Samoa, international laundry, immortalised on film

Samoa’s role in a money laundering scandal that shook the world, has been immortalised in a new film, called “The Laundromat”.

After its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month, the film, which stars Meryl Streep, was released this month for streaming on Netflix.

Streep plays the role of an inquiring widow, whose search for answers to an insurance problem leads her to the now infamous Panamanian accounting firm, Mossack Fonseca, whose activities were uncovered in the 2016 scandal, The Panama Papers.

The offshore tax evasion specialists hid money for hundreds of thousands companies looking to avoid domestic taxes in dozens of countries around the world. 

But Samoa earned the dubious title of the sixth most popular tax haven they used, as exposed by a 2.6 terabyte data leak of the firm’s 11.5 million records.

The film stars, Antonio Banderas as Ramón Fonseca, a company co-founder who turned his back on a life of idealism to found the notorious firm.

“From our humble beginnings, Mossack Fonseca grew to have offices in over 50 countries servicing over 240,000 offshore companies, foundations, and trusts,” he says, in character.

“Located in places like the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Cyprus, Samoa, Nui, Nevada. Places that are-- are not blessed with natural resources or industry.

“So, what do all of those companies do?  Most of the time, we don't even know.”

Mossack shuttered its operations in 2018 after the reputational damage of the leaked Panama Papers revealing forty years’ of data of tax evasion became too much. 

But the controversy surrounding Samoa as a destination for tax evasion has not gone away.

Earlier this month the European Union (E.U.) decided to retain Samoa on its “blacklist” of countries that act as tax havens.

An E.U. source told the Samoa Observer that the Government had failed to follow through on a promise to join a programme stamping out global profit shifting and so had been deemed “non-cooperative”. 

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (I.J.I.C.) worked with several media outlets to unpack the leak and publish findings contained within terabytes of data about its firms.

They revealed that in Samoa, the firm set up 5,000 such companies with the help of The Samoa International Finance Authority (S.I.F.A.), and its own office was called Central Corporate Services Ltd. 

But Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi defended Samoa’s part at the time, saying the nation relied on royalties coming through those companies to finance the rugby team and social programmes for youth at risk of drug abuse.

It was also revealed that an officer at the Samoan High Commission in Canberra was regularly helping Mossack Fonesca create shell companies.

The leak included communications which showed the firm’s Samoan office using the High Commission to forward documents to help form other shell companies in other countries.

In 2017, the crooked firm’s founders Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack were arrested and taken into police custody. 

In The Laundromat, Mr. Fonesca and Mr. Mossack tell “their story” of what happened which they maintained was done in “both the letter and spirit of the law.”

When they were arrested, the firm issued a statement that accused Panamanian officials of “an attempt to divert the attention from those who really merit a deep and proactive investigation.” It said authorities “have not presented a single piece of evidence that shows us guilty,” the ICIJ reported.   

The film represents the pair as whimsical, cheekily explaining how the scam worked. It is nothing more than finding a country whose laws are favourable to your financial goals, they say.

“And where can you find such a country? Usually in the middle of the ocean.”

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