The story begins in 2013, when Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata, through a series of interviews and hidden cameras, acquired evidence of how individuals linked to Lazaro Baez—personal friend and front man of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner— used a private plane to transport more than 50 million euros in cash from the province of Santa Cruz to a small financial company in Buenos Aires, until it eventually disappeared abroad. The money was moved through an extensive network of shell companies in tax havens such as Belize, Panama, and Seychelles, using Swiss bank accounts.
Lanata’s investigation resulted in a judicial inquiry conducted by Argentine federal prosecutor Jose Maria Campagnoli, which showed that between the end of 2012 and mid-2013, 65 million dollars entered the country through suspicious sovereign bonds trades, and then were later liquidated and deposited in the accounts of Austral Constructions, Lazaro Baez’s main construction company. According to the prosecutor’s report, those $65 million were directly related to the 50 million euros that had previously been moved outward according to Lanata’s investigation.
During his investigation, Campagnoli also announced the existence of more than 100 shell companies incorporated in the State of Nevada, United States, whose common denominator was a shell company based in the Seychelle Islands, that presumably had links to Lazaro Baez and, consequently, to the Kirchner family.
While the investigation continued in Argentina and the links between Lazaro Baez and the Kirchner family became ever more infamous, the story took an unexpected turn in the United States when, some months later, the hedge fund NML Capital—known in Argentina as a “vulture fund”— decided to continue Lanata’s investigation in Nevada’s District Court. NML holds a judgment against Argentina for more than $1.7 Billions that Argentine government refused to pay
So, the fund asked a Nevada judge for information on the companies Campagnoli had identified as possible links to Baez, hoping they would lead NML to Argentine assets abroad that had been acquired through corrupt means. NML planned to freeze these assets and use them to collect the debt owed by the State of Argentina.
NML also initiated a process of judicial “discovery” of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which had been identified as the registered agent of the Nevada companies and the company in the Seychelles that had ties to Baez. The inquiry focused particularly on the firm’s Nevada subsidiary, MF Corporate Services. Through this process, NML was able to depose a key witness in the case, obtaining 60 pages long declaration from the only MF employee in Nevada. Subsequent writings presented by NML to the Court show that this testimony contains key information on Lazaro Baez’s—as well as the Kirchner family’s—relationship with more than 100 Nevada companies.
By United States law, all the information produced in a trial is available for access by the public unless the Judge decides to the contrary. However, perhaps hoping to pressure the Argentine government to pay off its debt, NML requested that Amunategui’s testimony be kept secret, depriving the public of knowing what she had said.
In an attempt to promote transparency and get to the bottom of the investigation, the Center for Investigative Journalism in the Americas, together with Jorge Lanata, submitted a “Motion to Intervene” to the Nevada case, asking the judge to make the testimony public, as well as any subsequent testimony or information that could emerge. To do otherwise would be a violation of the freedom of press and the right of the people to be informed, as established by the first amendment of the United States Constitution. In a hearing last Friday, the Judge granted the motion to intervene, authorizing Lanata’s lawyers access to the sealed information. Eventually, this information will be made public.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere in official circles in Argentina grows increasingly tense and uneasy. With the case in advancing in Nevada and a Judge in Argentina investigating the inexplicable growth of the President’s personal assets and her commercial links to Lazaro Baez, the government has intensified its attacks on the opposition and the press.
2015 promises to be an interesting one in Argentina, not only because of the upcoming presidential elections, but also because of the legal developments that are sure to emerge in the country and abroad.
Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger is the Director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in the Americas. Twitter:@Ezequielvazquez
* A spanish version of the article was published in El Pais newspaper: “Cristina Kirchner, entre los Buitres y Lanata”