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  • Writer's picturePanama Human Rights

This blog seems to be a repeat of Mr Tuffney’s case, his attorney advised him not to...

Updated: Nov 3, 2019

have his hearing under the present government, to wait until after the election because his case was too high profile and big political figures were tampering in his case, one of them being the vice president’s wife including the chief of police as well as Mr Tuffney’s Ex Panamanian family members.

Florida tax attorney Richard Lehman, an executor in the Wilson Lucom estate, filed a human rights complaint against the country of Panama with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Organization of American States). In the two and a half years Lehman has defended Lucom's $50 million donations to poor kids in Panama, he has been falsely charged with murder, extortion and a dozen other crimes all in an effort to remove him from the case so that a powerful Panamanian family can keep the money for itself.

$150 Million Trust Fund Stolen From Poor Children In Panama, Lawsuit Claims

Family fights over wills, trusts and estates are far too common, not only in our country but elsewhere.  Sometimes, those fights reach a whole new level.  This has certainly been the case with a tragic story from Panama which harmed those most in need ... millions of impoverished and starving children.

A Florida attorney, Richard Lehman, takes centre stage in the dispute.   He recently sued political officials throughout Panama -- including three Supreme Court judges -- charging corruption, bribery, theft, and much more.  The fight involves the estate of Lehman's former friend and client, Wilson Lucom.

When he died in June of 2006 at the age of 88, Lucom was an expatriate American living in Panama.  One year before he died, Lucom signed a will generously leaving the majority of his $50 million fortune to a trust fund to benefit the poor and needy children of Panama.  That fortune includes ocean-front real estate which has appreciated in value so that Lucom's estate is now valued at more than $150 million.

Lucom's widow, Hilda Piza Lucom, was well-connected in Panamanian political circles.  In fact, she used to be married to the son of a President of Panama.  Lucom's will left her a monthly allowance of $20,000 and the right to live in and use the marital home throughout her life.  Her children also received specific bequests (Lucom had no children of his own).  But Hilda wanted more ... much more.

Hilda sued to challenge the will and claimed that Lucom's attorney, Richard Lehman, had coerced Lucom into creating it so he could manage the charitable trust, which the will named as the primary beneficiary to Lucom's vast estate.  Through the lawsuit, a court in Panama removed Lehman as the estate's executor but ultimately found the will valid.  Hilda then appealed to another court, which again found the will valid.

Finally, she appealed again to the Supreme Court of Panama.  That Court, acting through three judges, issued a strange decision which upheld the will but at the same time ruled that Lucom really wanted to benefit his "beloved wife."   The judges overturned the distribution of the bulk of Lucom's fortune to his charitable trust fund and instead named Hilda as the "universal heir."

Several different people, including the notary who signed the will and even a prosecutor, filed challenges to the Supreme Court's decision.  In the face of those legal challenges, the entire Supreme Court of Panama decided to review the case a second time.  For the last year, the case has been in a holding pattern, until the Supreme Court issues another ruling.

In the meantime, the Florida attorney, Lehman, is tired of waiting for the money to be released to help the poverty-stricken children in Panama.  It is estimated that 20% of Panamanian children suffer from malnutrition and more than one-half of children under the age of five live in poverty.  Lehman says he wants the children to finally benefit from Lucom's wishes.

So Lehman recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida, accusing Hilda, some of her adult children from her first marriage, and various Panamanian judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and others, of being part of a massive, criminal RICO conspiracy.  RICO is a set of United States federal laws used to combat organized crime and corruption.

In his lawsuit under the RICO laws, Lehman accuses the three Supreme Court judges of accepting bribes in the amount of $1.5 million, each.  He says Hilda and others acting on her behalf caused numerous false criminal charges to be asserted against him -- including one for murder -- in an effort to prevent him from acting as an estate executor and to inhibit him from fighting against them in court.  He even suggests that the conspiracy led to a murder attempt on the life of one of Lehman's allies.

The RICO lawsuit seeks $732 million in damages on behalf of Lehman and the charitable trust that Lucom created to implement his directive to benefit poor children in Panama.  You can read the complaint that recently started this lawsuit here. Google+

Lehman said, in an interview with Thompson Reuters, that "every word" in his RICO complaint is true and he wants the whole world to know about the corruption in Panama and the effect it's had on the starving children there.

A Florida attorney representing some of those accused of the criminal conspiracy says that this is merely the last in a line of "frivolous lawsuits" and notes that a court in Florida already ruled that Lehman misused estate assets to the tune of $2 million.  But, Lehman includes a claim in his new lawsuit that the recent Florida ruling was procured through false evidence as part of the conspiracy.

His opponents think that this is nonsense.  One of the attorneys fighting against Lehman, Matias Dorta, emailed us a copy of Florida's judge's ruling, which referred to Lehman as, "a covetous opportunist using the ancillary estate assets ... seeking personal advantage and control of assets in the $25-50 million domiciliary estate."  Dorta says that Lehman's new claims were already raised and dismissed in a previous lawsuit.

Clearly, there are two sides to the story, and both sides accuse the other of foul play.  You can read the Florida Judge's decision against Lehman here.

Regardless of whether Lehman's more-shocking allegations are true, the fact remains that Lucom signed a will wanting to benefit those in Panama who most needed help.  While some question whether Lucom really had these charitable intentions, the case does present a lesson.  This lengthy and expensive probate court fight could have been largely avoided.

How?  There was no reason for Lucom to rely on a will and force his assets to pass through the court system, which had been accused by many of being corrupt.  While Lucom created a trust -- in Panama -- to implement his wishes (at least, according to Lehman), that trust was never funded with his estate assets before he died.

Lucom could have transferred his assets into his trust during his lifetime.  Or, better yet, he could have created a trust somewhere other than Panama (like Florida for example), transferred his assets into it, and avoided the Panama court system entirely.

Creating and a funding a revocable living trust -- early, before there is a question of mental competency or undue influence -- is the best way to prevent a family fight over your estate.  By making this change late in life, and failing to use a trust to avoid probate, Lucom made it much harder for his wishes to be followed.

It's a sad lesson that everyone can learn from.

Court overturns US tycoon's will that left a fortune to Panama's poor

Accusations fly after judges rule that Wilson Lucom's $50m to set up a foundation for poor children should go to his family instead

A slum in Panama City – areas like this would have been helped by Wilson Lucom's $50m donation.

It was going to be the largest single charitable donation in Panama's history: more than $50m (£32m) for poor children.

Wilson Lucom, a US tycoon, left most of his estate to a foundation to help the neediest people in the country where he lived until his death in 2006, aged 88.

Now, four years later, after a bitter legal battle, the fortune is going to one of Panama's most powerful dynasties – including the ambassador to Britain – and the children have been left without a cent.

Panama's supreme court declared Lucom's will void in August, it has emerged, giving the entire estate to his widow, Hilda, the ailing, octogenarian matriarch of the Arias family, which has extensive media, property and financial interests.

Her five children from a previous marriage – scions of a family which boasts former presidents as well as ministers and diplomats – are expected to inherit the money after she dies.

Critics have accused the tycoon's widow of greed and questioned the integrity of Panama's judicial system.

"That money could have helped a lot of children. If that family keeps it God will not forgive them," said Hector Avila, head of a children's charity. "In this country, political and economic forces weigh more than justice."

The ruling was a triumph for the widow and her family after a bitter fight involving more than 20 legal firms, Interpol alerts and criminal charges against the lawyer representing the would-be charitable foundation. Both sides have continued trading accusations of corruption, smears and dirty tricks.

Lucom was an unlikely champion of poor children. The son of a Pennsylvania gas station attendant, he was a diplomat before marrying an automobile heiress in 1954. They settled in Florida, where he backed conservative causes and helped found the group Accuracy in Media.

In 1982, a year after his wife's death, Lucom married Hilda Piza de Arias, the former wife of Gilberto Arias, a Panamanian politician, and in the 1990s they moved to Panama. Lucom, who never had children of his own, continued propagating radical beliefs, such as nuclear strikes to deter terrorism.

His in-laws were Creole aristocrats with a colourful lineage. One member, Roberto Arias, was ambassador to Britain in the 1950s and married the British ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. In the 1990s the Arias family sold a 7,000-acre hacienda, Santa Monica, to Lucom.

Lucom, who was not especially close to his adult step-children, sprang a surprise upon his death. His will granted his wife a monthly stipend of $20,000 and gave her children one-off payments ranging from $50,000 to $200,000. But the big prize – the hacienda, whose value had soared to more than $50m – was to be sold off and the proceeds are given to a newly created foundation for poor children.

His widow – whose son Gilberto is Panama's current ambassador to Britain – protested. She hired a prominent lawyer, Héctor Infante, who challenged the validity of the will and claimed the tycoon had been manipulated by advisers.

The widow launched a legal battle against Richard Lehman, Lucom's longtime lawyer and trustee of the would-be foundation. Lehman was charged with 15 criminal charges including negligent homicide in Lucom's death, forgery, extortion and perfidy. He and a colleague were placed on an Interpol list. Lehman said it was a smear campaign, who is based in Florida. "It's amazing what they did to me."

All charges were eventually dismissed but Lehman's conduct was criticised by a US court. An administrator appointed by a Florida court found irregularities in his handling of one Lucom bank account and criticised him for not disclosing that he owed Lucom $500,000 at the time of his death.

Several lower courts upheld the will as reflecting Lucom's last wishes but Panama's supreme court declared it void last month, arguing that Lucom's reference to his "beloved wife" showed he really wanted her to inherit the estate, not poor children. Critics – including a former US ambassador – have in past accused Panama's justice system of favouring the rich and powerful.

"It's a joke. They stole that money, it's that simple," said Lehman. "I'm sad and disgusted. Kids are starving and a few individuals have walked away with everything."

Infante declined a telephone interview request. Gilberto Arias, the ambassador, did not respond to interview requests.

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