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Harish Salve: Panama Papers coverage ‘unfair’ privacy invasion, disclosed all investments, paid Rs 175 cr of tax

Harish Salve: Nothing to hide
Harish Salve: Nothing to hide

Senior counsel Harish Salve, whose name appeared in the so-called Panama Papers leak of more than 11 million financial documents from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, published in India by the Indian Express, told Legally India that including his name was unfair, since his use of a British Virgin Islands-based (BVI) shell company was legal and transparently declared in his tax returns.

He had told the Express in a statement that all three BVI companies he had been involved with had zero revenues and were inactive.

When contacted for further comment, he told Legally India today: “That (Indian Express) reply was sent from Paris. After coming back to India, I have checked and all my investments are appropriately disclosed in my tax return of 2013 - they (IE) had asked me for 2012. (The) March 2013 returns were obliged to carry disclosures, and my returns had all the assets and investments disclosed. Assessments are complete.”

He said that he had never had any bank account in the BVI, but only set up a company there when he wanted to invest in the UK.

“I was advised that making investment in and from UK, may render me  a tax resident in UK, so I set up a company in BVI in 2012,” he said, intending to move his portfolio there from the UK. But since 2014, as I became a tax resident of the UK, I abandoned the idea.”

Salve had joined London’s elite Blackstone Chambers of barristers in 2013, often working from the UK on arbitrations during India’s court vacations, and said he’s since then paid taxes in both the UK and in India.

Salve reiterated, however, that all foreign bank accounts, as well as “shares that were to be transferred to the BVI company” were mentioned in his financial returns.

“Unfortunately this kind of reporting, Jehangir Sorabjee and I have said: Look everything we have is declared. If it is declared, is it not the invasion of my privacy to publish all this?” Salve asked.

Jehangir Sorabjee, a professor of medicine and son of ex-attorney general Soli Sorabjee, was also named in the Indian Express story as having had an offshore company, which Sorabjee had told the Express was set up in accordance with Reserve Bank of India (RBI) norms and was fully declared on his returns.

In respect of another BVI company mentioned in the Express story, called Edenoval Ltd that was set up by a friend in which Salve indirectly held a stake, Salve said that this was never active. “Somebody was giving us a good investment in a mining asset outside the UK. So I said ok, we make some money for the children. (But) nothing came out of it, it is just sitting there.  Nothing invested. Nothing done.”

“See, now they (Express) have not told you candidly that they have not been able to find any assets (in that company) – they just found a company being floated (in the BVI).”

“It is unfair, to be completely honest, it hurts,” added Salve. “Ultimately I am a private person (...) If they (the Revenue) ask me, I can say, go check my return.

“My reputation in the profession, you can ask anybody, (is that) it is very difficult to brief him because he doesn't take money in cash. I am one of the few, if somebody insists on cash, I put it in a bank. I say, look if the IT (Income Tax department) asks you, you have to explain. And I'm treated like this.”

“I mean, we people (lawyers) are tax payers. On the one hand you say that Indian lawyers charge so much money” but they also pay so much tax, said Salve, and added, jokingly, “If you see the total figure of my investment it looks big - but if you see total figure of tax paid - you will say, Mr Salve how much money do you waste right there?”

When asked for figures, he declined to comment, but when repeatedly pressed for how much he had invested and how much tax he had actually paid, he eventually confirmed that between 2004 and 2013 his tax bill came to around Rs 175 crore, with his investment being less than 10 per cent of that amount.

Salve is one of the highest-paid senior counsel who can charge between six and 15 lakh per appearance in the Supreme Court or the Delhi high court, according to data published by Mint and Legally India last year.

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