The fight between offshore law firm Appleby and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists over the publication of the firm’s client data in the international press continued at the annual OffshoreAlert conference in Miami on Monday.
There were no Appleby representatives present in a panel discussion of what the ICIJ dubbed the “Paradise Papers” but the firm’s Global Managing Partner Michael O’Connell sent a statement to conference organizer David Marchant in which he accused journalists of publishing stolen, privileged property and breaching client confidentiality without justification.
The media, he said, continue “to appear to give no consideration as to whether the documents give rise to any matter of public interest or that they raise matters of sufficient importance to justify the major violation of confidence, privilege and privacy.”
The accusations echoed allegations Appleby made in a lawsuit against the BBC and The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. In the legal action filed in December 2017, Appleby is suing for breach of confidence and seeks a permanent injunction against further use of the information, as well as the disclosure and return of the documents.
Mr. O’Connell said his firm was the victim of a highly sophisticated cyberattack and not a leak by an insider as suggested by the ICIJ.
Gerard Ryle, director of the ICIJ, responded on the panel that his organization had not taken part in any criminality in any way. He said the ICIJ had consulted its lawyers as to whether it could make use of the documents, “and we were told we could.”
Frederik Obermaier, one of the reporters of Sueddeutsche Zeitung who received the Appleby data, said as a general policy, the German newspaper first checks whether any information obtained from whistleblowers or informants is in the public interest.
“This is not an easy process for us. There are many lawyers involved,” he said, “and we definitely see huge public interest in the Panama Papers, as well as the Paradise Papers publication.”
Mr. Ryle added the real issue was the secrecy found in the offshore world: “That is what is in the public interest.”
He noted, unlike Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm that was the subject of the Panama Papers, Appleby is an upmarket law firm which counts some of the richest people and biggest companies in the world among its clients.
“It really showed the systemic problem in the offshore world in a way that had not been shown before. It was not an outlier firm. It showed that the offshore world allowed you to play by different rules,” he said.
Michael Dunkley, former premier of Bermuda, in contrast, emphasized the island’s role as a major insurance center and stated Bermuda was not a place to hide money. He also highlighted Bermuda’s 36th place ranking in the Tax Justice Network’s Secrecy Index, arguing that most large countries are placed well ahead of the offshore jurisdiction on the tax advocacy group’s secrecy list.
Bermuda’s former finance minister Bob Richards in turn accused the media and large countries of double standards. Journalists, he argued, had their own confidentiality needs, for instance when they protect their sources, and large countries constantly create rules for the offshore world that they do not follow themselves.
In his statement, Appleby’s group managing partner denied there had been any wrongdoing by his firm and claimed the journalists that published news stories on the basis of Appleby’s internal documents were laying the groundwork for further cybercrime.
“By being prepared to use highly confidential stolen documents without any justification, journalists are simply emboldening the actions of these serious criminal cyberhackers and facilitating them in future to commit this crime,” Mr. O’Connell said.
He said the theft of the firm’s data should be a primary public concern: “Unless this activity is confronted and seen for what it is – serious criminal activity – next time, it could be your data, your private details, your health records, etc.”