Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm at the heart of the ‘Panama Papers’ leak, is a discreet firm with a huge list of big-name clients and a quiet reputation for hiding money from the taxman. However, the Daily Mail reported on April 4 that the firm also has another secret—one of its founders, Jurgen Mossack, is the son of a Nazi SS soldier who was a member of the “Totenkopf” (Death’s Head) fighting unit during World War II.
The report, citing German media, said that Erhard served as rottenfuehrer (senior corporal) in the SS’s combat unit, the Waffen.
Originally, the Waffen operated the concentration camps, and would later recruit many camp guards into its ranks when it was turned into a combat division. However, it is likely that Erhard only served in the fighting unit, which had the death’s hand symbol as its insignia.
According to the report, Erhard moved to Panama from Germany in 1948, only to later return to Germany in the 1970s. Erhard died in the 1990s and his wife died five years later.
According to the International Consortium of Investigating Journalists (ICIJ) who cited US Army records, “old intelligence files” showed that Erhard had also offered to spy for the CIA during his time in Panama, supposedly on nearby Cuba.
The air of secrecy surrounding Mossack Fonseca was destroyed on April 2, when media organizations around the world published information from a huge leak from the firm’s allegedly secure data center.
According to information that is starting to be released from the ICIJ, which is combing through the data, politicians, sports stars, and celebrities have all been named in the 11 million pages of documents.
The techniques used by Mossack Fonseca to muddy money trails, including slavish use of offshore havens like the British Virgin Islands and some Pacific Ocean nations, were also listed in the documents.
Mossack Fonseca maintains that the revelation that details the offshore structures of many wealthy clients is a “crime” and an “attack” on Panama.
“This is a crime, a felony,” Ramon Fonseca, one of the founders of Mossack Fonseca, told AFP.
“This is an attack on Panama because certain countries don’t like it that we are so competitive in attracting companies,” he said.
One of the two lawyers who founded Mossack Fonseca, which is housed in a fairly nondescript mirrored building in Panama’s business district, more than 30 years ago, Jurgen Mossack, was born in Germany in 1948 and moved to Panama with his family. Jurgen Mossack later earned his law degree while in Panama.
The other founder is Fonseca, who had also earned his law degree in Panama. However, Fonseca also attended the prestigious London School of Economics and once said in an interview that he once considered becoming a priest.
Fonseca had a small business until he merged with Mossack and the two targeted offshore business by opening offices in the British Virgin Islands.
The ICIJ said that the leak shows that half of the companies that Mossack Fonseca incorporated, which is more than 113,000, were done in the fiscal paradise that is the British Virgin Islands.
However, Mossack Fonseca had also branched out to the Pacific, to a tiny island nation called Niue.
According to the ICIJ, by 2001 Mossack Fonseca was earning so much money from its offshore registrations on Niue that it was contributing 80 percent to Niue’s annual budget.
When the British Virgin Islands was forced to crack down on some methods that had previously allowed anonymous ownership of companies, Mossack Fonseca took its business to Panama and the Caribbean island of Anguilla.
Mossack Fonseca spent money in an attempt to remove online references that linked it to money laundering and tax evasion.
However, other countries took an increased interest in what Mossack Fonseca was doing. In Brazil, Mossack Fonseca was named as one of the parties involved in a huge bribery scandal that was unfolding that involved the state oil company Petrobras.
Mossack Fonseca also came under suspicion in the US, in the state of Nevada, where a judge ruled that it had knowingly attempted to cover up its management role over its local Nevada branch.
In March, Fonseca, who had also been an advisor to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela since 2014, said that he was taking a leave of absence.
As the Brazilian allegations piled up, Fonseca said that the step was “to defend my honor.”