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Corruption in Panama: The Three-Billion Dollar City That Was Never Built; Swindled and Impoverished Children

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By: Wren Greaney, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

On June 25, a former Panamanian Notary Public filed a complaint with Panama’s federal prosecutor’s office against the shareholders of one of the most valuable properties in the country.[1] Mario Velásquez Chizmar was the notary who had validated the will of multimillionaire Wilson Lucom and then fell victim to personal attacks and prosecution as powerful figures sought to invalidate the will to gain control of the estate. Corrupt practices rampant in Panama’s government and legal system have allowed such greed to dominate over legality. Greed and power have conflicted with potentially immense benefits to Panama’s citizens and its economy. Numerous instances illustrate the injustices resulting from a rotten system, and the case of Lucom’s Last Will and Testament is of particular interest to the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

It originated in 2006 when Floridian millionaire Wilson Charles Lucom, an American expatriate living in Panama, died. As COHA discussed in a 2010 report, Lucom specified in his will that shares of his Panama estate, Hacienda Santa Monica, be sold, with the proceeds going to the Wilson C. Lucom Foundation. The value of such proceeds totaled about $50 million USD, an amount that has since vaulted to over $145 million USD, according to a Panamanian Probate Court appraisal.[2] The foundation was to be used to provide funds to purchase meals and other supplies for impoverished school children dwelling in the country, where over 16 percent of the population under the age of five suffer from malnutrition, and 85 percent of those children are designated as being poor, according to the World Bank.[3] Lucom, who never had any children of his own, attempted to address this need through his bequest meant to address impoverished children.

The will also allocated to Lucom’s third wife, Hilda Piza Lucom, a monthly allowance of $20,000 USD. Her children (Wilson Lucom’s step-children) were each bequeathed a one-time sum of $50,000 USD.[4] These amounts might be seen as being more than negligible, but given the magnitude of the estate’s value, Hilda Piza and her children were surprised and vexed at what they saw as the relatively small size of the inheritance left to them.

In order to effectively manage and distribute the inheritance to Lucom’s family members and the charitable foundation that had been set up, his American lawyer of 31 years and longtime friend, a highly respected tax-specialist, Richard S. Lehman, was named as the will’s executor.[5]

Panama’s High Level of Judicial Corruption Deprives Charity of Funding

Controversy around the disposition of funds began to occur almost immediately after Piza challenged the will’s validity in court. The Probate Court approved the will but illegally suspended Lehman’s rights as executor to manage the funds, and an appellate court hearing again approved the will as valid and Lehman as the bona fide executor.[6] In August 2010, Piza and her lawyers appealed the case in Panama’s Supreme Court.[7] The panel of Supreme Court justices that addressed the case came forth with the absurd and contradictory decision to accept the will’s technical validity but to allocate the proceeds of the estate to Piza rather than to Lucom’s foundation.[8] Commentators on Panamanian law have stated that this decision was born out of the country’s endemic corruption rather than sound legal practice.

Hilda Piza was not necessarily the main driver behind this campaign to illegally expropriate the assets, but rather was swept along in the wave of collusion and fraud that has plagued Panamanian institutions in one authoritarian regime after another in recent years. At that point Piza, at 85, may not have been an effective decision-maker regarding her estate; according to a lawsuit filed with the Panamanian Public Prosecutor, several signatures purported to be hers on documents involved in the case were of questionable validity. A case file submitted to the FBI indicates that “Hilda was used as the vehicle to steal the Estate.”[9] It appears that Hilda’s legal team and others may have manipulated Piza as well as her case in order to appropriate access to the funds.

This approach readily awakened a new round of corruption among some of Panama’s Supreme Court justices, leading several of them to comply with Piza’s lawyers’ questionable efforts. The manner in which the 2010 decision was made is a key example of the irrational and duplicitous process with which Panama’s Supreme Court has operated in recent years. Three justices, Oyden Ortega, Alberto Cigarruista, and Harley Mitchell, issued the decision. Panama’s Supreme Court was allowed to accept the decision of a three-member panel that unanimously agreed.[10] Though the decision later required approval by all nine Supreme Court justices, this needed validation never occurred. As COHA mentioned in 2010, Justice Harley Mitchell met with Hilda’s lawyer in at least one private lunch in a connection that many have stated contributed to a case of bribery.[11] A lawyer officially advising Panama’s Congress at the time filed an affidavit in a criminal complaint to the Public Prosecutor regarding the controversial nature of the decision. The affidavit stated that the attorney saw a report written by the Panamanian Financial Police, the Financial Analysis Unit (UAF), stating that at there were “banking movements in [the three justices’] personal bank accounts at the time the succession of Wilson Charles Lucom (R.I.P.) was decided.” The decision to transfer control of the assets to Piza involved a process that bypassed the clear stipulation of the will, which was supposed to be a legally binding document. This was an unfortunate continuation of Panama’s ubiquitous pattern of malfeasance.[12]

Appropriation Followed by Tax Evasion

Soon after the tainted Supreme Court opinion was issued, Lucom’s inheritance was transferred to Hilda, who died soon thereafter, leaving an executor to manage her estate and the assets she had acquired by challenging the will. Piza had held U.S. citizenship, so U.S. taxes were owed on her already sizeable estate as well as on the inheritance from Lucom. A Whistleblower action was filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) advising the U.S. tax-collecting agency of the size of Hilda’s estate as well as the belief that much of the inheritance was never reported to the U.S. tax authorities and that the U.S. federal estate tax had been avoided. Hilda’s estate was instead transferred to an anonymous Panamanian foundation shortly after her death. The IRS is now investigating the possible failure to pay U.S. estate taxes.[13]

The U.S. federal government should take note of this aspect in the narrative surrounding Lucom’s estate. According to the Whistleblower action, the estate tax due from Hilda’s estate is approximately $50 million USD.[14] This is hardly a small sum, and given the current pattern of corruption of the legal system in Panama, it is in the interest of U.S. authorities to be diligent in continuing to remain alert to the IRS investigation and in taking whatever actions are necessary to obtain the millions owed. The question is whether the investigation will find a conspiracy to injure the United States, potentially giving the IRS a basis to collect a sizable amount of funds owed. In this manner, the United States may rightfully solicit significant revenue and at least achieve justice at some level.

Grabbing for Hacienda Santa Monica Property

In 2005, a year before his death, Wilson Lucom signed a purchase agreement with a company owned by U.S. citizens called Grand Panama International, Ltd. (GPI), in which both parties agreed that GPI would purchase all shares of Hacienda Santa Monica.[15] This agreement has not been honored due to the continued contention over who owns the estate and who possesses the authority to complete the sale. This legal knot ultimately prevents a sale to provide funds required for Lucom’s charitable foundation. If GPI’s deal were to be completed, Panama would be one significant step closer to alleviating the charitable needs of impoverished Panamanian children.

The deal with the GPI development company was halted in part because of yet another fraudulent incident. According to the principals in GPI, after Lucom’s death, his property valued at $145,000,000 USD was purchased in 2012. However, the property was reappraised for this purchase at only $14 million USD rather than the $145 million USD at which it was previously valued.[16] The property, however, has remained undeveloped under this ownership because of continued legal sparring. Although the estate, since the fraudulent purchase, has delivered some sports equipment and school supplies to local schoolchildren, these donations confer only a small fraction of the impact that would be made by consistent meals that Lucom planned to provide via the foundation.

Corrupt Politics Prevent Economic Development

According to GPI’s principals, in 2012 Panama’s then-president, Ricardo Martinelli, acquired a portion of the Hacienda Santa Monica property through dubious dealings. (He departed office in 2014 amid continued corruption allegations.) This maneuvering typifies the chicanery that took place during Martinelli’s five-year tenure as president. In 2012, he appointed Alejandro Moncada Luna, whose corruption and sentencing COHA recently discussed, to Panama’s Supreme Court.[17] Moncada Luna’s first action in the Supreme Court was to ignore a Panamanian law that required Lucom’s case to be reviewed by all of the court’s sitting justices. By removing Lucom’s will from the Supreme Court docket and transferring the case back to the lower level Probate Court, Moncada Luna made the property accessible for purchase at as little as ten cents on the dollar. As GPI claims, Martinelli then received ownership of part of the property from the buyer, with whom he had a political arrangement.

Not only would the agreed-upon sale to GPI have had the potential to allow funds to filter into the Lucom Foundation for use by impoverished children, but GPI’s plans to develop the property into a waterfront resort community would have allowed some economic and recreational development to take place in the area. The plans include golf courses, yachting marinas and boating facilities, retail space, casinos, spas, and other vacation-oriented destinations, as well as areas for both luxury housing and residences accessible for working-class families in the area. [18] If the company had been allowed to complete the purchase and initiate construction as originally planned, by now the property might have been fully developed, bringing significant cash flow to the region. However, existing residents of the area do not necessarily need the development. Eric Jackson, a highly regarded independent journalist, is among skeptics of such development projects as they often generate money laundering rather than true economic benefits to locals.

Ultimately, corruption has cheated the company out of an agreed-upon deal. On July 20, GPI filed a formal complaint in Panama regarding the losses the development company has accrued because its ill-timed purchase agreement has not been honored. GPI has claimed damages in the amount of $600 million USD ($600,000,000) in lost profits. This complaint is important in the mission of keeping Panamanian courts’ attention on the issue of Hacienda Santa Monica shareholders’ illicit dealings.

The FBI Gets Involved

Several months ago, a private investigator turned in a case file to the FBI with information on the individuals’ fraudulent activities relating to Lucom’s will and estate. COHA has been told by the private investigator that the FBI has opened an investigation that may look into fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering; with this case’s standing relationship to the matter of fraud and attendant U.S. taxes, it could fit well with the FBI’s current interest in multi-jurisdictional cases. Investigators will likely approach the case by first looking at public corruption in Panama, and then investigating individuals thought to be involved.

Among the aspects of the case demonstrating the illicit and disingenuous nature of Hacienda Santa Monica shareholders and others, is a bundle of human rights abuses being leveled against Richard Lehman—the original executor of Lucom’s will and the lawyer attempting to return the estate to its rightful beneficiaries, the country’s poor children. Initially, the Probate Court suspended Lehman’s ability to use the funds in Lucom’s accounts to defend the will in court; this represented an illegal suspension of an executor’s rights, forcing Lehman to use more of his own funds to defend the integrity of the will. After he refused a bribe to abandon the chase for justice for the inheritance funds, Hilda Piza’s attorneys absurdly accused Lehman of murdering Lucom, and portrayed him as intending to steal proceeds from the liquidation of the estate for his own personal use. All of these far-fetched charges were dismissed by Panamanian courts, but motivated officials to falsely arrest Lehman and, on two occasions, remove him from an airplane to place him in an airport cell. The abuse of Lehman did not stop in Panama. According to an affidavit filed by a principal of GPI in the Florida courts, one of Piza’s lawyers confirmed that fraudulent Panamanian orders were filed in the Florida Court system to discredit Lehman and stop him from continuing to defend Lucom’s will. Beyond making Lehman fearful of crossing Panama’s borders, these types of persecution indicate both the extent of the shareholders’ willingness to defend their stake in the estate radically and the need for in-depth investigation into the role of the individuals involved.

If the FBI has begun an investigation and it advances in a timely manner and finds information that the bureau deems useful, many who have been involved in appropriating property and funds from Lucom’s estate may be prosecuted and have their assets frozen. This FBI involvement would be similar to the IRS investigation into tax fraud, in that it may be important in bringing justice against the powerful individuals in Panama complicit in (1) appropriating assets from Lucom’s foundation, (2) preventing Grand Panama International, Ltd. from building its planned city, and (3) harassing Lehman with maltreatment and false accusations. Given that the FBI investigation may have only recently begun, those looking to the FBI for rescue from the sharks pursuing the Lucom fortune may overestimate the agency’s ability to quickly come to the rescue. The investigation could be an encouraging addition to the mounting explorations into Panamanian corruption.

Implications for Justice and Panama

Hilda’s son, Gilberto, has argued that “fifty million dollars isn’t going to solve poverty in Panama.”[19] Such an argument is irrelevant to the question of legal accountability. Whether the Wilson C. Lucom Foundation would improve Panama’s poverty in the way that Lucom envisioned (and non-profit leaders argue that it would significantly help the situation) does not alter the fact that Wilson assigned these assets to the fund in a fully legal document. It is absurd to assume that this legal document should not be followed simply because some affected parties, including Gilberto as represented by his self-interested statement, do not agree that the funds will be effective in achieving Lucom’s intentions.

The injustices and discrepancies that have riddled Lucom’s estate and its intended beneficiaries, including impoverished children in Panama, may be righted. In order for some of the perpetrators to be condemned, for the planned city to be built or its company to be repaid for losses, and in order for these Panamanian children to receive basic food allotments to alleviate their persistent desperation, the individuals and agencies that seek justice must be supported. These include Panama’s federal prosecutors’ office (the Public Ministry) and the courts honoring Mario Chizmar’s complaint by seizing Hacienda Santa Monica’s shares and questioning the shareholders, honoring GPI’s complaint against perpetrators of the appropriation of the property, as well as the IRS and FBI investigators acting to determine the possible involvement of all relevant individuals.

Each possible just solution in some way requires a shift in Panamanian legal accountability. Many hope that the country’s new president, Juan Varela, will demand such accountability from legal institutions and live up to his anti-corruption campaign theme. Steps have been taken to begin an advance against corrupt figures, such as the recent sentencing of former Supreme Court Justice Moncada Luna and the flight from the country of former President Martinelli. It is possible, however, that more radical actions must be taken, such as constitutional changes to shift the structures that have allowed former President Martinelli, a number of senior juridical officials, and other elite individuals to hoard control over wealth, including the Lucom fortune. Such actions cannot be tolerated in any society that claims to be constitutionally based. Further prosecutions and continued pressure on Panama’s current legal system will be important in resolving the Lucom case and in determining whether the country’s institutions will welcome a new wave of testing its legality and honesty.

By: Wren Greaney, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: Beach in Kuna Yala, Panama (Wikimedia Commons)

[1] http://laestrella.com.pa/panama/nacional/piden-citar-accionistas-santa-monica/23876113

[2] Probate Court Appraisal

[3] https://coha.org/hungry-for-justice-corrupt-courts-in-panama-deny-starving-children-50-million-in-inheritance/ ; http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/EXTPA/0,,contentMDK:20207841~menuPK:443285~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:430367,00.html

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/trialandheirs/2011/10/03/150-million-trust-fund-stolen-from-poor-children-in-panama-lawsuit-claims/ ; https://coha.org/hungry-for-justice-corrupt-courts-in-panama-deny-starving-children-50-million-in-inheritance/

[5] https://coha.org/a-legacy-of-corruption-marches-on-new-insight-into-panamas-infamous-lucom-case/

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/trialandheirs/2011/10/03/150-million-trust-fund-stolen-from-poor-children-in-panama-lawsuit-claims/

[7] http://www.forbes.com/sites/trialandheirs/2011/10/03/150-million-trust-fund-stolen-from-poor-children-in-panama-lawsuit-claims/2/ ; https://coha.org/a-legacy-of-corruption-marches-on-new-insight-into-panamas-infamous-lucom-case/

[8] http://trialandheirs.com/blog/probate-court/panama-court-throws-out-will-that-left-millions-to-poor-children

[9] Case File submitted to the FBI

[10] http://www.panama-guide.com/article.php/20101018095140546

[11] https://coha.org/hungry-for-justice-corrupt-courts-in-panama-deny-starving-children-50-million-in-inheritance/

[12] https://coha.org/humiliating-corruption-charges-against-the-martinelli-administration-in-panama-coha-calls-for-international-condemnation/

[13] Communication from IRS Whistleblower Office

[14] “Fact Sheet – The Estate of Hilda Lucom”

[15] http://mypanamalawyer.blogspot.com/2013/09/juan-hombron-and-lucom-estate-dispute.html ; “First ‘Branded City’ Planned for Panama Gold Coast”

[16] Probate Court Appraisal

[17] https://coha.org/humiliating-corruption-charges-against-the-martinelli-administration-in-panama-coha-calls-for-international-condemnation/

[18] “First ‘Branded City’ Planned for Panama Gold Coast” ; Grand Panama map plan

[19] http://www.newsroompanama.com/news/panama/panama%E2%80%99s-poor-kids-cut-out-of-millionaire%E2%80%99s-will