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US launches criminal inquiry into Panama tax schemes

US prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation "regarding matters" related to the 'Panama Papers' leak of documents that have revealed secret offshore bank accounts linked to the rich and powerful.

Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, disclosed the probe by his office in a letter to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In the letter, which was posted on the Guardian's website and has been authenticated by the Financial Times, is seeking to speak with an ICIJ employee about the data leak.

A spokesman for the US attorney's office declined to comment. In the letter Mr Bharara writes that his office has opened an investigation "regarding matters to which the Panama Papers are relevant."

Earlier this month ICIJ and other news organisation published multiple stories based on 11.5 million files leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, one of the largest offshore law firms. The stories revealed offshore accounts linked to David Cameron, a close friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who was toppled by the revelations.

The US Justice Department has been cracking down on American citizens and the bankers, lawyers and others who helped them evade paying taxes by hiding income in undeclared offshore bank accounts for nearly a decade.

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In 2009 UBS paid a $780 million fine and signed a deferred prosecution agreement admitting it helped scores of Americans evade taxes. Other bank settlements followed, including a guilty plea by Credit Suisse in 2014, and dozens of individuals were charged.

The US has alleged in most of its cases that the banks and middle men helped Americans evade taxes by concealing their accounts in Europe and Asia. The bulk, if not all, of the revelations in the Panama Papers leak relates to non-US citizens. It is not clear whether the US is looking into whether Americans used the law firm to evade taxes that DoJ is unaware of, or if the authorities' interest is related to specific investigations that are not necessarily tax cases, or something else.

Some lawyers have doubted the document leak would challenge the previous bank settlements, mostly because the settlements and US investigations were focused on American citizens.

Mr Bharara's office filed criminal charges against employees of UBS, Julius Baer, Wegelin bank, among others.