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CASPERSEN SUICIDE LINKED TO TAX INQUIRY

Billionaire blue blood Finn Caspersen, whose Tampa ties and past ownership of Harbour Island made him a regional version of royalty, committed suicide 10 days ago. Only now are the reasons for his self-inflicted gunshot to the head coming to light.

Caspersen, 67, suffered from kidney cancer and had undergone chemotherapy. But it was a federal investigation of possible tax evasion in offshore accounts, of keeping untold millions tucked away in a secretive Liechtenstein bank, that likely pushed Caspersen over the edge.

For all his pedigree and power - as former head of giant consumer lender Beneficial Corp., as a major Republican Party fundraiser, as a former Florida town commissioner in millionaire-laden Jupiter Island, where he lived, and as one of New Jersey's best-connected power brokers - Caspersen still could not quite evade the tax man.

Details of the federal tax pursuit of Caspersen appeared in Wednesday's New York Times. But whispers of his illness and "financial problems" could first be heard last week. In Florida, Caspersen friend Nathaniel Reed, known best to Floridians as an environmental activist but whose family founded Jupiter Island, told the local Stuart newspaper that Caspersen had experienced an "unbelievable" financial setback, but he declined to reveal details.

At Caspersen's funeral Tuesday in Morristown, N.J., with former governors, congressmen and a university president among nearly 900 attending, friends said Caspersen struggled with health and money problems.

Exact details of his tax woes are still coming into focus, but Caspersen may have owed up to $100 million in taxes and fines and faced prison.

The New York Times story says Caspersen got swept up in the high-profile federal crackdown on offshore bank accounts used by wealthy Americans. After Swiss banking giant UBS was snared by federal investigators for helping wealthy American clients hide taxable money overseas, the bank agreed to disclose the names of thousands of U.S. clients.

According to the New York Times, the IRS connected Caspersen to an account at the private bank LGT, controlled by Liechtenstein's royal family. Liechtenstein agreed to disclose the names of some wealthy American clients, but it's not clear whether Caspersen's name was made public.

Caspersen was a poster child for America's silver spoon club. He attended an elite prep school before attending the Ivy League's Brown University and graduating from Harvard Law School, from which all four of his sons would later graduate.

His father founded Beneficial Finance, handing it to Caspersen to grow the business before selling it for more than $8 billion in 1998. He was an expert equestrian and, as friend Reed noted, "one of the greatest experts on French wine in the world."

Now that bejeweled world may crumble if tax evasion charges materialize.

A few years ago, Caspersen gave $30 million to Harvard Law School. It was the school's largest gift ever. If tax evasion charges stick, will Harvard have to give it all back?

America loves royalty. Tampa will always revere its Prince Caspersen, and pardon him if it becomes necessary.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

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