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Pandora Papers: De Tijd names names

Further details have emerged regarding Belgians implicated in the Pandora Papers, an international investigation into tax avoidance using offshore tax havens. In the latest development the families that have major stakes in the Belgian chemicals’ giant Solvay are named.  They stand accused of hiding hundreds of thousands of shares worth dozens of millions of euros in tax havens.  Diamond traders, bankers and a former VRT CEO are all being named.

The Pandora Papers reveal leaked documents from financial consultants that set up offshore constructions in tax havens for wealthy people across the globe.  The offshore constructions are used to cut their tax bill. Over a thousand Belgians are implicated.

For months now journalists at the Flemish daily De Tijd, the Flemish weekly Knack and the Francophone daily Le Soir have been involved in an investigation conducted by the ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, together with over 600 journalists representing 150 media outlets worldwide.

The Aubertin, de Laguiche, de Wangen de Gerolseck aux Vosges and de Selliers de Moranville are all named.  They inherited wealth from the Solvay Brothers, Alfred and Ernest, who set up the chemicals firm Solvay that today is listed on the Brussels stock exchange.

The Solvay Families stand accused of employing offshore constructions in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Panama.  The daily De Tijd reports that these families have hundreds of thousands of shares worth dozens of millions of euros stashed away there including shares in Solvay.

De Tijd’s Lars Bové says the choice of these tax havens is motivated by a wish to avoid paying tax: “In their case we managed to get hold of confidential reports detailing meetings with their tax advisers and wealth managers.  These mention taxes they wish to avoid paying and the wish to hide this wealth.”

In a statement the company Solvay says it won’t be commenting on the personal finances of individual shareholders.

Several Antwerp diamond traders that De Tijd accuses of employing a knot of untransparent tax constructions are also named including Vishal Mehta and his father, Baron Dilip Mehta.  Several bankers including KBC manager Theo Roussis, who until 2013 is said to have been involved in a corporation based in the BVI, which is being linked to Ravago, a billion-euro firm based in the Kempen District of Belgium. Former Petercam CEO Xavier Van Campenhout is also named. Petercam is a former Belgian financial institution that offered services to private and institutional investors and companies. Van Campenhout is said to have assisted an aristocratic family to set up a trust in New Zealand.

Other names mentioned include Wouter Devriendt, former CEO of the Dexia residual bank, and former VRT CEO Paul Lembrechts.  They hold shares in Candace Management Limited, a mailbox company in the BVI.  Dutchman Jeroen Harderwijk uses this construction for his safari parks in Africa.  Harderwijk asked Lembrechts and Devriendt to invest in his company when he faced financial difficulties.  Mr Lembrechts says he had no idea their monies were being channelled to a financial construction in a tax haven.

Investor Barend Van den Brande, the son of VRT president Luc Van den Brande, also features in the Pandora Papers.  Starting 2013 Van den Brande’s venture capital fund Hummingbird Ventures invested in the financial comparison website Souqalmal making Hummingbird a shareholder of Souqalmal Holdings Limited, a construction in the Virgin Islands. De Tijd says that when Hummingbird discovered this it pressed for change saying it didn’t want to invest in offshore constructions. Financial director Lukas Decoster told the daily that Souqalmal was made to choose: the corporation would have to move or Hummingbird would not invest.  Everything then moved to Mauritius, where according to Decoster the corporation operates under a normal tax regime.

The names released today are likely to cause some consternation, but journalist Bové says his paper doesn’t have the intention of simply dropping names: “Our goal is to expose certain phenomena as well as what is happening in tax havens.”

Meanwhile it has emerged that Belgium’s tax authorities are following the revelations in the Pandora papers with a keen eye. Belgian finance minister Vincent Van Peteghem (Flemish Christian democrat) has promised action: “Avoiding tax via offshore constructions is fraud.  There’s no discussion about that”.

Mr Van Peteghem also stressed the importance of international transparency in the fight against fraud.

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