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Daily Archives: October 3, 2021

Trove of Documents Shows Hidden Wealth of World Leaders

Current and former leaders from throughout the world have amassed vast wealth and secret real estate holdings across the globe, hundreds of investigative journalists reported on Sunday after months of combing through millions of previously undisclosed documents.

The documents, dubbed the Pandora Papers, exposed the offshore holdings of 35 current and former country leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

The investigation of nearly 12 million documents from 14 sources was led by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, with 650 journalists from around the world working on the project. The Washington Post, one of the news outlets that helped conduct the investigation, said the files included private emails, secret spreadsheets, clandestine contracts and other records that revealed financial schemes and who was behind them.

The documents showed that national leaders on five continents hid assets, often in other countries, with the investigation exposing more than twice as many offshore account holders as the Panama Papers, an examination five years ago by the investigative journalists of hidden financial assets at offshore entities across the world.

The new material comes from 29,000 offshore accounts at 14 separate financial-services companies operating in countries that include Switzerland, Singapore, Cyprus, Belize, the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere. Among the account owners, the Post said, are more than 130 people Forbes magazine lists as billionaires and more than 330 public officials in more than 90 countries and territories.

“Off-shore” refers to a time when remote island nations were the primary locales where people put money to shield it from government regulators, tax authorities, creditors, investigators and others. 

“The offshore financial system is a problem that should concern every law-abiding person around the world,” Sherine Ebadi, a former FBI officer worked on dozens of financial-crimes cases, told the Post. 

The records showed that the Jordanian ruler spent $106 million on luxury homes along the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, California, Washington and other locations, while millions of dollars in property and cash were secretly held by the leaders of Kenya and the Czech Republic.

Czech leader Babis, facing an election later this week, used an offshore investment company to buy two villas in the south of France for more than $16 million, according to the records.

The records showed that a luxury waterfront apartment in Monaco is the residence of a Russian woman who reportedly had a child with Putin. The Post said representatives of Abdullah denied any impropriety or use of public funds, while none of the Kenyan, Czech or Russian leaders commented on the reports, nor did the Russian woman.

In recent years, U.S. presidents have imposed financial sanctions on oligarchs in Russia for what the U.S. Treasury has called malign activity. The Pandora Papers showed that those targeted have often made substantial efforts to evade the effects of the sanctions by shifting ownership of their assets. Nonetheless, the documents showed that the sanctions caused financial losses, including for Kremlin officials. 

The documents, according to the BBC in Britain, said that Blair and his wife, Cherie, saved $421,000 in stamp duty when they bought a London office from an offshore company that owned the building. 

The BBC said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, his family and close associates have secretly bought more than $540 million worth of property in Britain.

For years, international tax havens have been a favorite of the wealthy looking to hide assets. But the Post said the Pandora Papers showed that in recent years foreign, political and corporate officials have moved some holdings to even more secret American trust companies, including in the Midwestern state of South Dakota.

Virus Surge Hits New England Despite High Vaccination Rates

Despite having the highest vaccination rates in the country, there are constant reminders for most New England states of just how vicious the delta variant of the coronavirus is.

Hospitals across the region are seeing full intensive care units, and staff shortages are starting to affect care. Public officials are pleading with the unvaccinated to get the shots. Health care workers are coping with pent-up demand for other kinds of care that had been delayed by the pandemic.

“I think it’s clearly frustrating for all of us,” said Michael Pieciak, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation who monitors COVID-19 statistics for the state. “We want kids to be safe in school, we want parents not to have to worry about their child’s education and health.”

Even though parts of New England are seeing record case counts, hospitalizations and deaths that rival pre-vaccine peaks, largely among the unvaccinated, the region hasn’t become a hotspot for deaths from COVID-19 as have other parts of the country.  

According to statistics from The Associated Press, the five states with the highest percentage of a fully vaccinated population are all in New England, with Vermont leading, followed by Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. New Hampshire is 10th.

According to the AP data, full vaccination rates across the six New England states range from a high of 69.4% in Vermont to 61.5% in New Hampshire.

Despite the relatively high vaccination rates — the U.S. as a whole is averaging 55.5% — there are still hundreds of thousands of people across the region who, for one reason or another, remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection.

Now, a Rhode Island official said he didn’t think the 70% vaccination goal, once touted as the level that would help end the pandemic in the state, is enough.  

“What we’ve learned with delta and looking beyond delta, is because that’s where our focus is as well, to really reach those levels of vaccination, to give you that true population level protection, you need to be in excess of 90%,” said Tom McCarthy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Department of Health COVID Response Unit.  

Officials throughout New England continue to push the unvaccinated to get the shots as well as bolster vaccine mandates.

“We have it in our power to end this needless suffering and heartbreak; a way to protect our health and that of the people we love; a way to give our heroic doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals a much-needed break; a way to protect our children – please get vaccinated today,” Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said recently.

Yet the head of UMass Memorial Health, the largest health system in central Massachusetts, said recently that regional hospitals were seeing nearly 20 times more COVID-19 patients than in June and there isn’t an ICU bed to spare.

In Connecticut, the legislature just extended the governor’s emergency powers to make it easier to cope with the latest wave of the pandemic.  

Case counts in Vermont, which has continually boasted about high vaccination and low hospitalization and death rates, are the highest during the pandemic. Hospitalizations are approaching the pandemic peak from last winter and September was Vermont’s second-deadliest month during the pandemic.

On September 22, Maine had nearly 90 people in intensive care units, a pandemic peak for the state. Maine also recently passed 1,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Gretchen Volpe, an infectious disease specialist at the 48-bed York Hospital in Maine, said the delta surge has made it harder to find care for patients who need more assistance.

“The physicians who are transferring people have commented to me that they keep having to go farther and call more places to achieve that goal, Volpe said.

On Friday, the United States crossed the threshold of 700,000 deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The deaths during the delta surge have been unrelenting in hotspots in the South. New England has been at the other end of the spectrum, but the region is still coping with the same surge that has ravaged other parts of the country.

Vermont’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, drew near-universal praise for his early handling of the pandemic, when his calm demeanor and reliance on the science kept his state among the safest.  

But recently, he’s faced criticism by some, including Democratic leaders of the state legislature and more than 90 employees of the Vermont Health Department who in August signed a letter urging him to do more to combat the delta wave.

Scott lifted Vermont’s state of emergency in June, when the state became the first to see 80% of its eligible population get at least the first shot.  

He is now recommending that schools require masks and he’s urging people to wear masks in crowded indoor locations. But he won’t reinstitute required mitigation measures that were in place during the state of emergency.

“We can’t be in a perpetual state of emergency,” Scott said this week.  

Dr. Tim Lahey, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, said he felt it was important to look at the situation more optimistically.  

Unlike some others in the region, his Vermont hospital is busy, not overwhelmed. People still need to be cautious, but they are not locked down and outside life has a semblance of normality.

“We all hate the word ‘delta’ now, but has vaccination made it so we can withstand the brunt of delta with losing fewer of our neighbors while still having the quality of life that we enjoy in Vermont?” he said. “Yeah.”

Major Oil Spill off Southern California Fouls Beaches

One of the largest oil spills in recent southern California history fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.  

At least 477,000 liters of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County, according to a statement from the city of Huntington Beach.  

“The spill has significantly affected Huntington Beach, with substantial ecological impacts occurring at the beach and at the Huntington Beach Wetlands,” the statement said.  

The oil created a kilometers-wide sheen in the ocean and washed ashore in sticky, black globules along with dead birds and fish. Crews led by the U.S. Coast Guard deployed skimmers and floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion into the wetlands and the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.  

The closure stretched from the Huntington Beach Pier nearly 6.4 kilometers south to the Santa Ana River jetty amid summerlike weather that would have brought beachgoers to the wide strand for volleyball, swimming and surfing.  

Officials canceled the final day of the annual Pacific Air Show that typically draws thousands of spectators to Huntington Beach, a city of about 199,000 residents about 48 kilometers south of downtown Los Angeles. The show featured flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

The oil slick originated from a broken pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly, 8 kilometers from shore, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said on Twitter.  

Foley said Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery told her that he encountered the oil slick while in a boat traveling back to the mainland from Santa Catalina Island. “He saw dolphins swimming thru the oil,” Foley tweeted.  

The Huntington Beach statement early Sunday said, “While the leak has not been completely stopped, preliminary patching has been completed to repair the oil spill site,” with additional repairs planned.  

The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 1.6 million liters of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.

In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 541,313 liters of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.

At a news conference Saturday night, Orange County officials expressed concern about the environmental impacts of the spill and hoped crews could stop the oil before it flowed into sensitive wetlands.

“We’ve been working with our federal, state and county partners to mitigate the impact that could be a potential ecological disaster,” Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said.

Huntington State Beach is home to a number of species of birds, including gulls, willet, long-billed fletcher, elegant terns and reddish egret, which are a rarity on the West Coast, according to Ben Smith, a biologist and environmental consultant for Orange County.

Smith drove to the beach Sunday to observe wildlife ahead of a construction project planned at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, which flows into the ocean at the border of Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach.

“There’s tar everywhere,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You think by now we would have figured out how to keep this kind of thing from happening, but I guess not.”

US Raises Concern as China Warplanes Again Fly Near Taiwan

Chinese military flew 16 warplanes over waters south of Taiwan on Sunday as the United States expressed concern about what it called China’s “provocative military action” near the self-governing island that China claims.

China sent 38 warplanes into the area on Friday and 39 aircraft on Saturday, the most in a single day since Taiwan began releasing reports on the flights in September 2020. The flights came in daytime and nighttime sorties, and it wasn’t clear if China was planning more flights on Sunday night.

A statement from U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price warned that China’s military activity near Taiwan risks miscalculation and undermines regional peace and stability.

“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan,” the statement said.

It added that the United States, Taiwan’s biggest supplier of arms, would continue to help the government maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 during a civil war in which the Communists took control of mainland China and the rival Nationalists set up a government on Taiwan, an island of 24 million people about 160 kilometers (100 miles) off the east coast.

China has been sending military planes into the area south of Taiwan on a frequent basis for more than a year. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said 12 fighter jets and four other military aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Sunday.