The weak spots that let journalists expose the finances of looters, organized criminals and oligarchs

The trillions that the global looter class has stashed in offshore financial secrecy jurisdictions are protected by the joint tactics of absurd complexity and stultifying dullness, which have been created by a separate group of global looter-enablers, working for big accounting and audit firms, banks, law firms, even private schools.

Writing for the Global Investigative Journalism Network to summarize a recent panel at the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Megan Clement distills the role that each species of enabler plays in hiding ill-gotten millions, and the techniques that can be used to pierce the veil of secrecy and reveal the stolen treasure.

Here are five suggestions from the panel on where to find important information on legitimate businesses that mask criminal activity:

1. Retired Officials: Johnston says former regulators of the industry you’re investigating are “the most helpful people you could ever develop as a source in trying to trace money and criminal enterprises.” They can show you where to look for wrongdoing by pointing out specific laws and bylaws that might have been contravened, he said.

2. Land Registries: “If you’re looking for assets, check the Land Registry for England and Wales,” Garside said. The website publishes a searchable Excel file that lists all the property owned by shell companies outside the UK. “If you’re looking for hidden multi-million-pound houses, that that’s where you find them,” she said.

3. Conferences: Patrucic spoke of a journalist she knows who now spends his time on the circuit of accounting conferences. He wants to make sure that everyone in that sector has his business card, in case they hear of any wrongdoing or want to hand over important documentation.

4. Your Own Investigations: Patrucic pointed out that in working across several major investigations, from the Panama Papers to the Troika Laundromat, certain names and companies came up again and again. “One of the things that I keep a record of is the name of every lawyer, shell company, and every director, secretary, or a shareholder in the companies I investigate,” Patrucic said. “Right now I’m working on a story about human trafficking, and the company that showed up in a completely unrelated case has now shown up in that story.”

5. Nuisance Lawsuits: It’s possible that journalists working to uncover secrets about powerful people will get hit with a pre-emptive lawsuit by the legal firms they employ — most likely in the UK, where robust libel laws can often stifle investigative reporting. “We are dealing with a lawsuit in London and it makes me never want to do a story again,” Patrucic said. “Of course, we will do many of them.” But Garside points out that these cases, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, can themselves be useful sources of information during an investigation. “They’re a dialogue,” she said. “If you very clearly set out your allegations to the subject before you write about them, and give them a chance to respond, quite often at the bottom of all the threats in the letters there will be some useful information. So it’s worth it.”

How to Dig into Businesses that Prop Up Criminal Networks [Megan Clement/Global Investigative Journalism Network]