Ramón Fonseca, Cofounder of Law Firm at Center of Panama Papers, Dies - The World News

Ramón Fonseca, Cofounder of Law Firm at Center of Panama Papers, Dies

Ramón Fonseca, who co-founded the law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers leak, died Wednesday night, his lawyer confirmed, while awaiting the verdict in his money-laundering trial in Panama.

Mr. Fonseca, 71, died after complications from pneumonia, his daughter, Raquel Fonseca, told the Spanish news agency EFE.

Both Mr. Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack, who together founded the Mossack Fonseca firm, stood trial in Panama last month in relation to an explosive investigation published in 2016 by a coalition of news outlets that looked at 11.5 million confidential documents from the firm. The files, leaked by an anonymous source, identified international politicians, business leaders, criminals and celebrities involved in webs of suspicious financial transactions that concealed their wealth and avoided taxes.

During the trial, which began April 8 and lasted 10 days, prosecutors alleged that the firm had created shell companies with the purpose of hiding money that came from illicit activities. A total of 29 people — former employees of the now-shuttered firm and alleged conspirators — were accused of money laundering.

Since the beginning of the scandal, Mr. Fonseca and Mr. Mossack maintained their innocence. In an interview shortly after the Panama Papers exposé broke, Mr. Fonseca said that the firm had carefully vetted its clients but that it was similar to a car factory that “is not responsible for what is done with the car” after it is sold.

Mr. Fonseca studied at the London School of Economics and later worked for several years at the United Nations in Geneva. He told The New York Times that he had been “trying to save the world.”

In 1986, he and Mr. Mossack merged their small law firms into one that would be focused on secretive offshore banking. He also became a famous novelist, twice winning a prestigious Panamanian literary prize, and served as an adviser to President Juan Carlos Varela.

The Panama Papers investigation began with a message from an anonymous whistle-blower to Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, asking if it was interested in data. The outlet decided to share the massive leak with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, D.C., which put together a team of hundreds of reporters from more than 100 news organizations around the world.

The leaked files covered nearly 215,000 offshore entities and more than 14,000 banks, law firms and middlemen that worked with Mossack Fonseca. The stories by the journalism partnership began rolling out in April 2016, leading the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan to step down.

But in Panama, some saw the firm’s owners as victims. The country’s bar association at the time came to its defense, saying that the leak was an attempt to attack the country’s reputation.

In 2017, Mossack and Fonseca were arrested in Panama on money-laundering charges relating to a scandal in Brazil known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, a bribery scheme involving the state-controlled oil company Petrobras. They were released on bail from prison after several months. Their firm, which at one point had more than 600 employees, closed in 2018, insisting that it hadn’t broken the law.

In the Panama Papers trial, prosecutors alleged that the firm managed shell companies with the aim of moving off-the-books money from the German electronics company Siemens that was tied to illegal payments. They also accused the firm of being involved in illicit activity connected to Argentina.

It is unclear when the judge will hand down verdicts. She is also expected to issue a decision on a trial that took place last summer in the Lava Jato case that also implicated the firm.

Mr. Fonseca had been hospitalized throughout the Panama Papers trial. His daughter told EFE that the scandal had caused his health to deteriorate.

“All of this political persecution, all of the injustices greatly affected his physical health,” she said.

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