Fla. lawyer claims Panama court stealing millions from orphans
By Kluger Kaplan September 28, 2011
A half-decade ago, Richard Lehman was just a tax lawyer in South Florida who happened to have a very wealthy friend and client. Lehman’s fishing buddy, Wilson Lucom, was a curmudgeonly millionaire, a onetime member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration who went on to found the conservative group Accuracy in Media. In his old age, Lucom relocated to Panama and began buying up prime oceanfront land-more than 7,000 acres by the time he died in 2006.
Lehman spent a lot of time in Panama with Lucom in his friend’s waning months. He signed the will in which Lucom left his entire estate, then valued at more than $50 million, to a foundation dedicated to feeding Panama’s impoverished children. In 2006, Panama’s version of probate court named Lehman the sole executor of Lucom’s estate, which included property in Florida and Texas as well as the land in Panama, on which Lucom had envisioned a shining model city.
That didn’t sit well with Lucom’s widow, a Panamanian aristocrat named Hilda Arias Lucom, nor with Hilda’s children by her marriage to onetime Panama finance minister Gilberto Arias. Lucom’s will specified a yearly allowance for Hilda, but cut out the Arias children.
Thus began a fantastical probate battle that has led the tax lawyer down paths he never imagined. According to an 84-page civil racketeering complaint he filed Friday in Miami federal district court, Lehman has witnessed rampant corruption at the highest levels of the Panamanian judiciary, has been accused of murdering Lucom and attempting to extort his onetime family, has been falsely arrested in Panama and placed on an Interpol alert list, and has been on the wrong end of a $2 million Florida state court judgment for misusing Lucom estate assets. The Arias family has argued that Lucom never spoke of wanting to help children. He never even liked children, according to Hilda’s 2008 interview with The New York Times. The foundation, according to the Ariases, was Lehman’s concoction.
But in Lehman’s racketeering suit, he and his lawyer, Juan Rodriguez of Carey Rodriguez Greenberg O’Keefe, contended that Lucom specifically wanted to leave nothing to his stepchildren, who, according to Lehman’s complaint, sided against Lucom in his dispute with a Panamanian real estate developer. Lehman’s complaint alleged that the Arias family has exercised its considerable political muscle to obtain a fraudulent Panamanian Supreme Court ruling that he is not the Lucom estate executor and Hilda Lucom is. (Lehman has posted translations of most of the documents from the Panama branch of the case here.) “Every word in that complaint is true,” Lehman told me Monday. “I’m letting the whole world know what’s going on.”
Lehman said the Panamanian Supreme Court ruling was the result of Arias family corruption and has been stayed pending an investigation of a criminal complaint against the Justices who ruled against him. He asserted that the Florida court would not have found against him if the Ariases hadn’t fraudulently obtained that Panamanian high court ruling. (Lehman said in his racketeering complaint that he not only hasn’t misappropriated Lucom estate funds, but has spent more than a million dollars of his own money trying to uphold his old friend’s will.)
“The U.S. has to know what they do to Americans down there. I’m not the only one with a story like this,” said Lehman, who is seeking more than $700 million in damages. “What they have done, in their greed-they have ruined a new public city. They have poisoned their Supreme Court. They have ruined the testamentary laws. They have now proved what their country is like. There were all these rumors about corruption in Panama-now it’s spelled out in black and white.”
Hilda Arias died in August but is named as a defendant in Lehman’s suit, along with her children, their lawyers, and various Panamanian officials. The Ariases’ Florida lawyer, Charles Weiss, told me Lehman is desperate. “This is getting tiresome,” he said. “He brings these frivolous lawsuits, and then he loses at every turn.” Weiss said the Florida judgment against Lehman, entered after the state court judge heard full arguments from both sides, remains in place.
Lucom’s land in Panama, meanwhile, continues to appreciate. According to Lehman, it’s now worth more than $150 million-which, in his estimation, will eventually mean more money for the children of Panama. “When you’re the Supreme Court of Panama,” he said, “how do you steal from poor children?”
(Reporting by Alison Frankel)
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