Four years ago, a consortium of European journalists broke a story based on 11.5 million documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The exposé detailed how the firm’s clients across the world used offshore shell companies to hide assets and evade taxes. (Remember, tax avoidance = legal; tax evasion = go to jail.) The story, naturally dubbed “the Panama papers,” named names and focused new attention on what British author Somerset Maugham dubbed “sunny places for shady people.”
When the scandal first broke, Iceland’s Prime Minister stepped down after he was exposed as a client. Vladimir Putin’s best friend, a concert cellist, faced harsh scrutiny over his billions. (He said they were donations from rich Russians to buy instruments for young musicians. Riiiight.) Hollywood turned it into a movie starring Meryl Streep. But stories like this tend to hit like dropping a rock in a pond. After the first big splash, a series of smaller ripples continue spreading outward. This week’s story involves one of those ripples hitting an American courthouse.
Our hero, Dick Gaffey, is a CPA working just outside of Boston. (Well, not for much longer.) His firm’s website says, “we work vigorously to lower our clients’ taxes, improve their businesses and preserve their estates.” That’s just marketing hype for most accountants, who spend their days more or less putting numbers in boxes. But Dick really did work vigorously. He went the extra mile, including places where other accountants know not to tread. (You know those old 15th- and 16th-century world maps, where the edges said, “Here Be Dragons”? That’s where Gaffey went.)
Gaffey’s clients included a colorful gentleman named Harald Joachim von der Goltz, a German-born Guatemalan citizen who lived in the U.S., and thus owed U.S. tax on his worldwide income. Von der Goltz, a banking heir and venture capitalist who fled Guatemala to escape civil war, probably loved his $2.5 million beachfront condo on Key Biscayne. Apparently, though, he didn’t love paying the taxes that helped make Florida a safer place to live.
Von der Goltz used Mossack Fonseca to establish a family trust and private foundation controlled through a series of holding companies. That’s not illegal, so long as the real owner acknowledges their interest. But von der Goltz claimed his 100-year-old mother was the owner. And Gaffey signed bank documents falsely claiming the foundation wasn’t subject to U.S. withholding. Then the story broke. When investigators came sniffing around, von der Goltz sold his condo to his children’s trust for $100 and skedaddled. U.S. officials eventually arrested him in London.
Gaffey must have known he was next. He was arrested on December 4, 2019, and trial was scheduled to start on March 6. No doubt he planned to defend himself vigorously. Then von der Goltz pled guilty. Oops. Last week, Gaffey pled guilty to eight felony counts. On June 29, he’ll find out how much time he can expect to spend surrounded by “inmates” instead of “clients.”
Ask any scientist and they’ll tell you the two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. Von der Goltz and Gaffey chose stupidity, and they chose poorly. But you don’t have to hide your money to pay less tax. You just need advisors who understand how to use the tax code to your maximum advantage. That’s where we come in, and we’re looking forward to helping!