You are on page 1of 17

How to Hide $400 Million

When a wealthy businessman set out to divorce his wife, their


fortune vanished. The quest to find it would reveal the depths
of an offshore financial system bigger than the U.S. economy.
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
NOV. 30, 2016
A few weeks after she realized her husband was finally leaving her, Sarah Pursglove flew down to the
Bahamas to figure out how much money he really had. Like many women married to very wealthy men, she
didnt know much about the family accounts. Her husband, a Finnish entrepreneur named Robert
Oesterlund, had sworn to a Canadian court that his immediately calculable net family property totaled just
a few million dollars. Pursglove was skeptical. She could come up with several family purchases worth more
than that off the top of her head. There was the 165-foot yacht, Dj Vu that cost a few million dollars a

year just to keep on the water. There was the $30 million penthouse at the Toronto Four Seasons, which was
still being renovated. It wasnt their only home. The Dj Vu wasnt even their only yacht.
Pursglove grew up in a working-class family. She did not consider herself to be a complicated person, or a
greedy one. Recent events in her life had, however, inculcated a newfound habit of suspicion. Her husbands
tirades, his frequent absences and threats to leave, had led inexorably to the day when she tailed him through
the streets of Toronto and caught him picking up an interior designer for what appeared to be a romantic ski
getaway. She had been with Oesterlund since she was 25 and scraping by as a cruise ships photographer.
Now, as she assessed her crumbling marriage and girded for divorce, she wondered what else she didnt
know.
Her first answers came that morning in the Bahamas, as she quickly rifled through papers in their soon-tobe-former vacation home. She didnt have long: The caretaker, Pursglove suspected, was loyal to her
husband and would soon alert him that she was there. In a pile of mail was a statement from a bank in
Luxembourg showing an account with at least $30 million in cash. She had never seen it before. There were
two laptops one with baby photos of their younger daughter, which she set aside. In a cupboard were
documents concerning not only Xacti, the internet company she and Oesterlund had built, but also oddly
named corporations in other states and countries. Finally, there was a statement from their accounting firm.
She had never seen that before, either. The accountants seemed to think her husband was worth at least $300
million.
But even as Pursglove was repacking her suitcase for the flight home, her familys fortune was vanishing
into an almost impenetrable array of shell companies, bank accounts and trusts, part of a worldwide financial
system catering exclusively to the very wealthy. In recent decades, this system has become astonishingly
effective at offshoring wealth detaching assets, through complex layers of ownership and legal
planning, from their actual owners, often by hiding them in another country. Created by lawyers,
accountants and private bankers and operating out of a global archipelago of European principalities, former
British colonies and Asian city-states, the system has one main purpose: to make the richest people in the
world appear to own as little as possible.
Continue reading the main story

Related Coverage

How a Cryptic Message, Interested in Data?, Led to the


Panama Papers APRIL 5, 2016

Icelands Prime Minister Steps Down Amid Panama Papers


Scandal APRIL 5, 2016

Need to Hide Some Income? You Dont Have to Go to Panama


APRIL 7, 2016

Apples Web of Tax Shelters Saved It Billions, Panel Finds


MAY 20, 2013

Ireland, Accused of Giving Tax Breaks to Multinationals, Plans


an Even Lower Rate OCT. 13, 2015

Recent Comments
Boston Barry
1 hour ago
What a surprise! Rich individuals avoid taxes by hiding money overseas. Who could possibly imagine that?
Corporations never do that.

Deborah
1 hour ago
I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to be wealthy. But make them pay their fair share! It's
abominable that these mega-rich...

Siciliana
1 hour ago
I am reading comments that ask when is enough money enough. It seems that the sky is the limit for all
classes. If not, then why do sales...

See All Comments


Write a comment

Advertisement
Continue reading the main story
Pursglove would soon learn, however, that navigating this offshore archipelago is not easy. In any given
year, trillions of dollars sit safely in the offshore financial world, effectively stateless, protected by legions
of well-compensated defenders and a tangle of laws deliberately designed to impede creditors and tax
collectors. Even the United States government finds it challenging: A special Internal Revenue Service
division known as the wealth squad, set up in 2010 to crack down on high-end tax evaders with
multinational holdings, today has enough manpower to assess only about 200 cases a year.
Pursglove would rely on her own wealth squad: a pair of highly creative lawyers, using Pursglove herself as
the ultimate informant. It would take them more than two years and millions of dollars to breach the
defenses of the offshore financial world. Their efforts would leave a trail of thousands of pages of court
documents through Canada and the United States, revealing the inner workings of a system exquisitely
engineered to repel scrutiny.
But much of her familys financial situation was still a mystery when she first saw the bank statement on her
husbands desk in the Bahamas, Pursglove later told me. She packed the laptop and documents, left her
suitcase near the front door and went for one last walk on their beach. When she returned to the house, the
caretaker was nowhere to be seen. A different member of the household staff, a kindly older man who
tended to the landscaping and washed the family boats, had already put her suitcase into a waiting taxicab.
She hugged him goodbye and drove to the airport.
When she opened her suitcase at the security line, there was no laptop. No paperwork. It was all gone.
Robert Oesterlund wasnt born rich, either. When Pursglove first met him, on a cruise ship off Helsinki in
the 90s, he ran a struggling flower-import business. He was tall, with piercing blue eyes and a boyish
charisma that outlasted his initial awkwardness. Pursglove, who grew up in Wales, found him charming.
They married in 1998, on the Caribbean island Dominica, and settled in the United States.
Living in Florida and New York, they started a series of companies. Oesterlund came up with most of the
ideas, Pursglove would later state in court filings, and ran the companies day to day. Pursglove hired the
employees, trained them and helped manage the offices. Their earliest success was a direct-mail firm called
Credit Key Express, which promised credit cards to people with bad credit. Later they started Columbia
House-style online membership clubs that sold discounted movie posters, books, DVDs, even dietary
supplements. Xacti, which came to enfold most of their ventures, sold banner ads, video games and various

other kinds of software, including toolbars that promised to clean viruses off your computer or free up
space on your hard drive. The businesses threw off enormous amounts of cash, and by the mid-2000s,
Oesterlund and his wife had become wildly rich. They bought a $5 million house back in Finland and their
first yacht, a 48-foot cruiser.
Pursglove is 47, with a round, watchful face and well-kept brown hair. I first met her in the spring of 2015,
over coffee in New York. She rarely smiled, and I found her unexpectedly reserved for the wife of a jetsetting, large-living entrepreneur. She explained that Oesterlund was the flamboyant one, an insecure man
ruined by his sudden wealth. I was his stop button No, we dont need it, Pursglove told me. He was
kind of never content. He always needed to buy the next thing. In 2007, they bought their first private jet,
and then a bigger boat, an 82-footer that Pursglove named Integrity. She liked the name, she explained. At
the time, Robert was I thought he had integrity.
Not everyone agreed. In 1999, the Florida attorney general sued to shut down Credit Key Express, saying
that it misled customers into thinking they would receive preapproved credit cards. (In fact, all they got for
their money was a list of banks that might give them credit cards.) Some years after Credit Key Express shut
down, the Florida attorney general came after Xactis club businesses, claiming that Oesterlunds companies
had again misled customers. According to court filings, they had abused what are known as negative
options: Customers would provide their credit card number for a trial offer, only to be charged a monthly
fee, disclosed in the fine print and difficult to cancel.

Journalism that matters.


More essential than ever.

In 2010, Oesterlund, on behalf of his companies, signed an agreement with the Florida attorney general
promising to abstain from deceptive marketing practices. But officials in Iowa and Oregon also began
scrutinizing the businesses. Despite Oesterlunds promises, consumer complaints continued to pile up, and
in 2013, Floridas attorney general finally sued Xacti and its club businesses, extracting a $500,000
settlement.
When the investigations began, in 2009, Pursglove was living with the two children in Boca Raton, but
Oesterlund lived on Integrity in the Bahamas, unable to join them. He had overstayed an earlier visa, and the
United States denied him a green card. The denial and the investigations enraged him, Pursglove told me. He
employed dozens of people in Florida, he fumed, and had provided the United States millions of dollars in
tax revenue. He told his wife their businesses were being unfairly harassed by bureaucrats. Going forward,
Pursglove explained, he wanted to pay as little taxes as possible to the U.S.
In 2011, they went into contract on the penthouse in Toronto, hoping to unite the family eventually in
Canada and establish residency for Oesterlund there. While it was being renovated, they bought yet another
boat, the 165-foot yacht they named Dj Vu, and spent a year sailing around Europe and the Caribbean,
with tutors for the kids. But their relationship would soon grow strained. Oesterlund later testified that their
marriage was a rocky ride ever since the start, but Pursglove blamed their new lifestyle. Somewhere along
the way, she told me, Oesterlund had fallen in with a tribe of wealthy globe-trotting nomads and minor
celebrities. He befriended Kevin OLeary, a judge from Shark Tank, she says, and partied at the Mayathemed Lyford Cay estate of Peter Nygard, the Finnish-Canadian retail mogul. Oesterlunds money and his
boat attracted hangers-on and women, Pursglove says.
By his wifes account, some of Oesterlunds new friends also began tutoring him in how to minimize his
taxes. (Oesterlund himself declined to comment for this article, as did most of the lawyers, accountants and
financial advisers named in court records.) He traveled constantly, Pursglove says, in part to reduce the
amount of taxes he would be required to pay to any of the countries where he owned a home. At the time,
Pursglove told me, she regarded these efforts spearheaded by a well-known Florida accounting firm,
Daszkal Bolton as aboveboard tax planning. But court records suggest that Oesterlund had begun

exploring how to structure his business to insulate himself not just from taxes but also from future civil
litigation. I want to have in writing a statement, he wrote to his lawyers in 2011, that I can no longer be
subject to Florida or U.S. law. Take every step necessary, he added, to remove myself from the country of
Evil.
In 2012, Oesterlund and Pursglove moved with the children to Toronto; at the end of the year, Oesterlund
raised the idea of separating, Pursglove says, and at the beginning of 2013 he flew to Dubai to party with
friends. He was backward and forward that year in Toronto, Pursglove says. I would ask, So, are we
getting divorced? And he wouldnt do anything.
It was in early 2013, when she learned that her husband had sought to sell off Xacti, Pursglove told me, that
she started to think about hiring lawyers of her own. You want to throw me away like I was a piece of
[expletive] and then take everything too, she emailed him one night.
Women get 10 percent in Russia by law, Oesterlund wrote back. In Dubai they get 0 percent.
When she asked for copies of documents related to the potential sale, her husband was livid. I am closing
out all checking accounts on you now, he texted her. You arent going to use my funds to pay some
Jewish lawyer.
That night, he cut off her Xacti email account. We will file papers and as I no longer own anything of value
you get nothing then I can start a new company later in life, he wrote. Was it really worth it?
One divorce attorney urged her to settle with her husband as soon as possible or else risk losing everything.
Another told her the case would be too daunting for a normal family lawyer, even in South Florida, where
high-priced divorces are common. Eventually, she found herself in the offices of Jeffrey Fisher.
Fisher was not a normal family lawyer. Early in his career, at the height of the South Florida drug wars, he
worked for the United States attorneys office in Miami, prosecuting cocaine smugglers and money
launderers. When he opened his own firm with a partner in West Palm Beach in the late 1980s, he began
specializing in cases that were equal parts divorce and white-collar litigation, representing the discarded
wives of rich men with complex business concerns.
I first began hearing about Fisher a few years ago, when he approached a college friend of mine, Zachary
Potter, to join his practice. Potter was working at one of the countrys largest law firms, advising Fortune
500 companies. He enjoyed the challenge, but the work could be stodgy: When Fisher called him, Potter was
working a seven-year, $100 million case that hinged on federal leasing rules for long-haul trucking
companies.
Photo

Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson


Around the same time Potter moved to Palm Beach to join Fishers firm, I began writing for The Times
about the political activism of the very wealthy, much of it oriented around defending their fortunes from the
predations of government. Our professional interests soon converged. We joked about spending our days
trading phone calls with the same class of handlers, consultants and lawyers, hired by the rich to guard their
wealth and privacy.
One day last year, we caught up over drinks at a Palm Beach hotel. Potter was easy to spot: In a town of
pastels and prints, he still favored charcoal suits and crisp white shirts. All around us was the chatter of lithe
women and their expensively tailored, somewhat older male companions inhabitants of a world at once
ostentatious and opaque. As we sat down, Potter slid a neatly stapled stack of papers down the bar toward
me. It was a court brief, Potter explained, one of hundreds he and Fisher had filed in a particularly knotty
case involving a man named Robert Oesterlund. If I truly wanted to peer inside the hidden world of the
superrich, Potter told me and if I really wanted to understand how extremely wealthy people protected
that wealth I ought to read the cases public court file and judge for myself.
Not long after, I met Fisher at his office in Florida, a modest fourth-floor space equipped with plush leather
chairs and a sweeping view across the water to client-rich Palm Beach. At 61, Fisher is short and wiry, with
thinning gray hair swept back over a high and gently tanned forehead. In a cross-examination, he stands
erect, chest cocked, as if to fill the courtroom. When Fisher talks about working the Florida divorce circuit,
he makes it sound almost fun. The beauty of high-end divorce law it is that it is usually handled on an
expedited basis, Fisher says. If youre a person like me, who doesnt want a five-year-long case, theres
nothing better.
Pursglove hired him about a year earlier, not long after seeing her husband with the interior designer.
Oesterlund responded by filing for divorce in Canada where Fisher could not personally represent

Pursglove and threatened to cut off his wife. She had $90,000 in the bank, not enough for a protracted
legal battle. But she also had cellphone pictures of documents concerning something called a Cook Islands
asset-protection trust, which she found a few months earlier. Oesterlund was listed as the settlor, the
person who donates property to a trust.
The Cook trust was a bad sign. A typical estate-planning trust is designed to allow someone to benefit from
a property a car, a home, a plane, a bank account without technically owning it or controlling it. An
independent trustee, sometimes an individual, sometimes a specialized firm, is assigned to make decisions
about the best use of the assets. That independence can, for example, provide a tax advantage or prevent a
spendthrift beneficiary from plowing through an inheritance. But in some cases, the claim of independence
is a sham. The trustees are puppets; the settlor still controls the asset in practice. And trusts organized in the
Cook Islands, a self-governing state associated with New Zealand, are particularly difficult to investigate.
Cook courts typically do not recognize American court orders, including divorce judgments. To sue a Cook
trust, you have to actually fly to the Cook Islands, in the middle of the South Pacific, roughly 6,000 miles
southwest of Florida. Its like Switzerland used to be, but squared, Fisher told me. Once assets were
hidden inside a Cook trust, he had learned, it was almost impossible to get them out.
Emails in Pursgloves possession hinted at why Oesterlund might have found a Cook trust appealing.
Searching through the trash folder on Pursgloves laptop, Fishers paralegal found that the 2011 email she
had been copied on the one in which Oesterlund had asked his lawyers to remove him from the country
of Evil also contained a reply from Xactis corporate counsel, Jennifer Miller. She wrote that if
Oesterlund created a parallel corporate structure of companies outside the U.S, moved his operations
offshore and implemented a personal asset protection strategy, he could become almost untouchable. Any
money spent to sue him in the United States, Miller assured him, would probably be wasted.
Fisher knew he needed to act very quickly. He didnt know where Oesterlund had put the familys money,
exactly. He didnt have any direct evidence of fraud. But the longer the case dragged on, the more
opportunity Oesterlund might have to drain assets out of the country and into untouchable accounts
overseas.
The documents in Pursgloves cellphone pictures showed corporations in the Caymans and Nevis, both wellknown offshore financial centers. But she didnt know exactly what these companies did. Oesterlund had
stopped making mortgage payments on the house in Boca Raton, she later said in court filings, and
threatened to evict her mother and disabled aunt from a house they had bought in Wales. He warned
Pursglove that he wouldnt pay any bills until she agreed to a settlement. Your mortgage of $20,000 was
due on the first, he texted to Pursglove. Late fee $500 on Friday. Bad credit in 30 days. I recommend you
pay it!
Fisher had to freeze Oesterlunds transactions in place until he could gather more evidence. The only way to
do that, Fisher concluded, was to hit him from two sides at once. In late March 2014, Fisher filed a divorce
action on behalf of Pursglove in Palm Beach County, hoping to wrest the divorce proceeding back to Florida
from Canada. But he also prepared a related civil complaint, citing the Cook trust and Oesterlunds
threatening emails: Oesterlund, Fisher wrote in court papers, was using illegal asset transfers to defraud his
wife, the co-owner of his companies. One set of claims would leverage Pursgloves rights as a wife. The
other, crucially, would leverage her rights as an owner.
Within days, Fisher persuaded a judge in Palm Beach County, Jeffrey D. Gillen, to impose a sweeping asset
injunction against Oesterlund, one that prohibited him from selling, merging or borrowing against any of his
assets. The order would stop additional offshoring if Oesterlund complied.
Fisher also obtained a 2012 tax return for the familys holding company, RSOP. (The name is an anagram of
Oesterlund and Pursgloves initials.) The return showed that RSOP had grossed more than $73.5 million that
year, an amount that Pursglove says she found astonishing. But when Fisher scrutinized the tax return, he
found something even more shocking. Despite the impressive grosses, RSOP was reporting ordinary
business income of just $12,284. Virtually all the revenue had somehow evaporated.

That was when and why Fisher dispatched Pursglove to the Bahamas: to gather clues about where the
money went. When Pursglove returned to the house to confront the caretaker that day, she told me, the
caretaker admitted removing the papers from her suitcase. Bahamian police took custody of the papers, but
later, and for reasons they never explained, handed them over to Oesterlund. When Fisher tried to subpoena
the papers back, Oesterlunds lawyers said he could not find any such documents; in any case, they wrote,
Pursglove had no right to stolen materials.
Fisher was certain the privileged documents would contain a smoking gun. He wouldnt just see where the
money was hidden. He would see Oesterlund plotting how to hide the money. The whole thing could be laid
bare.
But back in Florida, Fishers legal blitz was having the intended effect. In a rush to unfreeze his assets,
Oesterlund invoked his right to an emergency hearing. That handed Fisher a crucial opening: Florida law
now gave Fisher the right to demand documents, on a highly expedited basis, from any company or person
who might have evidence relevant to the hearing. Shortly thereafter, Fishers detailed requests began
arriving on the desks of Oesterlunds bankers, his lawyers, his accountants and tax planners, his stockbroker
and most of his senior executives. When the opposing parties finally met in Florida court in April 2014, the
room was overflowing. Oesterlund had sent his divorce lawyers. The companies had their own lawyers.
There were lawyers for the banks. There were lawyers for the accountants. Even some of the lawyers had
lawyers.
More important, some of these lawyers had brought thousands of pages of records with them to the hearing.
Under normal discovery rules, Fisher might have spent months or years fighting for them. Instead, it took
four days: Potter flipped through the boxes in the courtroom, yanking out whatever seemed interesting,
while Fisher cross-examined witnesses on the fly. There were bank statements, emails between accountants
and lawyers and a few organizational charts tantalizingly stamped confidential. One piece of paper, from a
lender called Fifth Third Bank, showed that Oesterlund had claimed a net worth of $400 million, even more
than they thought. Other documents showed that Pursglove owned a third of RSOP.
In Canadian court, Oesterlund accused his wife of making wild accusations and absconding with their two
daughters to Florida. But Fisher now had a growing heap of evidence that not only bolstered Pursgloves
claims but also rooted them in the Florida jurisdiction where his client lived and he practiced. Seeing the
danger, Oesterlunds attorneys switched tactics, hoping to block the corporate fraud suit entirely and send
Pursgloves divorce back to a Canadian judge. She was a resident of Toronto, they argued to Judge Gillen,
and a Florida court had no jurisdiction over the divorce.
For Pursglove and her husband, as for many members of the global 1 percent, residency was an elusive
and easily manipulated concept. Pursglove was a British citizen with a United States green card who now
lived in Boca Raton. Oesterlund was a citizen of Finland who had also obtained a passport from Dominica.
They had homes in at least four countries and spent a year living on their yacht. These parties are global
citizens of substantial means, Judge Gillen mused from the bench. Their situation is a blessing and a
privilege for them, but for this court, their lifestyle creates a challenge.
Gillen decided to split the difference. The divorce would stay in Toronto. But the civil litigation the
corporate fraud lawsuit could proceed in Florida, where many of the familys companies were still run
out of a Boca Raton office park. In late April, Fishers assistants began stacking boxes of files in the hallway
outside his office. A similar pile grew next door, outside Potters office. In May, they started reading in
depth.
First they searched for the missing $73 million they had seen on the tax return. It turned out that most of
RSOPs revenue wasnt missing at all. Instead, Fisher later argued in court papers, RSOP was transferring
tens of millions of dollars to another company, this one called Omega Partners. Omega was based in the
Bahamas, which has no corporate income tax. RSOP had two partners, but Omega had only one: Robert
Oesterlund.

Omega didnt appear to have any employees. In fact, it seemed to consist of little more than a post office
box in a government building in Nassau. But Omega did at one point have a lucrative contract with
Oesterlunds Florida company, Xacti L.L.C., to pay search engines to advertise his websites. This contract
appeared to be an extraordinarily bad deal for Xacti. For every dollar of advertising Xacti purchased, it also
had to pay Omega Oesterlund in corporate form 58 cents. For this privilege, Xacti also paid
Oesterlund another $200,000 each month, personally, for management services.
Oesterlund appeared to be charging his own companies to pay their bills, Fisher argued in court papers. He
was charging them so much, in fact, that RSOP was making almost no net income. Yet Omega was taking in
millions of dollars a year. With the stroke of his signature on a few pieces of paper, it appeared to Fisher,
Oesterlund had used Omega to make virtually all of his familys United States tax liabilities disappear.
What Oesterlund had done is known as transfer pricing, a practice that has come under growing criticism
in recent years. Multinational corporations use it to shift their costs to high-tax countries and their profits to
low-tax countries. Often, there is little or no economic reality to these transactions. Apple, for example, is an
American company headquartered in Cupertino, Calif. Most of the research and development that goes into
an iPhone happens in California. But according to Apple, if you buy an iPhone in Europe or Asia, the
intellectual-property rights contained in your phone actually belong to Apple subsidiaries in Ireland, where
the company has negotiated for itself a special tax rate of around 2 percent. Apple charges those subsidiaries
relatively little for the rights to this intellectual property, yet allows them to collect most of the money Apple
makes from selling the phone. In 2011, the Irish subsidiaries which conduct virtually none of Apples
research and build few of its products collected two-thirds of Apples 2011 worldwide pretax income.
Fisher wondered whether Oesterlunds transfers were really legal. He called Gregg D. Polsky, a law
professor now at the University of Georgia, who occasionally worked for Fisher as an expert witness. Polsky
knew a lot about tax law, but as he later explained to me, he did not have a satisfying answer for Fisher. In
theory, Polsky says, federal rules require that related companies charge themselves the same price they
would charge some other company. But in practice, the prices can be difficult to second-guess. Who can
really say exactly what Apples intellectual property is worth? The sophisticated people will hire highpriced advisers who will come up with a study that will give them the value they want, Polsky says. The
I.R.S. has to decide if they disagree with that value and if they can both challenge it and prevail in court.
(In August, European regulators ordered Ireland to collect $15 billion in unpaid taxes from Apple, charging
that the companys special tax rate violated European Union rules.)
Fisher didnt have time to wait for the I.R.S. to take an interest in Oesterlund. He needed some other lever
a legal basis to look more closely into the myriad offshore entities that appeared to be connected to the
Oesterlund companies. A solution presented itself when Fisher, searching online for Oesterlunds name one
morning, learned about the long trail of consumer disputes Oesterlunds companies had left behind. Until he
saw the settlement with the Florida attorney general, Fisher had assumed Oesterlund was running a basically
legitimate internet business. Now he realized not only that Xacti had come under investigation, but also that
the investigation created an opening for Pursglove. Oesterlund had signed a binding agreement with the
Florida attorney general just nine months earlier: To keep Xacti from skipping out on refunds, the agreement
barred Oesterlund from implementing any change in the form of doing business or organizational identity
as a method of avoiding the terms and conditions set forth in this settlement agreement.
Fisher felt this was a pretty good description of what Oesterlund seemed to be doing with the offshore
companies. Moreover, papers turned over at the hearing showed that Pursglove was the sole owner of an
Xacti subsidiary that was subject to the same settlement. That meant Pursglove was also bound by its terms.
Photo

Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson


This gave Fisher an idea. In May, he opened a third front, one that would give Pursglove her most powerful
legal tool to begin peeling back the layers of her husbands finances. Intervening in the Florida attorney
generals dormant case, he claimed that Oesterlund had embroiled Pursgloves company in a fraud against
the people of Florida. The only way to stop it was for the court to drag the whole business the Cook trust,
the Nevis company and whatever else the court would let Fisher go find back to Florida. To put it another
way, Pursglove sued herself.
Oesterlunds lawyers moved to toss this new lawsuit out of court too. Fisher thought he could become a kind
of private attorney general, as he put it, pursuing Oesterlund for the public good. Oesterlunds lawyers
saw it differently. It was unfounded, illogical, frivolous for Pursglove to sue herself and her husband on
behalf of the attorney general, they argued. Oesterlunds personal lawyer, a veteran litigator named Gary
Rosen, dismissed the lawsuit in court as a leverage point concocted by Fisher to pressure Oesterlund in the
divorce. Oesterlunds offshore trust was not an elaborate scheme to defeat the settlement, the lawyers
argued, but the normal estate planning of a wealthy and successful businessman. And Pursglove, they said,
was no victim. She had been part of her husbands planning from the very beginning.
It was, in truth, hard to say where Pursgloves involvement with the offshoring began and ended. In court
filings, Oesterlund produced an email showing that on at least one occasion, Oesterlunds advisers had
discussed setting up a separate trust for Pursglove and for the couples United States properties. When I
looked closely at the contracts between Xacti and Omega, I noticed that one of them bore not only
Oesterlunds signature, on behalf of Omega, but also that of Pursglove, on behalf of Xacti. She was also at

one time a beneficiary of the Cook Islands trust, albeit only in the unlikely event that Oesterlund and both of
their two daughters happened to predecease her.
Indeed, because Pursglove was a United States resident with a large ownership stake in several profitable
United States businesses, she stood to pay far less in taxes if her husband could move the profits offshore.
Moreover, both Pursglove and Fisher now stood to benefit from his new legal strategy: Lawyers are barred
from working on contingency in divorces, but in the civil lawsuits, Fisher would be allowed to charge
Pursglove a percentage of whatever money he could find and drag back to Florida.
Strikingly, Pursglove didnt seem to have much sympathy for the consumers who had filed complaints
against her familys companies the very basis of Fishers carefully plotted legal strategy. On more than
one occasion, first during a long meeting in New York and later over a candlelit Italian dinner with Fisher
and Potter in Delray Beach, I asked Pursglove whether she had any reservations about how she and
Oesterlund had made their money. Whatever regrets she had about her husband, I learned, did not extend to
the family business. Every time you click on an ad, someone gets money, she told me, shrugging. We
were the people who got the money.
All this raised the possibility that Pursgloves main objection to the offshoring scheme was that her husband
had decided to cut her out of it. Oesterlund himself insinuated as much. Wow your Jeff is desperate, he
texted her in May 2015, meaning Fisher, after a Canadian judge issued a further freeze of his assets. Why
would he want to expose you by trying to reopen the attorney general settlement? But ok we will throw you
under the bus.
Pursglove says she always knew Oesterlund was trying to minimize their taxes. But like many wealthy
people who hire expensive help to execute complex tax transactions, Pursglove had considered herself to be
avoiding taxes, not evading them precisely the distinction wealthy people hire an accounting firm like
Daszkal Bolton to observe on their behalf, however finely. Now, though, she was relying on Fisher to
dismantle Daszkal Boltons handiwork.
Fishers argument was that Oesterlund had begun offshoring the companies to shield himself from consumer
lawsuits, but then, as a divorce grew imminent, redeployed the same plan to shield assets from Pursglove.
And that assertion was bolstered by a new discovery.
Studying bank documents Fisher had subpoenaed, Fishers paralegal, Lindsey Crews, noticed that
Pursgloves stamped signature appeared on paperwork in early 2013 that gave an Xacti executive named
Skip Middleton, Oesterlunds right-hand man, authority over at least six Xacti-related bank accounts with
Wells Fargo. A few months later, Middleton used his newfound authority to remove Pursglove from the
accounts. Not long after, around the time Oesterlund created the Cook Islands trust, someone using
Pursgloves signature stamp had caused RSOP, the family holding company, to guarantee a $17.5 million
loan from a Florida lender called C1 bank, using the Dj Vu as collateral. The loan papers attested that
Middleton had witnessed Pursglove signing for the loan in Florida. But Pursglove wasnt in Florida on the
date indicated: Her passport stamps proved that she was actually in Toronto.
A clearer picture emerged as they studied documents subpoenaed from Daszkal Bolton. It turned out that in
early 2013, after Pursglove asked Xactis executives to inform her of any large cash transfers or major
business decisions, Oesterlund ordered Middleton to cut her off. Over email, he told Middleton to ban her
from their Boca Raton offices and to remove Pursglove as a signatory to the company bank accounts.
Middleton forwarded the email to a Daszkal Bolton accountant. Umm, Houston, we have a problem,
Middleton wrote, referring to Oesterlunds demands. The bank forms adding Middleton to the accounts
supposedly with Pursgloves permission were filed two days later.
A lawyer for Middleton did not reply to a request for comment. (When Fisher deposed him this past April,
Middleton invoked his Fifth Amendment rights almost 300 times, including to the question of whether he
had forged Pursgloves signature.) A spokesman for Daszkal Bolton told me that the firm would not
comment on litigation or client matters. But documents obtained by Fisher suggest that Oesterlunds lawyers

and accountants had indeed spent 2013 trying to make him untouchable, trading complex organizational
charts, debating what companies to create in which countries, even what value to assign them.
Early in the fall of 2014, Fisher printed out a copy of the Xacti organizational chart and taped it behind his
desk. He ordered everyone in the office to keep a copy as well. Every time they found a new Oesterlund
company, they would add it the chart, which came to resemble a convoluted treasure map. In the Caribbean,
there were shell companies with names like Paradise Liquidity I and Integrity Investment Holdings, formed
by a Nevis holding company and then immediately transferred to Oesterlunds Cook Islands trust. There was
a second Cook Islands trust, also created in June 2013, right as the Florida attorney general began nosing
around Oesterlunds businesses again. There was $35 million or more in cash, in bank accounts in, among
other places, Monaco, Luxembourg, Canada and the Bahamas.
Fishers legal assault now presented Oesterlunds helpers with a painful choice: Protect one client, or protect
the system.
Yet on paper, it was hard to find anything that Oesterlund actually owned himself. Shortly after Judge Gillen
froze his assets, Oesterlund removed himself as a beneficiary of the two trusts, even though they now
appeared to contain much of the familys businesses and property. The Toronto penthouse was now owned
by a Delaware corporation, which was owned by a Nevis corporation deposited in one of the Cook trusts. At
some point, Omega had also been transferred into one of the trusts. The Dj Vu, meanwhile, was now
owned by a Caymans corporation whose membership interest its ownership had been shifted into
one of the trusts. In exchange, the trust paid Oesterlund the sum of $100.
Unknown to his wife, Oesterlund had even purchased an apartment complex in Georgia, using $23 million
in loans backed by the Housing and Urban Development Department. The application, which Potter
obtained with an open-records request, was personally signed by Oesterlund, who listed an address in Boca
Raton where he hadnt actually lived in at least four years. But after the sale closed in 2013, other
documents indicated, control of the apartment complex was shifted to a Bahamian company, and finally into
the trust. The United States government appeared to be guaranteeing a $23 million loan to a Cook Islands
trust in the South Pacific.
Oesterlunds legal strategy was also becoming clear: Dont explain anything. The trusts had hired a small
Miami law firm called Kaplan Zeena, whose lawyers excelled at navigating the complexity and opacity of
the offshore legal world. They cited obscure international treaties and arcane points of Caribbean law, Potter
told me. They filed endless procedural and jurisdictional objections, burying Potter and Fisher in paperwork.
Pursglove was now receiving alimony and child support, but much of it was taken up paying off a jumbo
mortgage and back taxes; Fisher would get paid for his firms work only if she won. (Kaplan Zeena, too, did
not respond to emails seeking comment.)
Potter, who had to write most of the replying briefs, believed that Oesterlunds trusts were filing motions or
objections it seemed certain to lose, just to exhaust and bankrupt Pursglove. In one lawsuit, the trusts fought
against releasing a single piece of paper. The goal wasnt merely to win, Potter felt, but to prevent the case
from progressing far enough for its actual merits to be heard. This isnt some weird aspect of the process,
he says. This is the game itself. Nor could Fisher, despite invoking the authority of the Florida attorney
general against Oesterlund, count on help from the actual Florida attorney general. The office had sent a
lawyer to monitor at least one hearing in Pursgloves lawsuit, but had taken no official position on her
claims. Fisher was on his own.
But in the late fall of 2014, Oesterlund ran short of a commodity that had once seemed in bountiful supply:
time. For many months, his lawyers had successfully delayed Fishers demands to depose him in person,
insisting on a variety of jurisdictional, geographic and practical complications. In the process, however,
Oesterlund had exhausted the patience of a series of Florida judges. Now, under threat of being held in
contempt (and, potentially, the courts issuing a warrant for his arrest), Oesterlund agreed to show up in a
Toronto law office.

A video of the day shows that he arrived a few minutes late. Youre shorter than I thought you were,
Oesterlund told Fisher. But for the rest of the deposition, Oesterlund was studiously restrained. He answered
most questions in a monotone, rarely meeting Fishers eye. Fisher tried repeatedly to get Oesterlund to list
his assets. I owned lots of assets, different assets, various assets, Oesterlund said vaguely. He had things
that most people would have, like a watch. Was he really worth $401,769,834, as his accountants once
thought? Oesterlund waved the question away. I dont know where these numbers are taken from, he said,
staring fixedly at the table. How did the penthouse end up in a Cook Islands trust? It was a transaction
between me and my attorney. Which attorney? I cant remember, Oesterlund retorted. I have too many.
But bit by bit, Fisher began to connect Oesterlund back to his own wealth. Oesterlund admitted that he had
signed a rental agreement to live in the Toronto penthouse now owned by the trust. In that case, Fisher
asked, was Oesterlund paying rent? Oesterlund looked up at the ceiling. Its being accrued, he replied; no
money was actually changing hands. Under orders from Rosen, one of his lawyers, Oesterlund refused to
say who was paying the utilities and maintenance at the penthouse. But he admitted that the trust was paying
to fuel, maintain and crew the Dj Vu a boat that he was the only person permitted to use, according to a
copy of the boats insurance contract.
Documents accompanying the deposition provided further evidence that there was little distance between
Oesterlund and the theoretically independent trusts holding his former property. The trusts were paying to
furnish Oesterlund with a private helicopter and even fund his trips to St. Maarten.
In court papers filed that spring and summer, Fisher and Pursgloves Toronto divorce lawyer, Harold Niman,
sharpened their attacks. Oesterlund was a highly successful internet swindler, engaged in internet scams,
forgeries, tax fraud, bank fraud, HUD fraud, immigration fraud, fraudulent overseas transfers and other
misconduct, Fisher told a Florida judge. They also moved to freeze even more of Oesterlunds income, and
not just to make him suffer personally. Fisher and Potter estimated that Oesterlund was burning through
about a million dollars a month, much of it going to pay the lawyers and accountants keeping his maze of
trusts and shell companies in working order.
In March, Fisher went after Wells Fargo, Oesterlunds main link between the name-brand financial-services
world and the gray market of offshore shell companies and trusts. The Wells Fargo accounts, they believed,
were still accumulating revenue from some of the old Xacti businesses the ones selling travel deals or
DVDs or antivirus toolbars some of which had been reconstituted under new, offshore corporations.
Fisher, citing Pursgloves possibly forged signature removing her from the accounts, threatened to sue Wells
Fargo, asserting that the bank had allowed Oesterlund to defraud his wife of millions of dollars. Because of
the competing claims to the accounts, Wells Fargo quickly froze them until the dispute could be settled.
Now neither Oesterlund nor the trusts could access the money.
An even bigger threat to Oesterlund began taking shape in June 2015, when a Florida judge ruled that
Pursglove was entitled to view thousands of pages of emails and documents exchanged by Oesterlund and
other executives at Xacti with their lawyers. Oesterlunds attorneys had tried to keep the documents out of
court, arguing they were protected by attorney-client privilege. Fisher was certain the privileged documents
would contain what he called a smoking gun. He wouldnt just see where the money was hidden, Fisher
believed. He would see Oesterlund plotting how to hide the money. He would get not only direct evidence of
fraud against Pursglove and others, but also emails and memos that might implicate many of the lawyers and
accountants who had helped him. The whole thing could be laid bare.
A few days later, Oesterlunds lawyers asked for a meeting, hinting that if Fisher got the privileged
documents, their client would go on the run. Whatever Oesterlund was hiding, it was so damaging that he
was willing to live in virtual exile in order to keep it from his wife.
Photo

Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson


Fisher and Potter strolled down the block in West Palm Beach to the offices of Squire Patton Boggs a
well-regarded multinational firm that represents Oesterlunds Florida companies to hear them out. The
suggestion made everyone wary. Pursglove could lose by winning: If her husband went into hiding, it would
be hard to wring money out of him. But it would also be bad for Oesterlunds lawyers, particularly for the
Americans. For one thing, Potter would later realize, Oesterlund now had large unpaid legal bills. And
beyond the financial risk was a reputational one. It was one thing to defend a businessman in a civil suit. It
was another to defend a fugitive.
Documents turned over at the June meeting and subsequent ones that summer laid out Oesterlunds position.
Most of his net worth was tied up in the value of his companies, and they were worth less than his
accountants once claimed. He didnt actually have enough wealth to give his wife half of a $400 million
estate the sort of net worth he once declared in order to secure loans for a jet or Georgia real estate. But
now the baroque complexity of Oesterlunds finances had become a noose around his neck. To prove that
Oesterlunds fortune was much smaller, his lawyers had to reveal where and how he had hidden it. If they
refused, and a judge decided to award Pursglove $200 million, Oesterlund wouldnt have enough liquid
wealth to pay up. He could be ruined.
Trapped, Oesterlunds lawyers were now doing Fishers work for him, providing documents that suggested
further violations of the Judge Gillens original asset injunction, Potter told me. One trust had recently sent
Oesterlunds lawyers more than $1 million to cover legal fees. In Potters opinion, Oesterlund had no
choice. He had to decide whether to pay the lawyers, and expose that he could get cash from the trust
whenever he wanted, Potter says, or not pay them, and not be able to fight the suit.
Another bank statement they handed over showed that on a single day in 2014, Oesterlund transferred $48
million into one of the Cook trusts. It was the same day, Fisher quickly realized, that Pursglove discovered

Oesterlund with his new girlfriend. Fisher believed this would be strong evidence in court that the trust had
been set up in anticipation of owing his wife money, which even in most offshore jurisdictions is against the
law.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been drawn out of one trust each month to operate the Dj Vu.
Fishers paralegal hunted for the boat in Oesterlunds usual haunts. Using public webcams at ports around
the French Rivera, she discovered the Dj Vu anchored in the middle of the harbor in Saint-Tropez. Potter
took a working vacation to France and, after a few days of carefully planned sightseeing, found the boat
anchored in Nice. Halfway through a meal at the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, he also found Oesterlund
himself, who strode out onto the dining patio with the interior decorator. Potters own girlfriend snapped a
picture on her cellphone. They left quickly, before Oesterlund noticed them.
In Florida, Oesterlunds lawyers were again running out of time. Oesterlund was now subject to an
increasingly stern series of court orders that he turn over the privileged documents, regardless of any
potential settlement.
This didnt just threaten Oesterlunds fortune. It also had the potential to carve open a portal into the world
of offshore finance, a place that the global elite has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and
defend. In the offshore archipelago, their interests are hidden behind shell companies and trusts, their
anonymity guaranteed under the law, from Delaware to the Bahamas to the South Pacific. James S. Henry, a
former chief economist at McKinsey, calls the offshore financial world the economic equivalent of an
astrophysical black hole, holding at least $21 trillion of the worlds financial wealth, more than the gross
domestic product of the United States.
This darkness shields the tax-averse businessman and the criminal alike. Dictators use the offshore system to
loot their own countries. Drug lords use it to launder money. As Gabriel Zucman, a University of California
economist and an offshore expert, puts it: They use the same banks, they use the same incorporation agents
to create shell companies, they send money in the same ways.
But when the wall of secrecy is breached, the distinction between upright global citizen and criminal can
quickly grow indistinct. In April, media outlets belonging to the International Consortium of Investigative
Journalists published a trove of confidential records leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack
Fonseca, exposing the offshore financial holdings of various kleptocrats and forcing the resignation of the
prime minister of Iceland. Leak the client files of a single middling law firm in Panama City, and you can
take down governments half a world away.
If Fisher could prove that one Cook trust was a sham, then the settlors and administrators of other Cook
trusts could have a harder time defending them in reputable courts. For attorneys and accountants working in
the offshore industry, having private correspondence with a client entered into a public court record would
be a disaster. Anybody could see what they were doing and how they did it. Fishers legal assault now
presented Oesterlunds helpers with a painful choice: Protect one client, or protect the system.
Soon, the tangle of defenders who had once guarded Oesterlunds wealth started to turn against him. One
rainy Friday in July 2015, after losing an appeal on the treasure trove of privileged documents, Oesterlunds
entire team of lawyers at Squire Patton Boggs abruptly quit. Oesterlund, Potter learned, had ordered them to
ignore the courts order to turn over the documents, a serious violation for which the lawyers, all American
citizens, could have been disbarred.
They rejoined the case within days, after Oesterlund agreed to let them release a portion of the files. But it
was a sign that Oesterlund had begun pushing his camp into dangerous territory, both professionally and
legally. The wall of secrecy around Oesterlunds offshore holdings began to collapse. The first batch of
documents, five or six notebooks worth of emails arrived last fall. More would soon follow.
When I spoke with Fisher by phone in February, he sounded confident. Oesterlund appeared to be running
out of cash, Fisher told me; he was missing payments on the loan from C1 Bank. In August, after further

delays in producing the documents, Judge Gillen held Oesterlund and his companies in contempt of court,
dangling the prospect of criminal penalties. Soon after, Oesterlunds personal lawyer in the case quit, citing
irreconcilable differences with his client. Court filings this fall suggested that the civil litigation was
drawing to a close, though both Fisher and Oesterlunds remaining lawyers said they were barred from
discussing any final settlement.
More even than the laws of the worlds tax havens, the offshore financial system is kept afloat by the legions
of professionals accountants, lawyers, incorporation agents who are paid well to service it. But the
people who work to dismantle that system also have to be paid. If the case Fisher had constructed against
Oesterlund was correct, I once proposed to him, then at least some of the money coming to him and
Pursglove would seem to be tainted. Fisher disagreed, and unspooled an intricate accounting of his own.
When he cracked open the Cook trusts, Fisher argued, the money would come back home. Whatever
liabilities Oesterlund had to consumers would be payable by what remained of the businesses. Pursglove and
her payout would live in Boca Raton, within easy reach of United States law. I would always view the
dollars that I get to be legitimate dollars, Fisher said.
But this would be a justice of wealth battling wealth, hammering through the veneer of trusts and shell
companies to serve private ends. Fishers own role as public crusader would end, circumscribed by
Pursgloves interests. He and Potter had sent packages of evidence to the Palm Beach sheriffs department,
the inspector general of HUD, and the United States attorneys office. Those authorities might take a hard
look at Oesterlunds business dealings and the well-paid professionals who made them all possible. Or they
might lay the packages aside, alongside other complex cases that take extraordinary amounts of time and
money to pursue. In the end, Im not a private attorney general, Fisher mused. Im a private attorney.
Nicholas Confessore is a national political reporter for The Times.
A version of this article appears in print on December 4, 2016, on page MM32 of the Sunday Magazine with
the headline: Sea of Money.