While the revelations in the "Panama Papers" are being reviewed by several state prosecutors, critics of the leak say that it's a media storm without much real substance.
Journalists will name names, goes the critique, but they don't have evidence that the names behind the shell companies are guilty of having done anything illegal. The criticism has come up repeatedly, most often by lawyers, financial experts and even from media personalties themselves. The German magazine for journalists, Meedia, wrote the research was of "dubious quality."
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, financial expert Dirk Müller said that "we've known for decades that shell companies have existed on a large scale; that Panama is a textbook example of a tax haven for such firms. Where's the surprise in that?"
"What's more interesting than which names have appeared on the list are those which do not," Müller said, after questioning the "great scandal." It's remarkable that the names tend to have come from those on the "other side" politically. People from China, Russia, the Arab world. "Where are the big names from America?" Where the documents optimized before publication, taking away the names that one doesn't want to see on them?"
Müller has given this thought based on the fact that the "International Consortium of Investigative Journalists" (ICIJ) was involved via the American non-profit organization "Center for Public Integrity," which is funded in part by the Open Society Foundation, whose big investor is George Soros.
"This group has already been discussed in the past for its one-sided reporting and serving of political interests," said Müller. The organization of journalists has said themselves that they only filtered for names that are already on the UN's sanctions list.
"Why did they specifically seek out certain people? Why not everyone? Why is there an interest in tying Putin into the matter, whose name doesn't appear in the documents?" asked Müller.
That's where Craig Murray, a former British diplomat to Uzbekistan, picks up the subject. He sees "diplomatic mendacity" in the reporting group's announcement that a lot of material would remain confidential.
"Much ado about nothing," is what Austria's Finance Minister Hans Jörg Schelling fears. In practice, shell companies do not automatically lead to organized crime, he says, warning that provisions in legal tax structures should not be confused with criminal actions.
The accusations made by Panama's government that this was a targeted attack on the country are to an extent understandable; Europe itself has tax oases that need to be viewed with a critical eye: Luxembourg, Ireland, Malta, the Channel Islands or even the Netherlands draw people in with their sometimes enormous tax advantages. That goes the same for the US states of Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming, which might explain why prominent US citizens don't come up in the documents for the shell companies in Panama.
Michael Fuchs, parliamentarian and deputy head of the conservative CDU/CSU group in the German parliament, has warned about a premature "scandalization." The President of the German Tax Payers Association, Reiner Holznagel, confirms that ownership of a shell company is not a criminal offense.
Even members of the research organization say that there is a presumption of innocence. The lawyer for German Formula 1 pilot Nico Rosberg, one of the first prominent German names to be revealed in the "Panama Papers," has said that the construction of a firm - not in Panama but in the British Virgin Islands - would have had reasons that exclusively stemmed from the "question of liability law." It's about the ability to operate internationally, not taxes. Rosberg resides in Monaco and is taxed there.
Many banks have not denied their role in promoting offshore concepts. Deutsche Bank and Berenberg, a Hamburg-based Private bank, have confirmed doing business in connection with shell companies, but have noted the legality with which their transactions were conducted. Where is the scandal, ask the bankers who will no longer offer those services in question.
The moment of truth is yet to come
As of now, the "Panama Papers" scandal seems to center on the alleged criminal activities being hidden by the shell companies. There isn't any evidence yet. Which begs the question asked by critics of the leak: just what do the journalists plan to do?
A series of interviews with members of the research organization revealed only that they believe the main accomplishment came with the publication. Anything further is the responsibility of state prosecutors and tax authorities.
But Carl Dolan, Director of Transparency International's EU office, says that those authorities first need to be able to provide evidence. And that would only occur in rare cases, Dolan skeptically told the broadcaster Euronews. Add to that the rarity of real tax reforms.
"Mossack Fonseca," the firm at the heart of the scandal for its ties to shell companies, has said that it can provide proof that the companies it founded were not created or used to evade taxes, launder money or for other criminal purposes.
If the bank actually can provide evidence that they were thorough in the accounting and the majority of the owners of these companies can prove that they run no illegal businesses - only take part in a tax avoidance scheme - then the publication of the "Panama Papers" will have had no long-term impact, according to financial experts from leading tax consultancies. Perhaps the real scandal lies, then, in the double standards of a not-very-forceful international policy against tax havens.