Cover Story

Journalist finds strength in numbers to keep truth alive



On a cold, winter day in Munich, Germany, in 2015, everything was going wrong for investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer. His parents, kids and wife were all sick. He was the only one still standing. He’d just changed his sons’ sheets when an anonymous source electronically delivered the first set of internal documents from Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider.

Obermayer eventually received a treasure trove of scandals detailing financial and attorney-client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The documents contained personal financial information about wealthy individuals and public officials and showed that some of the Mossack Fonseca shell corporations were being used for illegal purposes including tax fraud, tax evasion and evading international sanctions. “It went from being a bad day to a very good one,” Obermayer says during a recent interview with Fraud Magazine.

Obermayer and his source would never meet, but he or she (they introduced themselves as John Doe) had given him more than he realized on that first night. “We never spoke, not a single time. Until the end of the investigation, I didn’t hear his or her voice,” he says.

But when he initially looked through the documents, Obermayer says there wasn’t much of a German angle for his newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and many of the stories were international. “We knew our readers wouldn’t be interested in middle-sized scandals in Uruguay or France, because that’s all far away.”

He and his colleague at Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frederik Obermaier, also couldn’t investigate many of these scandals well enough — even the big ones — because they didn’t speak the languages. “I don’t speak the language in Uruguay. I don’t even speak very good French!” And two of the biggest scandals they found in the beginning of their research originated in Russia and Iceland, neither of which the journalists could interpret. They realized they wouldn’t be able to investigate the leak by themselves, but they knew enough about Mossack Fonseca to know there were compelling stories there. “When someone hands you information that used to be hidden in their safe, I thought, ‘This could be interesting.’ ”

Obermayer, Obermaier and their editor decided to share the leak with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). They could’ve partnered on a case-by-case basis with other journalists, Obermayer explains, but they’d worked with the ICIJ before on other leaks: the Offshore Leaks, Luxembourg Leaks and Swiss Leaks. They’d always been on the receiving side — someone else would receive the leak and share the information with them — so they thought now they could give back.

When they realized the ICIJ would take it on as their next project, they flew to Washington, D.C., the home of ICIJ’s headquarters, to explain what they had. The more colleagues the ICIJ brought in to work on the leak the better Obermayer felt because it meant the stories were multiplying. “When we’d invite someone in from a new country, he would find new stories in the papers. He could find stories that no one else had looked for. So, it got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was sheer excitement. …

“You can imagine we had a number of challenges working with 400 colleagues in so many countries,” Obermayer explains. They worried that someone wouldn’t follow the rules, which would place their sources or stories in danger or jeopardy, he says. Rules included encrypting all communication and not speaking to people outside of their ICIJ circles. Both could potentially expose Obermayer’s source and his colleagues in dangerous countries to risks like jail or assault.

The reporters debated the relative importance of the stories, those that needed the most manpower and resources, and when they should begin publishing. Should they visit Panama, and if so, who should go? They had to encrypt their messages, and they couldn’t tell their friends what they were working on, Obermayer says. And they had to be very careful about the experts they talked to when they sifted through the data. “This was new for many people, and the ICIJ had to do a lot of explaining and training,” he says. They worked secretly for more than a year.

Obermayer says the process was exciting but exhausting. He and Obermaier worked on the papers during the day, and at night they worked on their book, The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money (June 30, 2016). “It was like an addiction,” he says. “We were searching data day and night.”

Near the end, they became almost desperate because they were concerned they wouldn’t finish the stories in time for the first agreed-upon publish date. Süddeutsche Zeitung’s legal team worked with them through every story, sometimes cutting a story altogether if the lawyers didn’t feel like it was safe to publish. They barely slept. And then they went public.

Bastian Obermayer (right) stands with his colleague Frederik Obermaier (left) in the offices of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Biggest collaborative event in the history of journalism

On April 3, 2016, the ICIJ planned to release the first news stories along with 150 of the documents themselves. However, 12 minutes before they hit the publish button, Edward Snowden leaked one of their big stories on Twitter. But Obermayer says it was a good thing for them because Snowden garners so much attention. The released story quickly became a trending topic, and the next day it became headline news in all major newspapers in the Western world. “We all shared the leak on the same day, same hour, same minute in 180 different countries — the attention was so much bigger than our own piece would have been,” Obermayer says.

The gargantuan collection of leaked documents that Obermayer and the ICIJ obtained — 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files and 2.1 million PDFs — exposed a widespread system of global tax evasion. Files revealed offshore holdings of 140 politicians and public officials from around the world, more than 214,000 offshore entities connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories, and major banks that had driven the creation of hard-to-trace companies in offshore havens. (See Key Findings on the ICIJ’s Panama Papers website.)

The papers also traced hidden money tied to Vladimir Putin; former Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmunder Davíð Gunnlaugsson; Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko; soccer star Lionel Messi; and former committee member of the FIFA ethics committee, Juan Pedro Damiani.

A day after the ICIJ and about 100 media partners released the first set of stories, reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal tried to reach the journalists. “We received so many emails and calls that we couldn’t take any really,” Obermayer says. “I could see the emails wandering down because so many were coming in. It was completely going nuts. And we had to do more stories. We hadn’t finished our stories for days two or three or four or five.”

Obermayer says they tried to stay calm and keep working. Their editor took the most important interviews and the entire Süddeutsche Zeitung newsroom tracked the aftermath around the world.

Obermayer says that if they’d gone it alone with just their newspaper, they would’ve found maybe 80 stories. Eventually, they worked with the ICIJ to publish 5,000 different stories. “How the hell should I know who is an important guy in the Ukraine? Or in Madagascar? That would have been impossible for me to find.”

No rest for the weary

Not long after the release of the Panama Papers, an anonymous source sent Obermayer more data, which he again shared with the ICIJ and would eventually become the “Paradise Papers: Secrets of the Global Elite.”

“It wasn’t like we were all screaming with joy when the new data arrived,” he laughs. “But then we looked into it, and there were good stories there.” Obermayer had started a fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor when they first began work on the Paradise Papers. Obermaier took the lead initially on the second set of papers, which gave Obermayer time to think about what happened, and who and where he wanted to be. “I did follow some needs for the Paradise Papers and stayed on board with what Frederik and my colleagues were working on in Munich,” he says. When his fellowship ended, he flew back to Munich and Obermaier left for a fellowship at Harvard.

The second investigation was more difficult to conduct, Obermayer says, because it revealed secrets about companies and less about big names — the schemes were more complex and it was harder to find illegality. The leaked documents originated from Appleby, a legal firm; Estera and Asiaciti Trust, corporate service providers; and business registries in 19 tax jurisdictions. The documents revealed offshore interests and activities of more than 120 politicians and world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II, and 13 advisers, major donors and U.S. politicians. The evidence also exposed the tax engineering of more than 100 multinational corporations, including Apple, Nike and Botox-maker, Allergan.

They shined a light on secretive deals and hidden companies connected to Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trader. And they provided details of how owners of jets and yachts, including royalty and sports stars, used Isle of Man tax-avoidance structures. (See Key Findings on the ICIJ’s Paradise Papers website.)

Obermayer and his colleagues also faced a new challenge with the second leak. Because of the notoriety they gained from the Panama Papers, sources knew their names or could easily search who they were, so they found it harder to gain sources’ trust. Still, they pulled it off, and Obermayer says he’s extremely proud of his team.

“You have to do something to get the motivation to again work night and day on another project,” Obermayer says. “But in the end the project was so convincing that it worked out really well.”

In 2017, Obermayer — as part of the ICIJ’s Panama Paper’s team — won the Pulitzer Prize in the category, “Explanatory Reporting,” for their work on the Panama Papers.

‘You can kill the messenger, but not the message’

Obermayer says he thought joining forces with the ICIJ would keep Frederick and himself safe because many reporters had access to the data. Implicated parties would have to eliminate 400 other journalists around the world, which would hardly be an efficient way to suppress the truth.

However, that reasoning still didn’t prevent the murder of one of Obermayer’s colleagues, Daphne Caruana Galizia, who’d worked on the Panama Papers — though not on his team. She was killed in a car bomb in Malta in presumed retaliation for her years of reporting of government corruption, nepotism, patronage, allegations of money laundering and regular misconduct by Maltese politicians. For decades, she received intimidation, threats, libel accusations and lawsuits for her reporting. Galizia was still working on stories of corruption in the Maltese government when she died.

“[Her death] changed things quite a bit,” he says. “The way the news is being handled in many countries with investigative journalists trying to tell the truth is really a problem. It’s getting harder and harder to work as a journalist. Some country leaders say we are the enemy of the people. That’s a real threat to everyone. People who take this literally could — and will someday — start killing these ‘enemies of the people.’ ... That’s one of the fallouts of this kind of work.”

When Obermayer was at the University of Michigan working on his fellowship, he met another investigative reporter, Laurent Richard, who was also a fellowship student. Richard was working on a project that would help battle censorship by organizing other journalists to collaboratively continue the work of jailed or killed journalists. “I was instantly on fire; I loved the idea,” Obermayer says. So, he assisted Richard in founding the investigative nonprofit newsroom, Forbidden Stories, to help protect and complete endangered research and stories. “You can kill the messenger, but not the message,” Obermayer says. “In the end, Richard did all of the work, and I was happy to support it and then be on his team.”

On the day Galizia was killed, Obermayer reached out to her son, Matthew, who he’d known for several years, to ask how they could help. “He said ‘you’ve got to tell the people. You’ve got to tell them what happened.’ ” The next day, Obermayer and Richard also created The Daphne Project to continue her work. “We never intended to find her murderer. We’re not the police. We’re not crazy — we’re journalists,” he says. “But we can continue to tell her stories, the most important stories.”

They’ve published several of her stories on The Daphne Project’s website nearly half a year after her assassination, including a report on Malta’s hugely profitable “passports for sale” program and an article about how Malta’s internet casinos have become cash machines for the Italian mafia.

“I’ve always felt the need to tell the truth about things,” Obermayer says. “When I feel like something’s not right, I feel like I have to tell it to people. It’s not been clear to me all these years that this is my main motivation, but the more I do this work, the more I believe this is the case.”

Emily Primeaux, CFE, is associate editor of Fraud Magazine. Contact her at eprimeaux@ACFE.com.




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