Discovery is the “process of excavating a forensic landscape of what happened,” as U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler once succinctly put it, and sometimes that excavation can unearth the most unlikely types of evidence. Like a font that brings down a prime minister.
Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif resigned last Friday, July 28th, after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that he was no longer fit for office. The PM’s downfall came after a probe into Sharif’s family wealth following the release of the Panama Papers in 2016. Those documents, which were made public following a data breach at the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, revealed a host of shell companies and tax-evasion tactics connected to some of the world’s richest people, including Lionel Messi, Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, and, of course, Nawaz Sharif.
But while the Panama Papers spawned the investigation, one of the key pieces of evidence was a font: Microsoft’s Calibri font, to be exact. When probing the documents connecting Sharif’s children to offshore companies, investigators found the typeface on documents dated to 2006, a year before Calibri was released.
The Panama Papers and the Prime Minister’s Daughter
Sharif’s family wealth came under scrutiny when the Panama Papers leak connected that Sharif’s children to offshore companies used to buy residential properties in London. Though the prime minister’s name did not appear in the papers, his three children did, including Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the PM’s daughter and heir apparent. The family’s hidden wealth fueled protest throughout the country and speculation that the companies had been used as a money laundering front.
According to the family, the London properties were acquired legitimately. The money for the purchases, they explained, had come from family businesses in the United Kingdom and the Gulf, as well as from the sale of Gulf Steel Mills in the United Arab Emirates. Qatari Prime Minister Prince Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani even wrote on the family’s behalf, to explain the financing.
In April, a Joint Investigation Team was set up to investigate the family’s wealth. The JIT’s report accused the prime minister of concealing assets, underreporting wealth, and falsifying evidence. The investigation says it found “significant gaps/disparity among the known and declared sources of [the family’s] income and wealth.”
From there, the matter moved to Pakistan’s Supreme Court. On Friday, the court ruled unanimously that Sharif had been dishonest to Parliament and the judiciary and was not fit for office. The ruling effectively bans Sharif from future direct participating in the nation’s politics, due to the Pakistani constitution’s requirement that political officers be sagacious and honest.
It’s Not the Crime. It’s the Cover Up. And Calibri
An investigation like that conducted by the JIT requires extensive understanding of complex financial dealings. Indeed, the investigation was highly criticized by Sharif’s supporters for including two representatives from Pakistan’s intelligence services, instead of just financial experts alone. But knowledge of typography also proved to be an essential skill.
As part of the investigation, Sharif’s daughter Maryam submitted paperwork meant to prove her innocence.
The papers didn’t have the effect she was anticipating. They were dated to 2006. Yet the font was Microsoft Calibri, which was not commercially released until 2007. That disparity, investigators believed, was evidence of an attempted coverup.
The “Fontgate” scandal was born. Supporters of the Sharif family argued that the font was available as a “beta version” as early as 2004. The Wikipedia page on Calibri was edited 150,000 times in two days, as both sides of Pakistan’s political divide waged a proxy war via the crowd-sourced encyclopedia—until, that is, Wikipedia was forced to lock down the entry.
Not the First Font-Based Undoing
The Sharifs aren’t the only ones to be betrayed by a font. Several other political scandals have hinged on typeface, as Ars Technica’s Peter Bright notes.
Five years ago, for example, the Turkish government accused 300 officers of plotting to topple the government. (Sound familiar?)
To make its case, the government relied on documents that were dated back to 2003. Yet, like the Sharif's, many of those documents were written in Calibri and other fonts not available at the time. That revelation didn’t stop the courts from finding the alleged conspirators guilty, however.
Closer to home, anachronistic fonts played a major role in the “Killian documents” scandal during President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. The documents consisted of six memos purportedly originating in the files of Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, President George W. Bush’s commanding officer when he served in the National Air Guard. They were not flattering, depict the Bush as shirking his duties and pressuring his commanding officer to overlook his failings.
The memos were brought to the public’s attention in September, 2004, in a report by CBS’s “60 Minutes,” just two months before the presidential elections. But soon after the memos were made public, commenters claimed that the typeface did not comport with the fonts available on a typewriter in 1973. Rather, they were much closer to the standard fonts available in Microsoft Word, run through some editing to make them look old fashioned.