When the Panama Papers were first leaked in early April, two widely held assumptions arose that have already become apocryphal in just two months: 1) that the Papers, while juicy, did not inherently suggest wrongdoing, and; 2) That Americans were reassuringly underrepresented in the Papers.
As the Panamanian-based law firm at the center of all this – Mossack Fonseca – protested on its site: "These reports rely on supposition and stereotypes, and play on the public’s lack of familiarity with the work of firms like ours."
Greater familiarity hasn't made the situation smell any better. Increasingly, the media has alleged actual malfeasance. What's more, actual Americans connected with said malfeasance have surfaced. On the other hand, the facts and allegations remain very much within the ginormous legal and moral gray area that characterizes the entire 2.6 Terabyte data drop.
Case in point: A recent New York Times article alleged that Mossack Fonseca offered at least one of its American clients "a special service for a premium price" – $17,500, to be exact. According to the Times piece, financial expert Marianna Olszewski, author of "Live It, Love It, Earn It: A Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom," "wanted to shift $1 million held by HSBC in Guernsey to a new overseas account." She did not, however, want her name attached to the transaction. The Times alleges that in email communications going back to 2009, a Mossack Fonseca partner named Ramsés Owens offered to find a front man for Olszewski, a legal entity known as a "natural person." He emailed her: "We would appoint a UK citizen residing in Panama since 50 years ago, engineer, entrepreneur."
That might have been $17,500 well spent...if only it had worked. The firm reportedly slipped up, revealing Olszewski's name and the banks involved, prompting the author to write a frantic email to Owens:
Ramses, Please call me ASAP!! This is important!!!!... HSBC said someone said marianna olszewski [SIC] is the principal / beneficary! [SIC] Who has done this!! I need you to call me immediately and tell them hsbc [SIC] that was a mistake!!!!!!!!!! This is not good and I asked you NOT to do this! this is why we have this structure.” [SIC] (Source: The New York Times)
Is any of this blatantly illegal? It is at this point unclear. Mossack Fonseca appears to have exercised 11th-hour caution with Olszewski; the Times reported that the firm advised Olszewski in 2013 to retain independent counsel and come clean with the IRS.
The Times piece also alleged that Sanford "Sandy" Weill, ex Citigroup chief and major New York philanthropist, "set up an offshore account called April Fool for his yacht" in 2001. A representative for Weill told the Times “appropriate disclosures were filed.”
The article names other American Mossack Fonseca clients who received particular attention from Owens, such as the Fla.-based multimillionaire William Ponsoldt, and an unnamed "businessman from Washington State," whom, the Times alleges, Owens propositioned with morally ambiguous language:
“Any decision you make, please be aware that you will have to sign a ‘disclaimer’ to us. We can only ‘suggest,’ but the final decision to take the money out of the country is fully yours, and under the professional opinion of someone in USA.”