Panama today is best known for its economic boom, and rightly so. But unfortunately, poverty and piracy remain as much a part of the country's image as the Panama Canal.
According to the World Bank, half of Panama’s children are poor. A fifth of them are malnourished. Those underfed kids cram Panama charity centers like Nutre Hogar. On a recent visit there I saw the devastating effects of child malnutrition, including brain damage.
“We don’t only feed them,” one Nutre Hogar staff member told me. “We spend a lot of time repairing their motor skills.”
As for the piracy, Panama was once a favorite target of Captain Morgan and other seafaring brigands. Today they’ve been replaced by Panama’s legal system. The World Economic Forum ranks Panama 133rd out of 142 countries when it comes to the integrity of its courts.
Which is why South Florida millionaire Wilson Lucom probably never should have trusted them with his fortune. Even when – or especially when – he left the bulk of it to Panama’s poor children.
What has happened to Lucom’s will since he died in 2006 is a bewildering if not byzantine tale of legal intrigue that stretches from Panama City to Palm Beach County. Critics at home and abroad call it a stark illustration of Panama’s, and to a large degree Latin America’s, indifference to gaping wealth inequality and brazen judicial corruption – two factors that weigh down the region’s development like millstones.
Boca Raton tax attorney Richard Lehman was an executor of Lucom's will, and he's a central character in this Grisham-esque drama. “No one who has grown up in the American system, who believes in the law, can possibly be prepared for the lawlessness of Panama,” he says.
But the case may now be taking another important turn. “It’s not dead,” Lehman argues, “by any stretch of the imagination.”
Lucom was a tall, gruff American who grew up poor and married a Palm Beach heiress. He made millions in real estate and other investments, and after his wife died he moved to Panama. There he married another high society lady, Hilda Piza. She was linked by a previous marriage to one of the country’s most powerful rabiblanco (white elite) families, the Arias clan, which has produced two Panamanian presidents.
Lucom died in Panama. His will gave instructions to sell his 7,000-acre ranch, Hacienda Santa Mónica, on Panama’s Pacific coast. The proceeds would go to a trust for impoverished kids. According to a recent government appraisal, that property is worth as much as $150 million today.
But Panamanian charities like Nutre Hogar have yet to see a dime of it.
Why? Lucom’s will provided handsomely for Hilda. But she and her relatives – who had actually sold Santa Mónica to Lucom years earlier because they needed cash – insisted that Hilda should get the ranch as well. Hilda and her attorney, Hector Infante Bonilla, set out to convince the Panamanian courts that Lucom’s will was a fake. Their first move: discredit Lucom’s lawyer.
“First I was accused of murdering Mr. Lucom,” says Lehman. “I then was accused of trying to steal the Lucom estate. When that didn’t work my [Panamanian] attorney and I were named as criminals with the Panama branch of Interpol.”
Lehman admits he gave Hilda and Infante openings by not handling some of Lucom’s assets as transparently as he should have. And the fact that Lucom hadn’t been much of a philanthropist while he was alive didn’t help, either.
“[Lucom] never seemed to be a guy concerned over the poor,” says Panamanian political analyst Mario Rognoni. “That’s why everybody was sort of dubious of the [will] that came out once he died.”
But Lehman fought to preserve the will – and two lower-court judges ruled it valid and properly prepared. That made it all the more stunning when, in 2010, Panama’s Supreme Court sided with Hilda.
Were the justices bribed? They denied it. But because of the high court’s reputation for venal verdicts – the United States had recently denied one of its graft-prone judges a visa – suspicions loomed larger than freighters on the canal.
“Here in Panama,” says Rognoni, “most people don’t believe the interpretation that the Supreme Court did.”
But the case only gets stranger. Hilda died in 2011. The ranch was then quietly acquired by a group that included her lawyer, Infante, and Panama’s then Finance Minister, Alberto Vallarino, who owns a large property adjacent to Santa Mónica.
For those who thought the transaction seemed less than kosher, it’s less than surprising that a private investigator in Panama, representing a number of alleged victims, recently filed a criminal complaint against Infante, Vallarino and their partners. It charges they used fraud to gain control of Santa Mónica at a fraction of its actual value.
A Panama prosecutor has recommended dismissing the complaint. But a court is still reviewing it. Panama watchers say now, since a new government just replaced former President Ricardo Martinelli's corruption-plagued administration, there’s a better chance a judge may order a formal investigation.
The complaint, in fact, is politically juicy. One alleged victim named in it is Trapp Real Estate Corp., which belongs to the family of former Martinelli chief of staff Jimmy Papadimitriu. He resigned in 2012 over a scandal that involved his rivalry with Vallarino over Santa Mónica-related property.
Infante and Vallarino declined WLRN’s requests for comment. But Lehman thinks they could also face scrutiny from the United States.
That’s because Hilda was a U.S. citizen. Lehman says she died owing tens of millions in U.S. estate taxes on Santa Mónica – and he’s urging the Internal Revenue Service to go after it. The I.R.S. has yet to respond, but Lehman believes it could pressure Infante, Vallarino and company to return the property to Lucom’s original intent: feeding poor kids.
Whatever the outcome, the case spotlights Panama’s reputation for disregarding poverty.
“I think it’s unfortunate but true that that is what most people in the world would take away from what they’ve been able to see [in this case],” says Bill Tolbert, president of Meneren Corp., a Denver project development firm. Meneren was part of a team that claims it had an agreement with Lucom to buy Santa Mónica and develop it before the probate brawl began. Tolbert is set to file his own victim’s complaint in Panama this month.
In 2007 – when Lucom’s ranch was worth a third of its value today – I spent an afternoon with Infante, Hilda and her children from her previous marriage to hear their side of the story. At one point, Hilda’s son Gilberto insisted: “Fifty million dollars isn’t going to solve poverty in Panama.”
He’s right; it won’t. But to a lot of people, it’s a good start in a place like Panama. Which is why the Lucom case still appears to be alive.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.