necessary to protect their wealth and power?

Investigations worldwide

Global tax officials aren't surprised. They also are more judgmental than I am. And they have the resources to look into the foreign accounts.

The U.S. Department of Justice isn't commenting on the Panama Papers -- yet. European officials are not as reticent.

French President Francois Hollande said the "good revelations" in the document trove would "increase tax revenues from those who commit fraud."

Brazilian, Austrian, Dutch, Australian and Spanish officials also reportedly have launched investigations.

If money machinations and possible tax evasion intrigue you, keep watching. The global examinations into potential tax cheats, some possibly with accounts in the United States, will grow.

Stay on top of tax news, domestic and international, and tax-saving tips at Bankrate's Tax Center.

You also can follow me on Twitter at @taxtweet.

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