By now, many Canadians have heard of the Panama Papers. If you have not heard about the April 3, 2016 simultaneous global news release, by a large network of international media partners, related to the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists ( "ICIJ"), you are about to. In the weeks to come, we can expect to read and hear plenty more about this mammoth data dump of over 11.5 million documents. The ICIJ, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations have been poring over these documents as part of a year-long investigation.
What we do know at this early stage is that the files reveal the offshore financial holdings of over 140 politicians and public officials from around the world. The data reveals more than 214,000 offshore entities. The documents show how there is a global industry that sells financial secrecy to anyone that can afford it.
So far, the release of the information has caused Iceland's Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, to resign and forced UK Prime Minister David Cameron to release a summary of his personal tax records for the last six years. There are also documents that suggest that close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin moved as much as $2 billion through various offshore banks and private companies.
The data covers the period from 1997 to the end of 2015 and comes from the files of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. This law firm has branches, affiliates and representatives all over the world including Miami, Zurich and Hong Kong. It is expected that the ICIJ will release the full list of companies and people linked to these companies in May. The data itself consists of financial spreadsheets, e-mails, corporate records and passport information that lay bare the secret owners of companies and various bank accounts in 21 offshore jurisdictions.
The reaction from revenue authorities around the developed world has been predictable and consistent. All share the mantra that 'the revenue authority is committed to combatting the abusive use of offshore jurisdictions and protecting the integrity of the national tax system'.
The reality is that the Canada Revenue Agency ("CRA") can be expected to sift through the information to see if there are any Canadians that bear further examination. We do know at this stage that there are Canadians identified in the data. This revelation should be of major concern to anyone that had dealings in one form or another in the offshore sphere.
The most recent Federal Budget allocated over $440 million (over a period of 5 years) to combat tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. Plainly, these funds will be used in part to beef-up the international auditing efforts of the CRA. Furthermore, we know that information sharing and international cooperation are both more commonplace now than ever before. Canada has an extensive treaty network with 92 tax treaties and 22 Tax Information Exchange Agreements in force as of April 4, 2016. All of this provides the CRA with a rapid way to investigate potential audit targets.
The clock is ticking for those that have been weighing the pros and cons of making a voluntary disclosure. You simply have no time to lose. Once an audit is commenced, the days of seeking the protection of a voluntary disclosure are over.