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Investigations

From high school social justice warrior to exposing billion-dollar corruption schemes

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The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of these tireless journalists.

This month, we speak with Musikilu Mojeed, editor-in-chief of Premium Times, one of Nigeria’s best-known investigative news outlets. Musikilu has reported and edited countless investigations in Africa’s most populous country and is one of ICIJ’s longest-serving African members.

Why did you become an investigative journalist?

It’s very simple, but it’s something that I hardly ever talk about. Growing up in high school, I was studying to be an engineer. I wanted to become a chemical engineer because I saw that they were making quite a lot of money.

But I was also president of the press club in high school. At that time, we had a huge impact with some stories. We were doing stories about how senior students were bullying junior students and how some seniors were polluting the environment by defecating. When we exposed them, the school did something.

We did a story about how some teachers were leaving the school campus through perimeter fences rather than by the main exit. For this same offense, students were being beaten and punished every day by teachers. Yet teachers were committing the same crime! We documented teachers doing this. Once we published, the teachers were angry. We had to go underground. The principal called a staff meeting. He said to the teachers, “You can’t do this, you have to lead by example.” I didn’t know that what we were doing was journalism.

That’s how I fell in love completely with journalism. I thought that this is one profession that can cause enormous change in society. From then on, I didn’t want to do anything else.

What investigations are you proudest of?

I don’t think I can recall one in particular because I’ve written or edited or collaborated on so many investigations in my career. I’m really proud of many of them, including the ones I’ve done with ICIJ, from Offshore Leaks to Panama Papers to Paradise Papers to Evicted & Abandoned. I’m also proud of the work we did about the Halliburton bribery scandal in Nigeria, the OPL scandal, extrajudicial killings and many others.

Tell me more about one of your and Premium Times’ biggest scoops, the so-called “Malabu Scandal.”

In 2012, less than a year after Premium Times started, we received information that our government had signed a deal with what we considered to be an illegal entity because there was a fake director on the company’s board. This is a case where a former minister of petroleum [Dan Etete] awarded a very lucrative oil concession while he was in power. One of the people on the board of the company was the son of the former dictator, Sani Abacha.

After [Etete] left office, the government that came in 1999 tried to take back the assets from him. There was this back and forth for several years. In 2011, our government signed a settlement agreement with him, which meant Shell and Eni promised our government $1.1 billion. In exchange, our government passed the money to this company, Malabu. This former minister had been convicted in France — he was a fugitive. Even now he’s a fugitive from Nigeria. Our government basically passed money to this guy and then this guy then passed a lot of his money to friends in Nigeria. The money was withdrawn in tranches of cash and we suspect lots of this was used to bribe former government officials.

We broke this story and we’ve been on it all these years.  The matter has been investigated in the Netherlands and in Italy and there were court cases in the U.K. as well as in Nigeria. It’s perhaps one of the biggest scandals in Nigeria. Who were the former government officials that received bribes from Malabu? That hasn’t been determined.

It’s difficult for me to say too much about the case because I don’t want to be accused of tampering with matters before court. But we hope eventually there will be justice.

What was the hardest part of the Malabu story?

When $801 million of the $1.1 billion was paid to Dan Etete, the former minister I mentioned, he in turn divided the money into and passed $401 million to a controversial businessman. A huge chunk of the money was withdrawn in cash. The difficult part of reporting on this is that because the man withdrew cash, it is difficult to trace. $401 million can do a lot for the Nigerian people. If he had transferred the money through a bank institution, then it would have been easier.

What is the secret to investigative reporting?

It’s usually very difficult, but you just must stay on top of the story and build sources. There are a lot of good people in Nigeria. And once they trust your platform and once they know you are trying to do good for this country, a lot of these whistleblowers will come out and help you.

One of the first things Premium Times tried to establish when it was created was credibility. Once people trust you in a country where access to information is difficult, you will receive a lot of help. This includes officials because a lot of them are frustrated with the corruption going on and they want to help a credible platform, a platform that will protect them as sources.

Across Nigeria, as with other countries, we’ve seen reports of journalists arrested during Covid-19. You and Premium Times have been targeted by authorities, including recently. How would you describe the situation of the press in Nigeria?

Working in Nigeria is increasingly difficult. Things are getting worse. Reporters are routinely arrested. For us at Premium Times, we have been constantly under attack from the military, the police, and government officials. Our reporters are routinely threatened. My own apartment was breached some time in February. We came under sustained cyber-attack in the early part of this year. It’s difficult. But because we’ve built quite a lot of allies, the Nigerian government knows that any attack on Premium Times is going to attract a lot of global attention. At times they try to be careful. But I must tell you, it’s a difficult job here.

You have a track record of breaking big stories with hard evidence. So why does it sometimes seem like people involved in wrongdoing get off scot-free?

Of course, you haven’t noticed anything from the outside; people have not resigned or been arrested as expected. But it takes a long time in Nigeria to get impact. There were investigations we started long ago and it took more than eight years before we noticed impact. For example, we wrote for a long time about corruption in the oil and gas industry and never saw impact. But, eventually, when a new government came into power, it dusted off our investigations and officials saw a lot of the work that we did. One former minister of petroleum is currently on the run after the government launched an investigation based a lot on work we did.

In Nigeria, when it rains, it pours. You’ve got so much corruption to report on at any given time.

Regarding the Panama Papers, we exposed quite a lot of officials, including serving senators, and the former president of the Senate. We expected the government would move against them. The investigation generated a lot of outrage in Nigeria. Expectations were high that the government would act. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission reached out to us and the Code of Conduct Bureau reached out. They gave us the impression that there was an investigation, but we haven’t heard anything until now.

One thing we are clear about is that our investigations started a conversation about beneficial ownership. In 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari guaranteed offshore owners a 12-month window to declare their assets. We see that as part of the impact of Panama Papers. That is impact for a country like ours where politicians hardly ever resign, no matter the weight of the wrongdoing. In Nigeria, when it rains, it pours. You’ve got so much corruption to report on at any given time.

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What advice would you give to a young person wondering about a career in journalism?

You must be passionate about what you do. No matter how talented you are, if you don’t have passion, you’ll soon get tired. Journalism won’t bring you millions of dollars. If anything, it will bring you discomfort. You must be very patient, and you must try to be honest.

What good investigative reporting have you followed recently?

There is a piece of work I’ve been following by a reporter with Business Day. He traveled to Maiduguri in the northeast of Nigeria where the Boko Haram insurgency is most serious. He went to document the stories of women who were raped by Boko Haram insurgents. It’s a moving story about the psychological torture they went through.

How do you manage stress?

I try to stay home and play with my children. I love watching football and listening to traditional Nigerian music, fuji, a lot. And I read.

We hope you enjoyed this edition of Meet the Investigators. ICIJ Insiders receive an exclusive sneak peek at behind-the-scenes content in their inbox every month, as well as invitations to regular Insiders-only chat sessions with ICIJ reporters. Find out more and join our community of Insiders here.

The post From high school social justice warrior to exposing billion-dollar corruption schemes appeared first on ICIJ.

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Election Integrity

Analyzing the Case for Election Fraud

Despite the overwhelming pressure, if you can’t help but feel that tingling sense of knowing that is telling you there’s more to the story, you are not alone. In fact, according to a new Rassmussen poll, nearly 50% of voters believe the election had issues. A quick look at the data blatantly shows that indeed, shenanigans abound (how can a state have 1+ million more mail-in ballots tallied than they sent out?). But was it fraud or masterful gamesmanship?

Adryenn Ashley

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The world, or at least the global media, has spoken: Biden won the 2020 Election.

UPDATED FREQUENTLY WITH NEW INFORMATION – Last update 12/21/2020

A quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of reports of why the Trump team’s assertions of vote fraud and election fraud and vote flipping are flat out fallacies. YouTube has announced a ban on any videos questioning the election results. And now on Monday all 538 electors have voted, formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win. And while there is still Congress to get through, and the inauguration, based on social media and television news and practically every other point of information bombarding society today, Biden is now the President-elect.

But why now, after Government officials confirmed during Senate testimony that a foreign adversary, Russia, attempted to interfere in the 2016 United States Presidential Election via “a multi-faceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” According to U.S. intelligence official reports, Russia targeted voter registration databases in at least 21 states and sought to infiltrate the networks of voting equipment vendors, political parties, and at least one local election board. And if their purpose was not so much to “hack” the election but create chaos and sow seeds of uncertainty around our election process, I would say they have won. But what if this cycle, it was Russia who somehow manipulated extra ballots and placed the blame on the Democrats? What if…?

Russian Experience With Voter Fraud

The 2004 presidential election in Ukraine saw suspiciously high turnout rates that “even Stalinist North Korea would envy,” the State Department declared!

Back then, the U.S. government decried as corrupt an earlier election where special voting boxes were created to help citizens vote from home, election observers were expelled from vote counts, pre-election polls were wildly off, and voter turnout in certain communities exceeded 90%.

But the story of that Ukrainian election as recounted by then-Ambassador John Tefft to a Senate committee in December 2004 raises a tantalizing question for voters distrustful of the Nov. 3 elections results in our own 2020 Presidential Election: If tactics and outcomes in the Ukrainian election back then were enough to cry foul, why can’t Americans debate similar concerns here?

Tefft’s testimony raises an important question: Should America, the greatest democracy in the world, share any of the fraudulent attributes of a Ukrainian election? The answer for most Americans is hopefully resounding “No.”

And despite continued and repeated headlines that there was no fraud, according to the Harvard Kenney School report on Election Integrity this cycle, expert assessments indicate that compared with 2016, the performance of this contest displays several warning flags, namely worsening confidence in the integrity of American elections and falling public trust, challenges to legitimacy arising from threats of campaign violence,legal disputes about the process and results, and public protests about the outcome, as well as growing attempts at voter suppression. 

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Investigations

Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

Landmark laws to thwart the use of U.S. shell companies by terrorists, human traffickers, arms dealers and kleptocrats are set to be enacted after more than a decade of lobbying and politicking with rare bipartisan support.

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Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

The sweeping anti-money laundering reforms hitched a lift in the annual defense spending bill that passed the Senate 84-13 today, and was approved by the House 355-78 earlier this week.

The Corporate Transparency Act requires U.S. companies to report their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN — largely ending anonymous shell companies in the country.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has repeatedly documented how the rich, the powerful and the criminal have used anonymous entities to hide their wealth, including in the 2016 Panama Papers and the 2020 FinCEN Files investigations.

Welcoming the clampdown, Transparency International’s U.S. director Gary Kalman said, “It is rare for such a simple measure to promise such an enormous impact.” Kalman added that the long sought anti-corruption reforms would “move us into a new era of enforcement.”

The new legislation will allow law enforcement agencies and financial institutions to request company ownership information from FinCEN. The data will not be publicly available.

FinCEN Files was based on a trove of suspicious activity reports filed by banks and other financial institutions to FinCEN. BuzzFeed News obtained the secret documents and shared them with ICIJ and more than 100 other media organizations.

The global investigation exposed how a broken U.S.-led enforcement system allows banks to continue to profit from moving dirty money tied to drug cartels, trafficking rings fueling the opioid crisis, fraud, organized crime, sanctions evasion, ruinous real estate schemes, and terrorism.

“Too many times, people … think money laundering is a federal, victimless crime. It is certainly not that,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate banking committee, told reporters on a call organized by the advocacy group the FACT Coalition. “Sinaloa cartel actors, fentanyl traffickers have been destroying thousands of families in my state and across the country.”

Earlier this year, Brown credited FinCEN Files for revealing the lack of forceful enforcement against banks that repeatedly violate the law. Advocates said a number of proposed bipartisan bills, including one co-sponsored by Brown, were instrumental in generating the support needed to attach the reforms to the spending bill.

“This is a really big deal to get this passed,” Brown said Thursday. “No more hiding these abuses in anonymous shell companies. It also cracks down on bank officials who look the other way or actively aid money laundering.”

A long time coming

ICIJ has shown how offshore shell companies have been used for dubious financial dealings and tax avoidance through a series of global exposés, including the Secrecy for Sale investigation, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. U.S. lawmakers have repeatedly cited the investigations in proposing reforms over the years.

Countries like the United Kingdom, Indonesia and members of the European Union also took steps toward ending anonymous shell companies in response to ICIJ reporting.

“When the Panama Papers leaked, there was a huge flurry of interest because there’s all of a sudden this recognition that it was kleptocrats, money launderers, corrupt officials the world over, as well as criminals, were all using a very common structure to help evade law enforcement, which was setting up an anonymous company,” Lakshmi Kumar, policy director of Global Financial Integrity, said.

The phenomenon is not limited to the exotic offshore tax havens of popular imagination. U.S. jurisdictions like Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada are among the world’s top locations to set up anonymous companies. Legislation to require corporations to disclose their true owners was first proposed in the U.S. over a decade ago, co-sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama, and similar bills have been introduced over the years.

Advocates credit years of lobbying a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had previously been a leading opponent, in getting the reforms across the finish line this year.

“What’s changed now is a growing understanding among various constituencies about the harms that anonymous companies pose, and the threats that they pose for our financial system, to our businesses,” Clark Gascoigne, senior policy advisor at FACT Coalition, said.

But it’s not a done deal quite yet.

Although the anti-money laundering proposals have had the support of the administration, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act over provisions unrelated to financial secrecy.

Both the House and the Senate votes surpassed the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a veto, although some Republicans have indicated that they would not support what would be the first veto override of the Trump presidency.

But the NDAA has been reliably passed by Congress every year for six decades and advocates are confident that the time has come for the landmark financial transparency measure that’s included in the omnibus bill.

“It’s one of the few areas where the outgoing Trump administration agrees with the incoming Biden administration,” Gascoigne said. “It may be the first bill in the history of Congress that has the support of both Dow Chemical and Friends of the Earth. Heck, the state of Delaware even supports reform.”

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Investigations

Muslim Brotherhood suspect and Saudi billionaire linked to same offshore companies, Austrian report says

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One of 30 people in Austria suspected to be members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Muslim Brotherhood was the director of offshore companies linked to a Saudi billionaire, according to an investigation by Austrian media outlets profil and Ö1.

The man, described as a 37-year-old Viennese entrepreneur with Iraqi roots, is suspected of “participating in a terrorist, subversive and criminal organization” and was a target of the police investigation into the group and the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas, the report said

The inquiry, which led 930 officers to raid 60 apartments, shops and clubs in four federal states last month, had no connection to the Vienna terror attack that killed four and injured 23 on November 2, according to officials cited by Deutsche Welle.

The Austrian report ー based on police records ー does not name the suspect, nor the Saudi businessman, for fear of hampering the ongoing probe into possible terror financing.

The pair’s link to shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore financial centers was revealed for the first time after the reporters’ examination of Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017.

The 13.4 million files include incorporation documents, emails, contracts and other records from two offshore service providers and the company registries of some of the world’s most secretive countries.

The Austrian man was listed as the director of several companies in the BVI, Malta and the Bahamas, the media report said. His address on the documents referred to an apartment in Vienna that belongs to the wife of one of the main suspects in the police investigation, according to a review of Austria’s land registry records.

By cross-checking the confidential files with property records, the reporters also found that the shell companies owned properties in the U.K., including two office buildings, a commercial property and a retail park, worth about $73 million in total.

The documents show that a Liechtenstein trust owned by the Saudi businessman was behind those companies. The man is also known as a philanthropist who has financed Islamic studies at various European universities in recent years, including in Austria, the report added.

The complex offshore structure identified by the journalists is legal, the report said, but “can be used to disguise the flow of money and the identity of the true economic beneficiaries.”

Profil and Ö1, two ICIJ media partners in Austria, asked the Viennese suspect about the purpose of the offshore company network and his link with the Saudi billionaire. A lawyer representing him declined to comment.

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