The World’s Biggest Tax Haven Lurked Behind a Dos Santos Penthouse
26 Feb 2020

As scrutiny of her business empire increased, African billionaire Isabel dos Santos turned to one of the world’s most secretive tax havens to conceal a $1.8 million luxury apartment in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

The haven in question? The United States.

Dos Santos and her husband owned the apartment through a company in Delaware called Decade International LCC, according to business records and emails obtained through Luanda Leaks, an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists investigation.

While the Luanda Leaks documents don’t say why dos Santos formed a company in Delaware, the U.S. state is one of the easiest places in the world to set up a shell company, and offers owners of those companies nearly complete anonymity. And it is only getting more opaque.

In its annual “financial secrecy index,” released last week, the Tax Justice Network ranked the U.S. as the world’s second-most secretive jurisdiction, behind only the Cayman Islands. (Other U.S. states also host murky shell companies, but Delaware is far and away the biggest haven).

“The U.S. has actively bucked the global trend towards greater transparency, increasing the range of secrecy vehicles on offer,” Alex Cobham, the advocacy group’s chief executive, told ICIJ.

Luanda Leaks reporting found that dos Santos funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit wealth from her home country of Angola to shell companies in secrecy havens. Once offshore, she used the cash to buy up businesses and assets, including luxury homes like the one in Portugal.

Angola froze more than $1 billion of her assets in December and Portugal froze dos Santos’ bank accounts in February. Dos Santos denies wrongdoing.

The dos Santos business records were obtained by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, and shared with ICIJ. The documents include almost 100 emails, invoices, electricity and sewage bills and property tax assessments that describe the Lisbon property and the Delaware company.

The apartment is in a high-rise building on Lisbon’s Avenida António Augusto de Aguiar, above the city’s largest shopping mall and next to a lush, landscaped public park.

In a draft contract prepared in July 2012, dos Santos and Decade International were listed as buyers and a Maltese company the sellers. The draft sale price was $1.8 million. The final purchase documents are not part of Luanda Leaks and the final price and terms are unknown.

The following year, dos Santos appears in control of Decade International as it pays bills and carries out renovations on the Lisbon apartment. In 2014, dos Santos and her husband spent $408,000 remodeling and on bathroom renovations, including $7,165 on heated towel racks, according to an invoice sent to the Lisbon apartment.

By Will Fitzgibbon, Sydney P. Freedberg and Micael Pereira, ICIJ, 24 February 2020

Read more at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

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