WASHINGTON, April 21 (UPI) -- The U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into the possible illegal activities outlined in the Panama Papers, the massive data leak of secret offshore accounts and alleged illegal financial dealings.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said he wrote to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which led a worldwide effort to report on documents leaked from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, to ask for information to assist in the criminal investigation. Bharara's office has jurisdiction over some of the world's largest financial institutions.
"The office would greatly appreciate to opportunity to speak as soon as possible with any ICIJ employee or representative involved in the Panama Papers project in order to discuss this matter further," Bharara said.
Bharara's efforts are the first indication criminal prosecutors in the United States are officially investigating the information contained in the 11.5 million documents. So far, U.S. authorities have only media accounts to verify the information. Officials began a preliminary review earlier this month.
Stefan Cassella, a former deputy chief of the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, told NBC News that New York is the natural place to begin such an international investigation because illicit funds are often laundered through New York banks.
"They all want to be paid in dollars so the transactions go through New York," Cassella said. "It's just the way the global financial world works. The money passes through New York."
The documents, leaked to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and analyzed by the journalist consortium, allegedly link politicians and celebrities to accounts that shield their money from taxes. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and Jose Manuel Soria, Spain's acting industry minister, resigned after they were linked to offshore accounts with questionable financial dealings. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin have also been named in the papers, but both deny any illegal involvement.