Law firm in 'Panama Papers' leak is secretive, with big clients

2016-04-04 16:56
A sign outside the building where Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm offices are based in Panama City. (Eduardo Grimaldo, AFP)

A sign outside the building where Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm offices are based in Panama City. (Eduardo Grimaldo, AFP)

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Panama City - Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm at the heart of the "Panama Papers" scandal, is a discreet outfit with a roster of big-name clients and a quiet reputation for hiding money from the tax man.

That cloak of secrecy it wrapped around itself was ripped apart on Sunday when media organisations around the world publishing information from a massive leak from the firm's supposedly secure data centre.

Politicians, sports stars, celebrities - many were named in the 11 million pages of documents, according to information starting to be released by the International Consortium of Investigating Journalists (ICIJ), which is parsing the data.

So too were the techniques allegedly used by Mossack Fonseca to make money trails murky, including slavish use of off-shore havens such as the British Virgin Islands and some Pacific Ocean nations.

The revelation detailing the off-shore structures of many wealthy clients is a "crime" and an "attack" on Panama, the law firm maintains.

"This is a crime, a felony," Ramon Fonseca, one of the founders of Mossack Fonseca, told AFP.

"This is an attack on Panama because certain countries don't like it that we are so competitive in attracting companies," he said.

Nazi father 

So who runs Mossack Fonseca, whose headquarters are housed in a fairly non-descript mirrored building in Panama's business district?

Juergen Mossack, one of the two lawyers who founded the firm more than three decades ago, was born in Germany in 1948 and moved to Panama with his family, where he obtained his law degree.

Mossack's father was a Nazi in World War II, serving in Hitler's Waffen-SS, according to the ICIJ, citing US Army records. It said "old intelligence files" showed the father had offered to spy for the CIA.

The other founder is Fonseca, born in 1952. He, too, got his law degree in Panama, but also studied at the prestigious London School of Economics, and once said in an interview he had mulled becoming a priest.

Fonseca had a small business until he merged with Mossack and the two went after off-shore business by opening offices in the British Virgin Islands.

The ICIJ said the leak shows that half of the companies the law firm incorporated - more than 113 000 - were done so in that fiscal paradise.

But Mossack Fonseca also branched out to the Pacific, to a tiny island nation called Niue.

According to the ICIJ, by 2001 the firm was earning so much from its off-shore registrations on the island it was contributing 80 percent to Niue's annual budget.

When the British Virgin Islands was forced to clamp down on some methods that had previously permitted anonymous ownership of companies, Mossack Fonseca moved business to Panama and to the Caribbean island of Anguilla.

Online scrubbing 

The law firm spent money to try to remove online references linking it to money laundering and tax evasion.

But other countries took an increased interest in what it was doing. In Brazil, it was named as being one of the parties within a huge bribery scandal unfolding involving the state oil company Petrobras.

It also came under scrutiny in the US state of Nevada, where a judge determined that it had wilfully tried to cover up its management role over its local branch there.

Last month, Fonseca - who had also been an advisor to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela since 2014 - declared he was taking a leave of absence.

The step was to "defend my honour" he said, as the Brazilian allegations piled up.

Read more on:    panama  |  panama papers

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