PANAMA CITY — The Panamanian lawyers at the center of a scandal on the financial dealings of the world's rich and famous are an odd pairing of a German-born immigrant and a prize-winning novelist whose books sometimes mirror the seedy world of politics he's come across in his work.
The Panama-based Mossack-Fonseca law was created from the merger in the 1980s of practices belonging to Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca. In a nation that for decades has been tainted by allegations of money laundering on behalf of drug-traffickers and corrupt oligarchs, the polyglot lawyers established themselves as among the most-efficient or shadiest, depending on your perspective, of a plethora of firms in Panama dedicated to creating shell companies to stash wealth overseas.
Much of their work is now under scrutiny as a result of the leak of 11.5 million records being pored over by an international coalition of more than 100 media outlets. The Associated Press has been unable to see the documents, but Fonseca in interviews with Panamanian news media acknowledged they were real. He said they obtained through an illegal hack.
Fonseca, on Twitter, describes himself to his more than 19,000 followers as a "lawyer, writer and dreamer." But the modest self-image contrasts with the oversized role he's played in Panamanian politics and business.
Until recently, he was president of the governing Panamenista party and served in Cabinet of President Juan Carlos Varela as a special adviser. He was forced to resign in February after the offices of the firm's affiliate in Brazil were raided, and several managers arrested, as part of a probe into massive bribes paid to politicians by companies doing business with state-run oil giant Petrobras.
"In Panama they're seen as too big to fail," said Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor at the University of Panama.
Fonseca's fiction, for which he's won Panama's top literary prize, would seem to come straight from the shady dealings of politics. In 2012, he published "Mister Politicus," a novel he say is partly based on his life experience and which he describes on his website as "detailing the convoluted scheming of unscrupulous officials to gain power, and from there, satisfy their detestable ambitions."
But Fonseca also some strong pro-democracy credentials in a country whose 1968-1989 military dictatorship spurred the growth of Panama's offshore banking industry. He played a critical role denouncing the 1993 disappearance and murder of a Roman Catholic priest, a move that led to the creation of truth commission to investigate the dictatorship's crimes.
Far less is known about his partner, who has so far not spoken up and tends to shy away from the cameras.
Mossack's father was a member of the armed wing of the Nazi party, according to U.S. Army intelligence files gathered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has been coordinating investigation into the law firm. He came to Panama in the early 1960s with his family. The Associated Press has been unable to verify the reports.
Fonseca, for his part, said Mossack's father worked as an executive at Lufthansa airlines and described his partner as honorable but distant.
"I admire him but he's a reserved man, he's a German," Fonseca said in an interview Monday with local network Telemetro.
Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.