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European Union threatens to put sanctions on Panama, other tax havens

A European Union official said he will sanction Panama and other nations if they don't cooperate fully to fight money laundering and tax evasion after documents from a Panama-based law firm showed it helped thousands of people set up shell companies and offshore accounts in low-tax havens.

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    Dominique Plihot, spokesman for ATTAC, right, delivers his speech with anti-fraud activists blocking entrances at Societe Generale's Paris headquarters as part of a protest accusing the French bank of ties to the so-called "Panama Papers", in Paris, France, Thusday, April 7, 2016. Pierre Moscovici, who heads financial affairs for the 28-nation European Union, threatened Thursday to sanction Panama and other nations if they don't cooperate fully to fight money laundering and tax evasion.
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A European Union official threatened Thursday to sanction Panama and other nations if they don't cooperate fully to fight money laundering and tax evasion, after a leak of data showed the small country remains a key destination for people who want to hide money.

The 11.5 million documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca showed it helped thousands of individuals and companies from around the world set up shell companies and offshore accounts in low-tax havens. Because such accounts often hide the ultimate owner of assets, they are a favored tool to evade taxes, launder money or pay bribes.

So far, the scandal has brought down the leader of Iceland and raised questions about the dealings of the presidents of Argentina and Ukraine, senior Chinese politicians, famous actors, athletes and the circle of friends of Russian Vladimir Putin, who some allege has profited indirectly from such accounts. On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged he profited from his father's investments in an offshore tax haven before being elected.

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"People are fed up with these outrages," said Pierre Moscovici, who heads financial affairs for the 28-nation EU. He took to task countries like Panama that facilitate such secretive, low-tax accounts.

"The amounts of money, the jurisdictions and the names associated with this affair are frankly shocking," he said.

Panama is listed by the EU as a country that is not cooperative on tax issues, and Moscovici urged the country to "rethink its position in this regard." The EU has to "be ready to hit them with appropriate sanctions if they refuse to change," he said.

The Central American country's government is offering to cooperate more. On Wednesday, President Juan Carlos Varela announced the creation of an international committee of experts to recommend ways to boost transparency in Panama's offshore financial industry.

But Varela defended his country against what he called a "media attack" by wealthy nations that he says are ignoring their own deficiencies and unfairly stigmatizing Panama.

Ramon Fonseca, a co-founder of the law firm at the center of the scandal and until recently a top adviser to Varela, said Thursday the only law that has been broken so far is the right to his clients' privacy. He said the biggest source of secretive shell companies is Europe and the U.S.

"If a company in England has problems nobody says anything against England, but when it happens to a firm in Panama it's a big problem and the entire world beats up on poor Panama," Fonseca told The Associated Press in an interview.

He said his firm creates about 20,000 shell companies annually but also rejects about 70 to 80 clients every year due to conflicts that crop up during due diligence.

"We're not perfect and some surely escape by," he said. "But in all our years in business we've never been accused or condemned by a court."

Europe also is home to countries with a record of acting like tax havens and providing banking secrecy — Luxembourg, Switzerland, Andorra, among others. The United States has also become a haven, with several states including Wyoming and Delaware now popular places to open anonymous accounts that are cheap to maintain and pay little or no local tax.

Since the first reports based on Mossack Fonseca documents were published Sunday, prominent politicians, celebrities and businesspeople have had their offshore business dealings dragged into the spotlight. On Thursday, the German newspaper that first obtained what have been dubbed the "Panama Papers," said it won't publish all the files, arguing that not all are of public interest.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung received the documents from an unidentified source more than a year ago and shared at least parts of them with dozens of other media outlets around the world.

Fonseca said his firm has hired forensic experts to investigate and have already uncovered the method used to penetrate its systems. He said the hack was probably carried out from Europe and dismissed speculation it may have been an inside job.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped coordinate reporting on the leak, have said they won't make the complete set of 11.5 million documents available to the public or law enforcement but rather mine the information for details of public interest.

Responding to readers' queries about the absence of prominent German or American politicians in the reports, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said such names haven't yet been found in the documents. It said the documents include copies of the passports of 200 Americans and about 3,500 shareholders in offshore companies have listed addresses in the United States

Fonseca said his firm has only a handful of American clients, mostly expats living in Panama. He said both he and his German-born partner have longstanding ties to Europe and over the years have focused their business there and in Latin America.

Meanwhile, Britain's Cameron looks to become the next European politician ensnared by the scandal. After four days fending off headlines about his family's finances, he acknowledged Thursday that he and his wife, Samantha, sold shares worth 31,500 pounds (currently $44,300) in an offshore fund named Blairmore Holdings in January 2010 — five months before Cameron became prime minister. They had paid 12,497 pounds for the shares in 1997.

The prime minister's father, Ian Cameron, an affluent stockbroker who died in 2010, was a client of Mossack Fonseca. There's no indication the offshore fund was set up to avoid paying taxes but the revelation has reinforced the prime minister's image as a scion of wealth and undermined calls to boost transparency at a time many British overseas territories act as tax havens.

Also on Thursday, an Argentine prosecutor asked a judge to authorize an investigation into President Mauricio Macri's role in offshore companies. Federal prosecutors said an investigation is necessary to see whether Macri "maliciously" omitted his role in two offshore companies in his annual tax declarations.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday denied having any links to offshore accounts and described the document leaks scandal as part of a U.S.-led plot to weaken Russia.

Speaking at a media forum in St. Petersburg, Putin said Western media pushed the claims of his involvement in offshore businesses even though his name didn't feature in any of the documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm.

Putin described the allegations as part of the U.S.-led disinformation campaign waged against Russia in order to weaken its government. "They are trying to destabilize us from within in order to make us more compliant," he said.

The ICIJ said the documents it obtained indicated that Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin acted as a front man for a network of Putin loyalists and, perhaps, the president himself.

The ICIJ said the documents show how complex offshore financial deals channeled as much as $2 billion to a network of people linked to the Russian president.

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Associated Press writer Frank Jordans reported this story in Berlin and AP writer Raf Casert reported from Brussels. AP writers Irina Titova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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