Panama lawyers in offshore scandal make an odd couple

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By Juan Zamorano and Joshua Goodman, AP

PANAMA CITY–The lawyers at the center of an uproar over the hidden financial dealings of the world’s wealthy are an odd pairing of a German-born immigrant and a prize-winning Panamanian novelist whose books sometimes mirror the seedy world of politics he’s come across in his work. In a nation that for decades has been tainted by allegations of money laundering on behalf of drug traffickers and corrupt oligarchs, the polyglot lawyers who founded the Mossack-Fonseca law firm established themselves as the leaders among a plethora of firms in Panama dedicated to creating shell companies to stash wealth overseas.

Created from the merger in the 1980s of practices belonging to Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, the firm’s staff of 500 employees and affiliates stretching around the world has set up shell companies for everyone from the prime minister of Iceland to Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi.

Much of that work is now under scrutiny as a result of the leak of 11.5 million records being pored over by an international coalition of more than 100 media outlets. The Associated Press has been unable to see the documents, but Fonseca said in an interview Monday that they are genuine and were obtained through an illegal hack.

Fonseca, on Twitter, describes himself to his more than 19,000 followers as a “lawyer, writer and dreamer.” But the modest self-image contrasts with the influential role he has played in Panamanian politics and business.

Until recently, he was president of the governing Panamenista party and served in the Cabinet of President Juan Carlos Varela as a special adviser. He was forced to resign in February after the offices of the Mossack-Fonseca affiliate in Brazil were raided and several managers arrested as part of the investigation into bribes paid to politicians by companies doing business with the state-run oil giant Petrobras.

“In Panama they’re seen as too big to fail,” said Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor at the University of Panama.

His brother heads Panama’s civil aviation society and his son is consul general in Dubai.

Fonseca’s fiction, for which he’s won Panama’s top literary prize, comes straight from the shady, smoke-filled rooms of political bosses. In 2012, he published “Mister Politicus,” a novel which he says is partly based on his life experience and which he describes on his website as “detailing the convoluted scheming of unscrupulous officials to gain power, and from there, satisfy their detestable ambitions.”

Fonseca has some strong pro-democracy credentials in a country whose 1968-1989 military dictatorship spurred the growth of Panama’s offshore banking industry. He played a critical role denouncing the 1993 slaying of a Roman Catholic priest, a move that led to the creation of a truth commission to investigate the dictatorship’s crimes.

Far less is known about Jurgen Mossack, his partner, who has so far not spoken up.