Panama Papers’ Reporter Lauds Fraud Examiners for ‘Holding the Powerful Accountable’

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Grueling. Exhausting. Exciting. Satisfying. Bastian Obermayer, the recipient of the ACFE Guardian Award, and the deputy head of the investigative unit of the Munich-based newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, experienced all those emotions as he and his partner, Frederik Obermaier, reported on the Panama Papers. The documents, which an anonymous source emailed to Obermayer, contained personal financial information about wealthy individuals and public officials, and showed that they were using some shell corporations — incorporated via the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca — for illegal purposes, including tax fraud, tax evasion and evading international sanctions.

Obermayer was unable to be at the conference because he was working on another ongoing story, but he described the Panama Papers’ adventure via a live video feed during today’s morning general session.

“I’m very sad that I can’t be with you,” he said. “I feel very honored to receive the Guardian Award.” He said he was especially proud of the award’s inscription, For Vigilance in Fraud Reporting. “That’s exactly what we liked to do in the last number of years. We tried to have a very close look at the powerful and see what we can find out about fraud and corruption.

“Investigating fraud and corruption is hard and difficult. Very often it’s annoying, and it’s expensive. And that’s a problem especially for journalism. And that’s why I’m proud we can still do this,” Obermayer said. He said the work has been gratifying because he’s seen real political and legislative change in so many nations because of their journalistic efforts.

The story that prevented his travel to Austin involved an anonymous, secretly recorded, seven-hour 2017 video — sent to Obermayer — that revealed Austria’s vice chancellor (who has since resigned) offering public contracts to a woman, whom he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, in exchange for political backing. The coalition Austrian government collapsed in May.

Obermayer said the supposed niece of the oligarch needed to move several hundreds of millions of Euros out of Russia and into Austria. After hearing this, “the politician … did not leave [the room]. … She explained that she wanted to buy the most influential newspaper in Austria and push him [as chancellor] in the next election. You could see his eyes — you could see power coming into them. And then she asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’ … A non-corrupt politician would have stood up and left the room, but he stayed. In the next seven hours we see how he negotiates with her. … In the end, he offers her government contracts.”

Obermayer lauded the Austrian people for protesting in the streets against the “viscous corruption” in the Austrian government. “The same thing we had seen with the Panama Papers — mass protests in Argentina, France, the U.K. and Iceland — of course. It shows that people really do care. They are fed up with fraud and corruption among the super-rich and the powerful.

“I think that the work you are doing and the work we are trying to do is really important. We have to show the people that their rage and anger about corruption and fraud is not unseen.  … We have to hold the powerful accountable.”

Obermayer is the author of several books, among them the best-selling account of the investigation, “The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money.

He has received numerous honors for his work, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize; the George Polk Award; the Barlett & Steele Award; and several German awards, including the Henri-Nannen-Preis, Theodor-Wolff-Preis, Helmut-Schmidt-Preis, Waechterpreis, Deutscher Reporterpreis and Otto-Brenner-Preis.