The earliest appearance of Donald Trump in the Panama Papers shows how operating in the secrecy world is a game rich people play to hide their activities. For government officials, journalists and even ironically, the law firm behind the Panama Papers, determining who is behind a given shell company could be difficult. And as with many cases involving Mossack Fonseca companies, the files are incomplete.
The story involves a Panamanian company called Process Consultans, Inc. No, that’s not a typo. There is no final “t” in Consultans. Except sometimes in the documents, including in letterhead, it is spelled with the “t.” Whether this was due to incompetence, necessity or purposeful muddying, the result is a company that is harder to track.
Process Consultans was owned through bearer shares. These share certificates were pieces of paper and whoever physically possessed them owned the company. For example, if Process bought an apartment in a Trump development, the company was the titleholder. Process itself was owned through two share certificates. If someone handed you those two pieces of paper, you would be the owner of the apartment. Bearer shares could be used to transfer assets completely anonymously. They were favorite tools of money launderers. For Mossack Fonseca, bearer shares were popular add-ons, a lucrative secrecy selling point.
The directors of Process Consultans were employees of Mossack Fonseca, including Jürgen Mossack himself. They acted as “nominee directors. These were fake directors, an extra service offered by the firm, which had the benefit of hiding who was really making decisions for the company. Nominee directors are a common ploy in the secrecy world.
Now, just because Process Consultans used bearer shares, nominee directors and had a fluid name doesn’t necessarily mean it was doing anything illegal. Figuring out who actually owned the company and where the money came from – and whether it was up to something improper – that’s where the fun usually began for journalists delving into the files.
There is nothing in the Panama Papers that explicitly states who is behind Process Consultans. The company was created in 1985 and back then Mossack Fonseca truly did not care who owned their companies, nor was there much legal obligation in Panama for them to do so. Instead the firm created a company – usually for a lawyer or a banker who solicited it on behalf of their client – stuffed the registration form in a file and forgot about it until a year passed and it was time to send an invoice for a renewal.
Nonetheless, it appears Process Consultans was originally created by Dresdner Bank LatinAmerika AG in Panama for a client. This person may have been a German-Ecuadorian industrialist, who found his way to the law firm through its Guayaquil franchisee. At some point, the law firm’s internal documents began to identify the company as originating in Luxembourg and connected to a branch of the Swiss bank UBS in Germany.
In 1991, Process Consultants, Inc. bought a unit in the newly constructed Trump Palace on 200 East 69 Street in Manhattan. The 54-story skyscraper was the tallest building above 60th Street.
“Trump Palace makes little effort to fit into its surroundings. It wants to stick out on the skyline like a prima donna… The truth is that Trump Palace is less an homage to the 20’s and 30’s than it is a hangover from the 80’s,” sniffed the New York Times.
The Trump Palace was open for business for foreign buyers and sellers, some of them hiding behind anonymous shell companies.
The person or persons behind Process Consultans decided to sell his condo in 1994. Trump Corporation was the exclusive broker. It was The Donald’s palace, after all. In September 1994, a document in the files details an agreement for the apartment, sale price $395,000. (Later, the price appears to have been whittled down to $355,000.)
The buyer of the apartment may have been from Hong Kong. There is a woman with the same name as the individual identified in the files as the person to whom the property was “transferred, ” that pops up in a previous offshore leak reported by ICIJ.
Unfortunately, the New York City Department of Finance online database ACRIS only has information on the apartment after 2005. At that point, it was owned by a Brazilian from Sao Paolo. He used his real name. That year he sold it for $795,400.
But the Process Consultans story does not end with the sale of the Trump apartment. In 2006, Mossack Fonseca contacted the Ecuadorian industrialist about his company. It appears the firm lost touch with the owner and believed he wanted the company dissolved. Mossack Fonseca went to UBS, which rejected any responsibility for the matter.
By 2008, Mossack Fonseca had created more than 160,000 offshore entities. This torrent of secret companies, particularly the older ones, had become difficult to manage. Still, as long as everyone got paid – including Donald Trump – nobody asked too many questions. Now, Mossack Fonseca wasn’t sure who to bill. It contacted the industrialist inquiring what was going on.
The Ecuadorian wrote back:
Gentlemen: I do no understand what you mean with this message. The company PROCESS CONSULTANTS INC. was established in Panama almost a cuarter of a century ago. Since then you send me the annual bills for the administration fees which I always paid to you. Why does the administrator (for me: YOU), suddenly come up with this strange comment? If there was any change concerning the registry or administration of PROCESSS CONSULTANTS INC. I would have been the first to know (and ACCEPT) it. Please enlighten me on the subject.
This blog post has been updated. I have replaced the word “first” with “earliest” in the first sentence to avoid any confusion. The Donald Trump organization appears elsewhere in the Panama Papers. Chronologically, this is the first instance of that I found.