WELLINGTON - New Zealand is at the heart of a tangled web of shelf companies and trusts that are being used by wealthy Latin Americans to channel funds around the world, according to a report on Monday based on leaks of the so-called Panama Papers.
Local media has analysed more than 61,000 documents relating to New Zealand that are part of the massive leak of offshore data from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm. The papers have shone spotlight on how the world's rich take advantage of offshore tax regimes.
Mossack Fonseca ramped up its interest in using New Zealand as one of its new jurisdictions in 2013, actively promoting the South Pacific nation as a good place to do business due to its tax-free status, high levels of confidentiality and legal security, according to a joint report by Radio New Zealand, TVNZ and investigative journalist Nicky Hager.
Mossack Fonseca's main contact in New Zealand was allegedly Robert Thompson, co-founder and director of accountant firm Bentleys New Zealand, the registered office of Mossack Fonseca New Zealand, according to the report.
Thompson was listed in more than 4,500 Panama paper documents, the report said.
Thompson said in his experience, the use of trusts for tax evasion was not common and his firm did not assist people to illegally hide assets.
"I think the assumption that all New Zealand foreign trusts are being used for illegitimate purposes is unfounded and based largely on ignorance," Thompson was quoted as saying by Radio New Zealand.
When contacted by Reuters, Bentleys New Zealand said Thompson was not in the office.
The New Zealand government said last month it would begin a review of its foreign trust laws after the Panama Papers highlighted vulnerabilities in its legal framework that made it a possible link in international tax avoidance structures because its foreign trusts are not subject to tax.
Prime Minister John Key dismissed concerns that international tax avoidance was rife in New Zealand. "New Zealand is barely ever mentioned, it's a footnote," Key told TVNZ in reference to the Panama Papers.
Governments across the world have begun investigating possible financial wrongdoing by the rich and powerful after the leak of more than 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca.
The papers have revealed financial arrangements of prominent figures, including friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, relatives of the prime ministers of Britain and Pakistan and of China's President Xi Jinping, and the president of Ukraine.
The Consortium of Investigative Journalists and German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which broke the original story, gave Radio New Zealand, TVNZ access to the leaked papers.