'The Panama Papers' Book: Inside The Ping Heard 'Round The World
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Panama papers may be the biggest international investigative journalism project of all time, involving hundreds of journalists, scores of countries and dictators, drug traffickers, diamond smugglers and heads of state. It began with a ping and just a couple of reporters.
Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier are German newspaper reporters who tell the story of how they got the story of offshore accounts and shell companies that reveal the world financial system. Their new book - "The Panama Papers: Breaking The Story Of How The Rich And Powerful Hide Their Money." And Bastian Obermayer - M-A-Y-E-R - and Frederik Obermaier - M-A-I-E-R - who are both reporters for a German newspaper, joined us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
BASTIAN OBERMAYER: We are happy to.
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: Yeah, it's a pleasure.
SIMON: Bastian Obermayer, 10 o'clock at night when you heard a ping and read a message from a stranger. What did it say?
OBERMAYER: The message was - hi, are you interested in data?
SIMON: Are you interested in data?
OBERMAYER: Exactly. And a conversation began that lasted more than a year.
SIMON: When did you begin to have an idea of what you were stepping into?
OBERMAYER: Well, after we got the first documents, which came from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and read about who owned very secret offshore companies - and we thought if we have here somebody who is, you know, sitting right behind the curtain where the secrets are buried - many, many thousands of offshore companies - this would be really interesting to get more of this.
SIMON: And Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm you mention, has, in a sense, German roots, doesn't it, Frederik Obermaier?
OBERMAIER: Yes, indeed. One of the founders of this law firm, Mr. Jurgen Mossack, was a German whose father was a Nazi, a member of the Waffen-SS who then later turned to be an informant of the CIA, made the story really like a huge, thrilling crime story. And secretive story - that is always very, very interesting to a journalist.
SIMON: Having been through the book, what do we need to know?
OBERMAIER: Everybody should know that speaking about tax haven - what's at the first glance sounds a little bit like technical and far away - it is not only about avoiding taxes. It's about criminals hiding their wrongdoings - people like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's cousin evading sanctions.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the most prominent names that come up - Vladimir Putin and his old friend Sergei Roldugin, who was actually a cellist - a good cellist. Is he also Vladimir Putin's bag man?
OBERMAYER: Well, we don't know for sure, but we know that - we have found, you know, somebody who told The New York Times that he was no businessman and who wouldn't own millions. And we see him as an owner of offshore companies that has a cash flow of hundreds of million U.S. dollars. So if he himself is not owning them, who is owning them? This is the big, big question that we are posing ourselves.
And our Russian colleagues have asked him what he knew about this company, and he said something like this. He may have founded them before the perestroika, which is absolutely crap. So there's a - there's a there's a guy who's in the midst of hundreds of million dollars, and he doesn't know anything about it.
So the only big question is - who's front person is he? And we believe that it's a person who is the front person of, you know, a circle of really important people in Russia, really, really, really closely related to Vladimir Putin.
SIMON: Which underscores the fact that a lot of what you've revealed in this material has been interesting and colorful, but is it truly illegal?
OBERMAYER: It's not all illegal, and we never said so. But if you look at it, why would you need anonymous companies? You always want to hide something. Nobody needs an offshore company if he or she doesn't want to hide something.
OBERMAIER: In my opinion, very, very dangerous for democracy. If there are people who tend to say, well, this law - I don't like it. That's a law that was decided on by the German parliament, but for me, not. And that's something we should fight against.
SIMON: And at this point, Mr. Obermayer and Mr. Obermaier, do you know who the pinger was? Do you know who your source was?
OBERMAYER: We have no clue.
SIMON: So would you know if he or she had any kind of an agenda, is looking for revenge on someone?
OBERMAIER: No, we wouldn't know. And to be honest, it wouldn't be important for us because even if it's driven by a certain notion of revenge, for example, if this material proves to be authentic and of public interest, that's important for us. We have to trust and we do trust in the material and not in the motivation of a source. It's important that it's of public interest and that it's authentic and nothing else.
SIMON: Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier - the reporters who broke the story about which they've written a book, "The Panama Papers: Breaking The Story Of How The Rich And Powerful Hide Their Money." Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.
OBERMAYER: Thank you very much.
OBERMAIER: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.