A bequest for Panama's poor children - blocked by family
PANAMA CITY: In life, Wilson Lucom was not exactly child-friendly. The curmudgeon never had children himself, nor was he especially close to the offspring of his third wife, Hilda. When he opened his ample checkbook, friends say, it was more likely to finance a conservative political cause than to help underprivileged youth.
But Lucom, a native of rural Pennsylvania who spent much of his life in Palm Beach, Florida, surprised everyone in his will, which was disclosed upon his death two years ago at the age of 88. After doling out relatively small portions of his tens of millions of dollars to survivors, he left the rest to a foundation he had dreamed up in secrecy to aid the poor children of Panama, where he spent the final years of his life.
It would be one of the largest charitable donations, if not the largest, in Panama's history, but so far not a single child has had access to the money. The will has set off a vicious legal battle that is playing out in at least four countries. Criminal charges have been filed, insults traded and threats made. The number of law firms involved exceeds 20.
"This is all about greed," said Hector Avila, an advocate for at-risk children in Panama who organized a demonstration of young people in May outside the Supreme Court in Panama, calling for Lucom's gift to be honored. Within a week of the protest, Avila survived a shooting. No link to the Lucom case was established.
Lucom married well, amassing a fortune when his second wife, Virginia Willys, whose father had been an Ohio auto tycoon, died in 1981. A year later, Lucom met and wed Hilda Piza, who had been married previously to Gilberto Arias, son of Harmodio Arias and nephew of Arnulfo Arias, both former presidents of Panama.
Lucom eventually relocated with his new wife to Panama, selling his Palm Beach mansion in 1990 to a relative of the king of Saudi Arabia for $14.3 million.
Lucom used his money to bankroll anti-Communist groups, and he helped found the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media. In his later years, he frequently wrote commentaries that showed his firm opinions, some of them decidedly unconventional, on the ways of the world.
Dropping nuclear weapons was one of his preferences for making things right in the world. Catching Osama bin Laden was as simple, he argued, as putting a $1 billion bounty on his head.
In his will, he spelled out how he thought the malnutrition facing one-fifth of Panama's children could be combated. His plan was to buy seeds, supply them to parent volunteers who agreed to donate idle land and then reap the harvests for hungry children.
Whether his idea had merit may never be known. Lucom's 84-year-old widow, Hilda, is fighting to have his will thrown out. The issue is now before Panama's highest court, with legal skirmishes also playing out in Palm Beach, and the Caribbean nations of St. Kitts and Nevis and the British Virgin Islands also involved.
The controversy begins with a charitable act that may have at least partly been rooted in spite. Friends say that Lucom was not on particularly good terms with his third wife's adult children when he died, which is hinted at in the will.
In it, he granted his wife a monthly pension of $20,000 and use of his artwork, grand piano and furniture for as long as she lives. He gave her five children, descendants of the Arias family, one-time payments of $50,000 to $200,000 each. As for the 7,000-acre, or 2,800-hectare, oceanfront cattle ranch that he had bought from the Arias family, he wanted that sold, with the assets going to the poor.
In interviews, the Arias offspring do not let on that there was any clash between them and the man they alternatively refer to as "Mr. Lucom," "Chuck" or "Uncle Chuck."
But Lucom's widow is more candid. "He was a very difficult man," she said in an interview. "He wanted to be No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3."
She added, in a frail voice, "He never talked to me about poor children."
The only support Wilson Lucom had given to children previously, the family said, was the $100 he would spend to buy two books of raffle tickets for a children's charity that Hilda Lucom's granddaughter, Madelaine Urrutia, helped run.
But in the will, prepared a year before his death, Lucom appeared to leave no doubt about his intentions. Panamanian courts have backed the will so far, but the issue is now before the country's Supreme Court, which critics say has shown itself susceptible to political interference in the past.
"If you ask me if I expect to win it in light of all the corruption I've seen, I don't expect to win it," said Lehman, who has been suspended by the court as the executor of the will pending a resolution of the legal case.
Lucom also willed $1 million to the Mayo Clinic, which had treated him for cancer. The clinic, in Minnesota, has hired a lawyer to ensure that it gets the money. Other amounts went to former household employees and to friends, including Christopher Ruddy, founder of NewsMax Media, which published many of Lucom's writings online. Ruddy, who owed Lucom more than $1 million at the time of his death, has hired lawyers to represent his interests.
Lawyers for the Arias family say there is more to the story than a crotchety old man using his fortune to make good with the world. They contend that the will was a scheme concocted by Lehman, the lawyer, to enrich himself.
Just days before Lucom died, on June 2, 2006, Lehman created a trust to administer the children's charity fund. He created it in St. Kitts and Nevis, a Caribbean tax haven where Lucom had gained citizenship to avoid paying U.S. taxes....
So far, though, the children have received nothing. While Panama's capital, coastline and Canal Zone are bustling with development, dire poverty grips much of the country's interior. Unicef estimates that more than half the country's children younger than 5 live in poverty and nearly a third in extreme poverty. Malnutrition affects about 20 percent of young children, with more than half of indigenous children underweight.
Amid the finger-pointing have been hardball tactics. Hilda Lucom's politically connected attorney, Hector Infante, has filed criminal charges against Lehman and a Panamanian colleague, accusing them of playing a role in Lucom's death and engaging in extortion, among other offenses.
One of Infante's associates even called up the Panama office of Interpol and managed to get Lehman's colleague detained while he was on a business trip. The lawyer was soon released when Interpol discovered that the charges had been dismissed.
With other charges pending, Lehman now stays out of Panama for fear he might be arrested. He has countersued the Arias family, accusing them of using the family-run newspaper, El Panama America, to libel him.
If there is a benefit to all the legal wrangling, it is that the value of Lucom's oceanfront cattle ranch has risen significantly since he died, possibly even quadrupling to $80 million. Settlement negotiations have taken place, but gotten nowhere.
As Lehman put it in a letter to Hilda Lucom seeking to make a deal, "I believe this is a pie that is so large that it can take into account everyone's feeling and rights to their entitlement to benefit from Lucom's fortune."