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Confronting the nexus of power and money, Pandora Papers inspires crime thriller

David Baldacci’s main muse is crime, and he draws inspiration from the work of investigative journalists for his novels. He originally started out as an attorney before his career of action-packed novels took off; he has sold more than 150 million books.

When he’s not writing, Baldacci stays tuned into the political landscape. Speaking from Florida, the writer explained how ICIJ’s work unmasking offshore account holders had fired his imagination and fueled his growing indignation over what he described as the weaponization of secret wealth and the polarization of politics.

“The inspiration for ‘The 6:20 Man’ came to me when I was riding my bike one day shortly after reading the Pandora Papers,” he said.  “I was thinking to myself how everyone now knows about dark-money flows. But would the guys moving all the dark money be content just to park it? Or would they want it to work for them 24/7? Would they want to weaponize it?”

The “6:20 Man” centers around protagonist Travis Devine, a former Army Ranger turned prospective high financier. Having left the Army under a cloud of suspicion, Devine takes a job as an investment analyst at the New York firm Cowl & Comely – a job he happens to hate.

Every morning, Devine puts on an off-the-rack suit, grabs his imitation-leather briefcase, and boards the 6:20 train to Manhattan, where he works as a “burner,” or  low-paid cog helping to generate millions of dollars for the firm. But Devine’s world falls apart when a colleague and former lover is found dead. Devine is left to prove his innocence of the murder

At a time when he’s unsure who he can trust, Baldacci has Devine  confronting the broader meaning of the Pandora Papers. The Pandora Papers reveal the inner workings of a secret economy that benefits only the rich, the powerful and the criminally-minded — an issue that has been at the heart of ICIJ’s journalism for a decade, including its Offshore Leaks and Panama Papers investigations. Pondering this nefarious web of financial secrecy leads Devine to wondering how much of America is owned by others.

Baldacci said that was the question he had been asking himself, too.

“As an American, I care greatly about America,” he said. “And most of us would be too ashamed to answer that question.”

With trillions of dollars at their disposal, he said bad actors like Vladimir Putin were pursuing limitless power, not boundless luxury.

Power and money have never been entwined as much as they are now. This is the second Gilded Age … and we often don’t know where the money is coming from. — David Baldacci

“America is the ultimate prize … Chaos is great for the corrupt.

“Everyday we see money in the corridors of power. Power and money have never been entwined as much as they are now. This is the second Gilded Age … and we often don’t know where the money is coming from.”

Baldacci explained that it was the stealth of modern corruption that concerned him as much as its vast pervasiveness.The solution, he believed, was for people who cared about democracy to join with organizations like ICIJ in bringing dark money into the light.

“This totally depends on the goodwill of people,” he said.“It’s almost like climate change. You reach a tipping point. People need to keep speaking out.”

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Baldacci said it was telling that the U.S. county with the highest number of IRS audits was one of its poorest. “And it has always bothered me that if, say, you rob a bank, you can expect to go to jail for 20 years minimum. But if you defraud people of tens of millions of dollars, you’ll get three to five years–in effect in a country club.”

Across the board, he said, there had to be serious consequences for the secrecy, lies and the dark-money flows that harm so many.

Baldacci said the ultra-wealthy often believe that they are more intelligent than the rest of us, and therefore less accountable. And when their unaccountability is married to vast hidden wealth, the consequences can be devastating.

“And without consequences,” he said, “they will just keep on doing it.”

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Baldacci signed off saying ICIJ’s work really did shine a bright light on the darkest corners of countries’ economic halls of power.

“Pandora Papers really rocked the world,” he said. “I applaud the work that you guys do.”

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