TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.
Dictators, oligarchs, drug traffickers, crooks and others with ill-gotten fortunes can hide their money from public scrutiny, from creditors and from the law while, at the same time, avoid paying taxes. How? By stashing the wealth in opaque, complicated financial instruments in other countries. It’s called offshoring. Offshore havens were popularized by island and coastal locations, which is how the secretive system became known as offshoring. But now more countries are sheltering money, including the U.S., in states like South Dakota, Delaware and Nevada. New revelations about who’s hiding the money and how and where they’re stashing it have been published in an investigative series in The Washington Post.
The Post is part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the ICIJ, which is jointly investigating the meaning of nearly 12 million documents leaked to the consortium that reveal the flow of money, property and other assets concealed in the offshore financial system. These documents are known as the Pandora Papers. It’s kind of the sequel to the Panama Papers, which was a smaller trove of documents revealing how money was being sheltered in Panama. Those papers were leaked to the ICIJ, too. My guest, Greg Miller, was one of the lead investigative reporters on the story. He’s a Washington Post investigative foreign correspondent based in London. He’s also the author of the book “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia And The Subversion Of American Democracy.” He was among The Post reporters awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Russia’s interference in the election and the fallout under the Trump administration.
Greg Miller, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GREG MILLER: Thanks very much.
GROSS: Let me just start with a broad question. Give us the scope of the Pandora Papers.
MILLER: Sure. So I think as you mentioned in the intro, there are nearly 12 million documents here in this trove. It’s different than the Panama Papers, which a lot of your listeners might be familiar with, in a couple of ways. I think the most important one is that these documents come from a broader selection of companies or financial services providers scattered all around the world. So while the Panama Papers came from one single law firm in Panama City, which is why it had that name, the Pandora Papers come from 14 different entities that come from many different places, including Panama but also places in Europe, places in Asia. So it gives us a much broader view into the offshore world.
GROSS: One thing I found just, like, almost funny is that – though it’s not funny at all, really – but that, you know, America’s wealthiest, like the big billionaires, don’t have offshore accounts that appeared in these Pandora Papers. And the explanation given in The Post is that America’s wealthy have so many ways of, like, not paying taxes already they don’t need to shelter their money offshore.
MILLER: Yeah, I mean, that’s one possibility, I have to – so the richest of the rich in the United States – and we saw this with the groundbreaking stories on Donald Trump’s tax returns – pay, you know, microscopic tax rates compared to the public by and large. So there is less incentive for them to go looking for tax havens overseas, but it’s also possible that, nevertheless, they do and that just in the sample of documents that we were looking at in this project, they don’t turn up. Maybe some of America’s billionaires have accounts with firms on the Cayman Islands, and there were no Cayman Islands companies in the Pandora documents. So I can’t rule it out, but there is this interesting thing about how U.S. wealthy individuals don’t have quite as much incentive as others.
GROSS: So who are some of the people on the list with the offshore accounts?
MILLER: There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who are on the list. To me, a couple of the most interesting were senior people, leaders of foreign governments, including King Abdullah of Jordan. There are a lot of celebrities and kind of sports stars in the trove – Julio Iglesias, Elton John, Shakira – their names, their accounts turn up in these stories. There are American wealthy. Even though we’re not talking about Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there are billionaires from the United States who are lesser known who show up in the documents. And there are politicians across Europe, including the current prime minister of the Czech Republic, leaders in Africa and many, many figures in Latin America.
GROSS: And of course, Putin (laughter).
MILLER: And of course, Putin. I left out Putin. I mean, Putin, I didn’t – I left him out for a reason because he himself doesn’t show up in the documents, which was true of Panama Papers as well. But people who are close to him do. People who look like they got rich because of their connections to Putin are in these documents, including a woman that we wrote quite a detailed story about who is alleged to have had an affair with Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s and to have had a child with him. And that was never disclosed until very recently.
GROSS: And we will get into some of those details briefly. So tell us more about the benefits of offshoring.
MILLER: OK, so the benefits include hiding wealth or income and moving it to jurisdictions where there is a much lower tax rate. And that’s why these places are called tax havens. If you’re in a country, say, in Europe that – where there is very high tax rates, 40%, 50% of your income or something, you could set up accounts offshore, they call it, and hide some of that wealth and pay, you know, a fraction of that tax rate in the British Virgin Islands or something. But there are many other reasons for moving money into offshore accounts – escaping accountability, escaping notice, hiding money from creditors, hiding money from a spouse or family members you don’t want to get their hands on it. There are criminal enterprises that take advantage of offshore laws and hide money so that their ill-gotten gains are not discovered. Politicians can use offshore accounts if they’re engaged in corruption and getting kickbacks. They will move that money into places where they hope they don’t get caught. And without a leak, without disclosures like what we’ve seen in Pandora Papers, that generally works.
GROSS: So who are the losers when wealthy people and when world leaders shelter their money offshore?
MILLER: When you think about it broadly, Terry, I think the real answer is everybody who’s not wealthy, everybody who’s not taking advantage of this system. And I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. If wealthy individuals are paying less in taxes because they are moving money into offshore accounts in ways that ordinary people can’t, that means the tax burden in the United States or any other country is greater on those who are paying their fair share. It also hurts everyday people in other ways, makes it harder for law enforcement agencies to track down money, whether it’s from ransomware attacks or from drug trafficking or other categories of crime. And it’s also – makes it really difficult to hold politicians accountable in some cases. If we don’t know and we can’t get to the offshore accounts where politicians can park money, that makes it harder for voters to have confidence in their elected officials. And, you know, in the lead story for The Washington Post on the Pandora Papers, I quoted a former FBI agent who was part of the Mueller investigation who said that, you know, this is – it’s really a cancer on societies in a very broad way.
GROSS: It makes the gap between the rich and everybody else even bigger when you take into account that a lot of people who are rich have money we don’t even know about that we’re not even calculating in that gap.
MILLER: Yeah. And, you know, there are – almost by definition, there are no completely accurate estimates of how much money is hidden offshore. But the smartest estimates seem to be well into the trillions of dollars. And you’re right, it really contributes to the wealth disparities that are an increasing problem in the United States and other Western countries.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Greg Miller, a Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London and one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. We’ll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Greg Miller, Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London and one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. This is an investigation into the offshore financial havens that allow dictators, oligarchs, drug traffickers, crooks and others with ill-gotten fortunes to hide their money from public scrutiny, from creditors, from the law, while at the same time avoiding paying taxes.
OK. Let’s talk about Putin’s alleged girlfriend. This was one of the stories that you investigated. So just tell us first, who is she? She did not start off rich. She got rich very suddenly.
MILLER: That’s right. In fact, there’s hardly anything in her background that put her on a path to being rich aside from a possible relationship with the Russian president. So her name is Svetlana Krivonogikh. She is from St. Petersburg, as is Vladimir Putin. She comes from a pretty humble background from what we know about her. She grew up in communal housing in St. Petersburg, which means that her parents were not wealthy, that she was living in an apartment building with other families where they were sharing bathrooms, sharing kitchens, things like this. She worked as a shop cleaner at a shop in St. Petersburg and while she was going to school. So – you know, this is a person of very modest means who, starting in the early 2000s, accumulates astonishing wealth in secret over a 10-year stretch.
GROSS: So this starts shortly after Krivonogikh gives birth to a daughter that is alleged to be Putin’s daughter.
MILLER: Yeah. One of the things – one of the astonishing details we found in the Pandora Papers is that almost exactly one month after Svetlana gives birth to a daughter, to a baby girl, a shell company is set up in Monte Carlo in Monaco called Brockville Development. And, you know, to all external appearances, there’s no reason to see those two things as connected. But because of other documents in the Pandora trove, we can see that Brockville Development, this shell company, shortly thereafter acquires a multi-million-dollar condominium overlooking the Mediterranean right beneath the Monte Carlo Casino. Like it’s one of the sweetest pieces of real estate you could think of on the planet. And that – within a short time after that, Brockville Development is linked to Svetlana in corporate registries, in secret corporate registries, that we were able to look at because of the Pandora Papers.
GROSS: What are some of the other things that she acquired or had a financial stake in?
MILLER: For Svetlana, this condominium or this apartment in Monaco was just one of many assets that she accumulated over a 10-year or so stretch. She became a shareholder in a major bank in Russia called Bank Rossiya that has been sanctioned by the United States because it is viewed as kind of a piggy bank for Vladimir Putin and his closest associates. She became the largest shareholder of a ski resort near St. Petersburg that Vladimir Putin used as the backdrop for one of his daughter’s weddings. This would be one of his daughters by his marriage, his first marriage. And other assets – super expensive apartments in St. Petersburg, a performing arts center also in St. Petersburg, and other property and other assets that you just sort of throw onto the list here. And the common denominator here is that there’s no other seeming explanation for how she accumulates all this wealth. It just starts after this reported relationship with the Russian president.
GROSS: So the picture that you’re drawing is that Putin is sheltering money not only in Monaco, but also in Russia itself. And is it clear to you whether she actually owns the assets, that if you investigate deeply enough, are in her name? Or is Putin just using her as a front for money and assets that are really his?
MILLER: You know, that’s really a great question, and it’s one that nobody really has a clear answer to. It seems likely that these were – if it’s true that Vladimir Putin is the father of Svetlana’s daughter, who is now 18, then, perhaps, he saw reason to actually bestow these properties and things as gifts on her to sort of set her up. And he has more than enough wealth to do that sort of thing, to be that generous. But, you know, this happens over and over, and over in the Vladimir Putin world. So childhood friends have become enormously wealthy. Oligarchs – many Russian oligarchs became oligarchs because of their close associations with him and their ability to gain control of Russian state assets after he took power. And there is this big question looming over all of this system – how much money do these people really own? And to what extent are they holding money on behalf of Vladimir Putin? And that’s a question for – that comes up with Svetlana as well. Are these her assets? Is she holding them for him? Who really owns this? You know, the Panama – the Pandora Papers don’t really answer that question directly.
GROSS: So did she live in this fabulous place and Monte Carlo, Svetlana?
MILLER: It’s hard to know. She’s owned it for coming up on 20 years now. And it’s not clear whether she ever lived there, or if she did, for how long. I made an attempt along with some other reporters on the project, we went to Monte Carlo. We were able to get ourselves inside this secure building and got to the floor where her apartment is located and knocked on the door. And some people answered it, but they weren’t her and professed not to know who she was. I mean, it’s possible that she’s owned it all this time and is now renting it out because it would generate quite a bit of a rental income. It’s just one of those things we weren’t really able to get an answer to. And we sent many, many questions to her and to her daughter as well, but we didn’t get any answers.
GROSS: So we don’t know whether she ever did live there or not.
MILLER: No. The only – so there is – there are some other clues here. So her daughter – Svetlana herself has barely registered in public. She’s barely spoken in public. She’s never done any interviews that we know of. She doesn’t have a social media presence. Her daughter, however, very different. She’s turned 18. She’s very high-profile. She has an Instagram account. She grants interviews to Russian publications in which she kind of dances around this question of whether Putin is her father.
But in her social media, she’s talked about spending time in and around the French Mediterranean and near Monte Carlo. She’s never had answered or spoken about this specific apartment or the complex, which is called the Monte Carlo Star. But she’s familiar with the area, so it looks like at least her daughter has spent some time in and around that place.
GROSS: And her middle name is Vladimirovna, which means daughter of Vladimir.
MILLER: Yes. Which, by the way, she’s recently – so I mentioned she has these social media accounts, and for a long time didn’t use a middle initial on those accounts. But very recently, just as we were coming down the homestretch on this project, added the V as if almost like, I don’t know, a signal of some sort. She has kind of, in some ways, seemed to relish the attention that has come with this speculation about her paternity.
GROSS: Were you really surprised when you found out that Brockville was attached to the woman who was alleged to be Putin’s girlfriend, and also it’s alleged that Putin is the father of this woman’s child?
MILLER: Yes. So, I mean, I wasn’t as surprised, necessarily surprised, that – surprised maybe isn’t the word I would use. I mean, I was delighted. I was happy.
MILLER: I was, wow, this is going to be a great story. There’s a – there are documents here about this woman who is alleged to have had this affair and a child with Vladimir Putin, and they tell us about some of the wealth that she got. I mean, that’s the kind of story you’re looking for as a reporter when you take on a project like this. I mean, that’s like the best – that’s the best possible outcome.
GROSS: Do you have any idea what Putin’s reaction is to your story about this, your investigation into this particular part of the Pandora Papers, and also if Russian readers are finding out about it and what impact that’s having in Russia?
MILLER: I mean, the impact – it’s hard to assess. Putin was asked – I think, if I’m not mistaken – I think he was asked shortly in a public appearance or something about the Pandora Papers and scoffed at this. He has always said that these leaks are, you know, operations or attempts to undermine Russia by Western intelligence services. His chief spokesman was also asked about the project and was equally dismissive in saying, oh, this is all very confusing stuff, but I did think it was interesting that that the United States and U.S. and states in the United States appeared so prominently in these documents. Maybe the United States has a problem. So there was a fair amount of pivoting. I will say, though, that when I look on my Twitter feed from time to time, the Russia story, the Putin-Svetlana story is the one that is still clicking, clicking, clicking day after day after day, hour by hour.
GROSS: Do you have any idea whether they’re still in a relationship, Putin and Svetlana?
MILLER: No. I mean, we don’t know exactly when the relationship began or whether it ended and whether or when it ended.
GROSS: All right. Let’s take another break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Greg Miller, a Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London and one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. We’ll be back after we take a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and THIS IS FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with Greg Miller, a Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London and one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. This is an investigation into the offshore financial havens that allow dictators, oligarchs, drug traffickers, crooks and others with ill-gotten fortunes to hide their money from public scrutiny, from creditors and from the law while, at the same time, avoid paying taxes. The investigation is based on leaked papers from 14 financial institutions. These nearly 12 million documents are known as the Pandora Papers.
So another part of the Russia story that you investigated was how some oligarchs are hiding their money. And some of those oligarchs have names that will be familiar to many of our listeners through their relationship to members of Trump’s inner circle, oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum magnate. And I’m sure some of these names are very familiar to you because you investigated the connections between Trump and Russia for your book “The Apprentice.” So was this some of the, like, oligarch greatest hits for you?
MILLER: (Laughter) Yeah. This was a question that I really wanted to look at once I knew I was going to be part of this project. I mean, of course, you’re going to look to see what – how many Russian oligarchs are in these documents. We know from prior investigations of this kind that Russian – wealthy Russian individuals use offshore accounts a lot. They turn up a lot in prior leaks, including the Panama Papers. So I think that, you know, at The Post, we weren’t the only ones who were looking for these kinds of names in these files.
GROSS: The U.S. sanctioned some of the oligarchs, and you were able to see through the Pandora Papers if these sanctions were effective. What did you learn?
MILLER: Yeah, I think so – that was, like, one of the fundamental questions that I thought would be interesting to kind of take on in this project. If the oligarchs are in these documents and we’re looking – and we get names of individuals who’ve been sanctioned by the United States, what happens? What happens in those cases? Because it’s become increasingly important as a sort of public policy tool for the United States or foreign policy tool, we have sanctioned – the United States has sanctioned Russians over and over and over again over the past decade for alleged malign behavior by the Kremlin, from the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine to assassination plots against Russian dissidents to interference in American elections. So we’re trying to use sanctions to punish Russia for this behavior.
Is it working? And the answer is kind of yes and no. The documents show us that these sanctions are hitting their marks, that they are hitting their targets. And you can see the reactions. You can see the losses, the disruption and even sometimes measures of panic that set in once those sanctions kick in. But when you step back and you look at the bigger picture, it’s hard to make the case, I think, that sanctions are having that much impact on Russian behavior. So here are all these cases where Russian individuals are being penalized financially, but Russia interfered – is accused of interfering in the 2020 election, just like it did in 2016. This past year, it was accused of poisoning a prominent dissident and trying to kill him. It’s not – you know, they’re not backing away from the behavior that these sanctions are meant to deter.
GROSS: Oh, let’s not forget about the major hack of U.S. federal agencies and businesses.
MILLER: SolarWinds, yeah. So the hacks, the ransomware attacks, if anything, are – seem to be occurring even more frequently.
GROSS: So why are the oligarchs hiding their money? My impression is, in Russia, if you’re an oligarch who’s tight with Putin, you can do whatever you want. So why do they need to hide their money in secret offshore places?
MILLER: Well, I think that your question almost answers itself in some way. So if you’re an oligarch and you’re tight with Putin and you can do whatever you want, what happens when you’re no longer tight with Putin? What happens when Putin is no longer in power? So perhaps one of the reasons that Russian oligarchs move so much money into these offshore systems is to protect it, is to put it in a safe place where they and they alone can get to it, and the state can’t try to get it back. And it doesn’t – they’re protected no matter what happens politically in Russia. And, you know, there’s a couple of other reasons, too. And Russian business leaders will sometimes even talk about this. I mean – that the interest in moving money into safer jurisdictions, moving money into places offshore, whether it’s the British Virgin Islands or in Singapore, so that it’s not only out of Russia but perhaps even beyond the reach of Western financial institutions because if you’re a Russian oligarch, one of the other risks of doing business is that you might be sanctioned because of your close ties with the Russian president.
GROSS: Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for a while, was investigated by Robert Mueller and convicted – he was sheltering money offshore, wasn’t he?
MILLER: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: And he was connected to some of the Russian oligarchs, too.
MILLER: Including Deripaska – most prominently, Deripaska. And – right, exactly. The Manafort investigation and charges against Manafort were largely charges of money laundering and of hiding illegally gained assets.
GROSS: Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Greg Miller, a Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London and one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, “WEARY”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Greg Miller of The Washington Post. He’s one of the lead reporters on the Pandora Papers, which is an investigation into the offshore financial havens that allowed dictators, oligarchs, drug traffickers and crooks, people with ill-gotten fortunes, to hide their money from public scrutiny from creditors and from the law and to avoid paying taxes. The investigation is based on leaked papers from 14 financial institutions. These nearly 12 million documents are known as the Pandora Papers.
So we keep referring to this system of sheltering money as offshoring, as sheltering money in offshore havens. However, the United States has become a major haven for offshoring money. And one of the capitals of that in the U.S. is South Dakota – Sioux Falls. That seems so improbable. How did South Dakota become a haven for sheltering money from other countries?
MILLER: Well, I’m glad you’re asking this question. And for starters, you know, I would – my colleague Debbie Cenziper and Will Fitzgibbon from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists did a fantastic deep story on exactly this question. And I would urge your listeners to check it out. They basically traced South Dakota’s origin as a kind of offshore tax haven over several decades. And it’s basically kind of how government works or government becomes distorted in our system.
In the South Dakota case, it’s an instance where financial lobbyists, trust companies and administrators found receptive members of Congress in South Dakota – receptive government officials – and over time kept proposing new laws that would make South Dakota more and more secretive, more and more attractive to foreign individuals who wanted to put money into trusts where their ownership of assets would not be revealed, would be hidden, where they could move money away from heavier tax jurisdictions overseas. And lo and behold, you end up with an offshore haven onshore in the United States in Sioux Falls.
GROSS: So was it financial institutions who were proposing the legislation?
MILLER: Yeah. These are lobbyists and executives with financial institutions who, over time, you know, just kept proposing new pieces of legislation that would ratchet up the secrecy, that would make things less transparent, that allowed individuals to set up trusts in South Dakota that were so ironclad that they were unlike anything you could get in almost any other state in the country.
GROSS: Is there anything in it for South Dakota to be harboring so much secretive money?
MILLER: I mean, when you look at the states that are taking these kinds of steps and positioning themselves as kind of the equivalent of offshore havens, they tend to be states that are struggling to attract business or investment or revenue. And so yes, I guess in South Dakota’s case, they have succeeded in getting companies, including Trident Trust, one of the big firms that we were writing about in the Pandora project, to set up an office in South Dakota. It’s not like it brings in billions of dollars into the state’s economy. It’s not like these individuals are setting up companies in South Dakota that are generating huge numbers of jobs or anything like that. But perhaps, you know, for a state like South Dakota, it’s enough to have a burgeoning financial sector business in a state that otherwise wouldn’t have it.
GROSS: Is there any suspicion that the legislators gained by passing this legislation that allowed for these secret financial havens in South Dakota?
MILLER: Well, I think that there is suspicion that they gained, at least through the donations and support politically from financial firms, including Trident Trust. You know – I mean, that’s sort of the way it works. And works is not the – maybe not the best word for it because it’s working for the industry, if not for other citizens in the United States or of these other countries. And so, yes, it looks like these politicians are very receptive to these laws that the industry wants to see implemented. And then they end up getting funding. They end up getting political funding, political support from these same firms that help them remain in office.
GROSS: One of your sources told you that the money being sheltered offshore in the U.S. in places like South Dakota could pose a national security threat. What did he mean?
MILLER: I think you’re talking about Juan Zarate. And Juan is really smart on this stuff. And he’s actually written about the, you know, the Pandora papers and their implications. And I mean, he makes a really good point. So the more secrecy you have about money, the easier it is for criminal enterprises, terrorist networks to operate beyond the reach of law enforcement. So I don’t think we’ve seen evidence or documented cases in our stories and part of the Pandora project in which there was any, you know, terror money or drug trafficking proceeds moving through trusts like this. But when you make it harder to figure out who owns what – and then you are going to attract and possibly enable individuals or entities who really want to hide what they’re doing.
GROSS: OK. Let’s take another short break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Greg Miller, a Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London. He’s one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK’S “WE ARE ALL SNOWFLAKES”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Greg Miller, a Washington Post foreign investigative correspondent based in London and one of the lead reporters on the story of the Pandora Papers. This is an investigation into the offshore financial havens that allow dictators, crooks and others with ill-gotten fortunes to hide their money from creditors and public scrutiny and from the law and avoid paying taxes. The investigation is based on leaked papers from 14 financial institutions. These nearly 12 million documents are known as the Pandora Papers.
One of the stories that you investigated was the story of King Abdullah from Jordan, who has a constellation of shell companies to conceal purchases of luxury properties in California, London and Washington, D.C. Why does a king need to shelter money? I think King Abdullah is even exempt from paying taxes, and he is the king. Doesn’t that mean basically he can do what he wants?
MILLER: I mean, that’s what – that was my argument in the letters that we sent to the king and to the government of Jordan. That was one of my questions. I mean, if you’re a king, you could easily argue – make the argument that you’re entitled to have some luxury properties in pretty nice places around the world. But King Abdullah didn’t do that. He set up dozens of shell companies and went to pretty elaborate means to conceal his ownership of these properties that he purchased for more than $100 million over the past 10 years.
And, you know, the king’s lawyers made the argument, well, he has been the target of terrorist attacks. There are security reasons that he doesn’t want his ownership of these properties to be publicly known. But, I mean, this – in this case, it also kept this – the people of the Kingdom of Jordan from knowing what the king was doing. There are other advantages to him. I mean, in an era in which there has been a lot of political turbulence in Jordan, a lot of public – mounting public frustration about corruption, the king is buying properties in pricey – in some of the priciest real estate markets in the world and using shell companies to hide it.
GROSS: Does he live in any of these properties or visit them, stay in them?
MILLER: I think that he visits, you know, as far – we don’t have his full itinerary. We don’t know how often he visits these properties or how much time he spends in them when he does. We do know that he’s been in California. We do know that he has been to his properties in Malibu. He – in responses to The Washington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as part of this project indicated that he and his family use these residences as private residences for himself, for his children and for other relatives and other prominent Jordanians.
GROSS: So whether or not the king’s using these properties or whether his children are using the properties, it seems that real estate is a popular way of sheltering money. And why is that? Because among the issues surrounding that is that when wealthy people from abroad buy up really expensive real estate and don’t actually use it, it tends to kind of freak out real estate prices in that area. I know London’s going through that. I think New York has gone through that. So can you talk a little bit about sheltering money in real estate?
MILLER: Yeah. It’s a huge, huge issue, a global issue. And you’re right, Terry, it distorts the real estate market when you have individuals – Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs or whoever – buying real estate as a way of basically moving money that they made from other sources into hard assets in Western countries that are attractive because of their stability. I mean, it works for them. it’s basically – they’ve acquired an asset that they know is going to be reliable. It’s going to be there. Their money – they’re not going to lose.
But if you’re trying to buy a house in London right now – or like me, recently – or even looking for even a rental in this city, you will quickly realize just how insane the real estate market is here and in Los Angeles and in Washington and in Manhattan, where many high rises are full of units that are owned by LLCs and shell companies.
GROSS: Meanwhile, in Jordan, the King has instituted austerity measures. Jordan is not a wealthy country, unlike some of the other Gulf nations. So he’s like secreting all this money away in offshore accounts and buying up, you know, very expensive real estate while his country is really financially suffering. How is the revelations of the Pandora Papers playing in Jordan?
MILLER: You know, this is such an important point, Terry. And I want to just sort of dwell on it for a minute. You know, when you – when we write stories about a royal figure from the Middle East buying luxury properties, you know, understandably, a lot of readers or listeners just might sort of shrug. Isn’t that what they do?
Jordan is really in a different category. Jordan is not Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. It’s not sitting on a ton of oil wealth. In fact, it has almost none. It doesn’t have enough water for its people. It has very little arable land. It doesn’t have a meaningful port. Jordan and its economy depend on billions of dollars in aid. Jordan gets more aid from the United States than any other country except Israel and Afghanistan.
So for the leader of that country to be secretly purchasing, you know, tens of millions of dollars – well over 100 million of dollars – in high-end real estate to buy three adjacent compounds in Malibu, for example, is a little troubling. And it will be in Jordan, too. I mean, the reaction in Jordan has been muted so far. But that’s in part because the story has been fairly effectively suppressed so far. So I think it’s going to take some time for the impact of this story to play out in Jordan. But it’s important to note that there have been protests in recent years, you know, thousands and thousands of people in the streets of Jordan protesting corruption, protesting austerity measures, protesting the downturn in the country’s economy, the lack of jobs. And just earlier this year, King Abdullah himself faced an alleged coup plot involving his half-brother and – who was among nearly 20 people who were arrested and accused of plotting against the king. And one of their grievances was corruption.
GROSS: The United States is giving a lot of money to Jordan in aid. Meanwhile, Jordan’s king is sheltering a lot of money in the U.S. It’s a strange equation. Is there any hint that U.S. aid or aid to Jordan from other countries, that some of it is being pocketed by the king, who’s then sheltering the money in secret places?
MILLER: So the U.S. officials I talked to said that the American aid is very closely accounted for. They don’t really suspect or believe that it has been diverted or abused. The king, through his lawyers, insisted that no aid money, in any way, was used or misused for any of the purchases of these properties that he now owns. But there are other sources of money that flow into Jordan that are not nearly as transparent. Other Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia at times – although, their relationship with Jordan can be strained – have written large checks. And I quote a senior U.S. official who spent a lot of time in Jordan and knows the country very well, told me that those checks at times have – appear to have been made out to King Abdullah himself, not to the state.
GROSS: What impact so far has the Pandora Papers investigation had around the world?
MILLER: So I think we’re starting to – we’ve seen impact in big ways and small ways all around the world already. There have been announcements of investigations in countries including the Czech Republic, countries in Africa, countries in Latin America, whose – where there were leaders who were exposed or implicated in the Pandora documents. There have been political implications. The prime minister of the Czech Republic, who sort of positioned himself as a – as anti-elite politician, was exposed in the documents as having secretly used a shell company to buy a $22 million chateau in France. His party lost the elections in the Czech Republic last week, which was a big outcome.
It’s hard to know exactly how much of that to attribute to the Pandora Papers, but it has to have been a factor. And I wouldn’t even – and then, I think, you step back even further, and these stories have sparked a new, kind of global conversation about shell companies and about the corrosive effect that they have on societies, including the United States. And so right away, there were – there was a new – members of Congress introduced new legislation within days that would represent one of the most substantial attempts to impose greater transparency on the offshore system that we’ve seen in many, many years in the United States.
GROSS: Greg Miller, thank you so much for the reporting. And thank you so much for joining us.
MILLER: Terry, thanks for having me. Thanks for focusing on this topic. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: My pleasure.
Greg Miller is a foreign investigative correspondent for The Washington Post. He’s a lead reporter on The Post’s Pandora Paper series. He spoke to us from London. Our interview was recorded yesterday. If you’d like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed – like this week’s interview with the cave diver who helped rescue a group of boys from a long, winding underground cave in northern Thailand in 2018, or with Ahmir Questlove Thompson about his new book, which is a year-by-year reflection on songs that have personal significance – check out our podcast. You’ll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today’s show. I’m Terry Gross.
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