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A single application for multiple tax refunds was submitted to the German Federal Central Tax Office in Bonn on June 22, 2011. It was assigned the numbers 1100000001 to 1100000025. It landed on the desk of Anna Schablonski, on the ground floor of a gray, five-story, single-purpose building with shelves stacked full of ring binders with the German federal eagle emblazoned on their spines.

At the time, Ms. Schablonski was 30 years old, tall and slender, with brown eyes and a chin-length bob haircut. She had been in the job for only half a year. She didn’t know a thing about complicated stock market transactions. But when something looks fishy to Ms. Schablonski, such as this claim, she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.

For one thing, there were these unusually high sums. In only two months, the applicant, a pension fund in the United States, had bought German stocks worth €6.4 billion ($7.2 billion), only to sell them again shortly afterwards. Now it was claiming almost €54 million in taxes back from the German state – €53,882,080 and 94 cents to be exact. Strangely enough, the fund had only one beneficiary, and that made Ms. Schablonski particularly suspicious. Why, she asked herself, was a one-man pension fund speculating with so many billions?

Instead of the money, Ms. Schablonski sent the fund a long list of questions. It was a moment for bankers, brokers, consultants, and investors to start panicking all over the world – in New York, London and Basel, in Munich, Frankfurt and in the Bavarian city of Neumarkt. Lawyers were engaged and experts brought in to write supporting briefs, which only dodged her questions with evasive answers. That just made Ms. Schablonski all the more suspicious. "Okay," she said, relating later what she thought at the time, "we can’t let this slide, something’s wrong here."

And so it wasn’t a state prosecutor, judge or finance minister that first put a stop to the greatest tax robbery of all time. It was an office clerk handling the application.

What she uncovered has kept Germany’s political establishment and judiciary holding their collective breath to this day. The Bundestag (Germany’s lower house of parliament) has set up a committee of inquiry. State prosecutors in Cologne, Frankfurt, and Munich are also busy investigating. And yet so many questions remain. How can it be that a global financial elite has been getting rich at the expense of the German taxpayer – and no one was able to prevent it? What is the extent of the damage it has caused? And what lessons can be learned from the unprecedented failure of the German state?

In collaboration with German public television ARD’s investigative current events show, Panorama, a team of editors from the German weekly DIE ZEIT and their online edition ZEIT ONLINE assessed secret investigation files, tables with sales and purchases, emails, bank statements, subscription certificates, search reports, and recordings of tapped phone conversations. Reporters traveled to the scenes of the action – the United States, Great Britain, and Switzerland – and spoke with state prosecutors, the accused, bankers, insiders, academics and a former German finance minister. It is an attempt to reconstruct a suspected financial crime whose scope and complexity is virtually incomprehensible.

In total, the German state has suffered at least €31.8 billion in losses. That is the amount calculated exclusively by finance expert Christoph Spengel of the University of Mannheim. "It’s the greatest tax scandal in the history of the Federal Republic," said Mr. Spengel. 

And Anna Schablonski was expected to clear it up.

The American pension fund that made her so suspicious gave as its contact an address on Wall Street in New York, in the 20th floor of a 538-foot-tall skyscraper. If you ask about the fund at the reception desk, you’ll get the answer, "Never heard of it." A look on the Internet reveals why that might be: The 20th floor offers virtual offices. You can rent a mailbox and telephone service for $20.04 a month.

The fund is officially registered at a second address in an upper-class residential area in New Jersey, about an hour’s drive away from Wall Street. Enthroned on a hill at the end of a quiet street is a stately home. A private driveway winds the last couple of yards up to its column-framed entrance.

The address: 6 Noble Lane.

A black Mercedes came gliding down the driveway, the front passenger window rolled down. A corpulent, gray-haired man can be seen. It’s Gregory Summers, the pension fund’s sole beneficiary. We’d love to ask him where he got the billions his fund used to buy stocks. Whether he ever paid the taxes he is claiming back from the German state. But when our reporter identifies himself as a journalist, his wife, sitting in the driver’s seat, stepped on the gas. "I can’t talk to you," Mr. Summers said just before his limousine disappears.

There’s a second pension fund registered at 6 Noble Lane. It, too, is claiming back just under €54 million. It also has just one beneficiary: Gregory Summers.