BRUSSELS -- They are a large and diverse group that includes a Spanish heiress; the daughter of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; and Denise Rich, former wife of disgraced trader Marc Rich, who was pardoned by President Bill Clinton. But, according to a trove of secret financial information released Thursday, all have money and share a desire to hide it.
And, it seems safe to say, they -- and thousands of others in Europe and far beyond-- are suddenly very anxious after the leak of 2.5 million files detailing the offshore bank accounts and shell companies of wealthy individuals and tax-averse companies. "There will be people all over the world today who are now scared witless," said Richard Murphy, research director for Tax Justice Network, a British-based organization that has long campaigned to end the secrecy that surrounds assets held in offshore havens. The leaked files include the names of 4,000 Americans, celebrities as well as doctors and dentists.
It is not the first time that leaks have dented a thick carapace of confidentiality that usually protects the identities of those who stash funds in the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein and other havens. Nor, in most cases, is keeping money in such places illegal.
But the enormous size of the data obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington-based group that, along with affiliated news media organizations, announced its coup Thursday, has punched a big hole in the secrecy that surrounds what the Tax Justice Network estimates are assets worth at least $21 trillion held in offshore havens.
Lifting the curtain on the identities of those who keep their money offshore is likely to cause particular anger in austerity-blighted Europe, where governments have been telling people to tighten their belts but have mostly turned a blind eye to wealthier citizens who skirt taxes with help from offshore financial centers.
The leaked records, mainly from the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and Singapore, disclose proprietary information about more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts and nearly 130,000 individuals and agents, including the wealthiest people in more than 170 nations. Not all of those named necessarily have secret bank accounts, and in some cases only conducted business through firms they control that are registered offshore.
The embarrassment caused by Thursday's revelations has been acute in France, where Socialist President Francois Hollande, who wants to impose a 75 percent tax on millionaires, has been struggling to contain a political firestorm touched off this week by a former budget minister's admission -- after months of denials -- that he had secret foreign bank accounts. The scandal looked set to widen Thursday, as senior government members were forced to confront allegations that Mr. Hollande and others may have been aware that the ex-budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, who resigned March 19, was lying but failed to act.
Adding to the president's trouble, the newspaper Le Monde said the files released Thursday identified a close friend and treasurer of Mr. Hollande's 2012 election campaign, Jean-Jacques Augier, as an investor in offshore businesses in the Cayman Islands.
The consortium did not specify how it got the information or where it came from. On its website, the group said "the leaked files provide facts and figures -- cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals -- that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy and the well-connected to dodge taxes and fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations alike."