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INTERNATIONAL

BVI reacts to MF situation

The territory is one of the largest centers of offshore companies.

Spanish version

Temas:

The BVI Spring Regatta is one of the biggest sailing events of the year in the Caribbean, attracting sailors from around the world to race for a week around the territory's many islands.

But this year's event was overshadowed by the spotlight of the international media being shown on another area the BVI is famous for, it's financial services industry.

That was because Sunday, the results of a global investigation into Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca (MF) were released. That investigation was focused on more than 11 million documents from the firm that were acquired by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the ICIJ, which organized the global collaboration.

The story was covered throughout the world, and the focus is partially on the BVI, where MF has a substantial presense. Among the allegations in the leak was that BVI companies were used by close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin to launder as much as $2 billion, and a dozen other world leaders were also linked to the data.

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Mapa de ubicación LA PRENSA/Roy Hernández

The leak had no visible impact on life in the BVI after it came out. It was business as usual at restaurants around the island Monday night, with the usual mix of locals and visitors.

One lawyer said that the discussion at his office Monday seemed mostly to be centered on the name of the investigation.

"Many people were glad it was the Panama leaks rather than the BVI leaks," he said.

The lawyer also said that his firm had received more phone calls from clients looking to leave Mossack Fonseca last week, and that only one such request had been made on Monday.

"There was a lot more people talking about this last week when the notice was sent out about it," he said, referring to a confidential memo on the issue distributed to the industry by the government.

The lawyer also noted that the journalists covering the story seemed to be coming from the angle that the entire industry was bad.

"It should be made clear that this was a Mossack Fonseca problem," he said. "Ramon Fonseca keeps talking about the firm not being responsible, like a carmaker not being responsible if a car they make runs someone over. Yet other firms incorporate as many or more companies than Mossack, and their companies don't run people over."

The territory's regulatory authority was aware that the stories were coming, as they were briefed by senior officials from MF's Panama offices last month. MF has been inundated with questions from dozens of media organizations about the leak, considered to be the largest colaboration in journalism history.

The confidential memo from the chief minister's office to the financial services sector urged firms to refer questions to the government.

"The BVI government is working to proactively engage the media to correct and rebut false and misleading claims and make sure our partners and stakeholders from around the world get the full picture and a balanced perspective," it said.

Initially, local officials were not inclined to comment about the matter publicly. A local newspaper, The BVI Beacon, reached out to a number of officials within the government, and they refused to make any statement. But Tuesday night the government did say it was taking the matter seriously.

The government is very concerned by the issues that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) report raises, particularly regarding alleged abuse or misuse of BVI structures," it said. "Our regulatory regime is rigorous and it adheres to every initiative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and other international standard setting organizations."

Kenroy Thompson, a "belonger," the term used to describe people born in the BVI, said Monday night that he had been following the issue on Twitter, especially the protests being held in Iceland over the prime minister of that country's connection to a BVI company.

He said he was shocked by the protests being held on the issue in Iceland, and expressed disbelief that one of the signs help by a protester mentioned Tortola. He was also worried about how the news would impact the economy.

That concern was shared by opposition leader Julian Fraser.

"Now the whole issue of the BVI being a center of money laundering, aggressive tax avoidance and being a tax haven is back. My guess is that given the surprise it is, the premier will have no other defense but to argue the facts," he said.

The government, however, dismissed these complaints, saying it had taken steps to address the problems within the industry.

"The BVI actively investigates issues of non-compliance and works with foreign competent authorities to detect, prevent and prosecute illegal activities, ensuring that our laws are enforced and action taken transparently when we identify wrongdoing," the government said. "The BVI has always taken action when service providers have been proven to be non-compliant. To this end, in the wake of these reports, we will pursue a thorough investigation through the BVI’s competent authorities, and further action will be taken, where necessary. The BVI plays a lawful, legitimate and important role in facilitating capital flows and foreign direct investment around the globe."

In an editorial, the BVI Beacon applauded the government's response.

"When the Virgin Islands’ financial industry was hit with waves of negative publicity after a massive data leak in 2013, the government apparently was caught flat-footed. Leaders vilified the journalists who had reported the news, and they categorically denied compelling allegations that the industry had been used for nefarious purposes. This kneejerk response was a mistake, and we are pleased that leaders seem to have learned from it. Faced with similar allegations this week in hundreds of articles about the “Panama Papers” leak, the Premier’s Office announced Tuesday that government is taking the allegations seriously and plans to launch a thorough investigation in keeping with its longstanding commitment to maintaining a well-regulated jurisdiction. This response is wise," the paper wrote.

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