Zambia

At about the same time Capital Bank was being shut down by the Central Bank in Georgia, another bank associated with Zala Group was taken over by the authorities, and its assets seized. The bank was Intermarket Banking Corporation in Zambia. Local media reported:

Intermarket Banking Corporation has become the first victim of the Bank of Zambia stringent capital adequacy requirement which has forced the bank to become insolvent.

Closure seemed imminent. People lined up at the bank’s headquarters in Lusaka to demand their money back.

Zambia’s Central Bank released a statement saying:

The Bank of Zambia has determined that Intermarket Banking Corporation Zambia Limited is insolvent and not able to meet its obligations as they fall due.
The statement continued:
The Bank of Zambia wishes to remind the general public that the decision to take over the affairs of Intermarket Banking Corporation, is intended to safeguard the interests of depositors and preserve the integrity of the financial system.
“…the Bank is not going into liquidation but is being restructured so that it meets its obligations and consequently its capitalization requirements to continue its normal operations.”
“…as a result of financial commitments by shareholders and a new equity partner, the Statement of Affairs of the Assets and Liabilities shows that IBC is now solvent.”
So a new (unnamed) “equity partner” had appeared on the scene and provided a cash injection to restore the bank to solvency. But a month later account holders still are not able to access their funds. And just two days ago, the country’s Finance Minister urged the Central Bank to reopen the bank “as soon as possible.”
But, as one commentator noted, who will keep their money in a bank with a proven track record of irresponsibility?

Drug Smuggling

Tying up more loose ends. Thanks to all the people at behindmlm.com for the great leads.

In September 2015 (the same month that ESOL bought a stake in Capital Bank), a man named Martin Henry Beckett was arrested in London as part of a gang smuggling cannabis into the UK.

According to the media in the UK:

A gang smuggled cannabis worth £24 million in industrial tubes wrapped up in CARPETS.

The smugglers created a company called ‘Mogafish Flooring’ to purchase and transport the carpets across the continent using legitimate transport firms.

Over six months they managed to get around 2.5 tonnes of high grade cannabis into the UK.

The company Mogafish Flooring was registered at a London address long known to house front companies.

Beckett and his cronies were not only involved in drug smuggling, however. Filings with Companies House show that Beckett had been a company director of no less than four companies. One of those companies was Zala Group Ltd. It was created on the 9th of June 2015, and used the same address as Mogafish. Beckett was also the sole director of Oculus Europe Ltd. (registered on the same day as Zala and at the same address).

Beckett was convicted in March 2016 and sentenced to 9 years and 10 months for “…conspiracy to import class B drugs.”

In a post on 20 March 2016 behindmlm.com wrote that OneCoin had suspended its “MasterCard processing and card loading’.

“In effect, cards issued to OneCoin affiliates are currently useless “until further notice”.”

The website managed to find out that OneCoin was using Zala Group Ltd. as “the issuing merchant”. That is, the company that Beckett (who was now in prison) had been the sole director and shareholder of.

But here is where the story takes another twist. There is also a Zala Group LLC that was registered in Florida in June 2013. The name on the paperwork of this company is one Gilbert R Armenta (the shareholder of ESOL and Capital Bank). The company is still active and was registered (until just a few days ago) at 110 E. Broward Blvd. 1900, Fort Lauderdale, FL, 33301. As I mentioned in my original blog post, this address was the same one used by both BlueNRGY and the Florida company that OneCoin was using after their activity at Capital Bank ended in November 2015. Also registered at this address was a company called Oculus GW LLC. The name on that paperwork is Armenta’s partner at ESOL, William C Morro.

Zala Group’s website offers “general purpose reloadable cards” via MasterCard (which appears to be what OneCoin was doing). The idea being that you could exchange your fraudulent OneCoins for money to be spent at your local Starbucks (for example).

Zala’s contact page looks like this:

Screen shot 2017-03-29 at 10.11.58

One final note: Beckett was taken off the paperwork of Zala and Oculus on 1 March 2016 (just before his conviction). He was replaced by Baron Menzel at both companies. There is a Baron Menzel who has been floating around the gambling world for some time (let’s just say he’s not exactly clean).

More Details

I do not like leaving loose ends, so I decided to keep digging into the story of Capital Bank.

One clarification: as of 30 September 2016, the bank’s sole shareholder was ESOL BV.

As I previously mentioned, William C Morro was on the supervisory board of the Bank as a representative of ESOL BV. He is also partner and co-founder of a business called Inter-American Group

According to Morro’s own biography, the company is “…a U.S. investment and advisory firm focused primarily on middle-market businesses with cross-border operations in North America and/or Latin America.”

The firm appears to have gone through several iterations before becoming Inter-American Group in 2002. It was the brainchild of a Dr Richard N Sinkin. Sinkin‘s CV is lengthy, but here are a few highlights:

Dr. Sinkin is an elected member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, and the San Diego Dialogue in San Diego.

He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, holding a PhD in History from that institution.

Sinkin’s father was Bill Sinkin, who was an activist and businessman in Texas. Among other activities, Bill Sinkin founded Solar San Antonio.

Bill Sinkin’s other son, Lanny, moved to Hawaii in 2014 to become an advocate of Hawaiian separatism. He was invited to Moscow in September 2015 as a representative of the dynastic king of Hawaii, according to Sputnik. The Russian press quoted Sinkin as saying:

“The [United States] tries to isolate Russia and to put on sanctions, but they really can’t do without Russia, so they are moving back to have relations with Russia,”

I don’t know what any of this means, but I did want to put it out here.

Addendum

After I finished writing yesterday’s article, I recalled an incident that had been reported briefly in the media in the UK about a year ago.

The City of London police reported:

A South Wales man has been arrested by the City of London Police in possession of bankers’ drafts worth £30 million in what is believed to be the biggest ever money seizure made by UK law enforcement.

What caught my eye, though, was the reference to Georgia as a transit country.

…in November 2015 $19 million was transferred into the company account and converted into Euros via an intermediary foreign exchange company, with the majority then being sent on to Georgia.

Nobody ever followed up on the story, and the police never made any further announcements that I could find. I tried to dig around a bit on my own, but the information given by the police was too vague to pin anything down for sure. The amount of money made it seem that it would have been one of the bigger banks here that was used. But the date of November 2015 leads me now to believe that it was likely Capital Bank that was used and that the money ended up with the OneCoin team. Though, of course, that is purely speculation.

Bank Fraud & Crypto Scams

I’m going to take you on a journey around the world in this story. We will start in Georgia, and travel to Australia, Bulgaria, Florida, Texas, New York, and the UK (though not necessarily in that order).

This past November JSC Capital Bank had its licence revoked by the National Bank of Georgia (the country’s Central Bank). Capital Bank was not that big of a player on the market, making up only 0.35% by assets as of 30 September 2016, or 16th out of only 17 banks.

According to KPMG Georgia,

“The NBG Auditing process detected that the bank had ignored requirements for prevention of legalizing illegal revenues, as well as various facts of violation of NBG regulations, resolutions and instructions.”

40% of the bank was held by Georgian Merab Chikhradze through a shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Chikhradze is a partner in a plan to build a hotel in the old Agricultural Ministry building near Heroes Square. The building has been boarded up ever since I arrived here four years ago, with signage indicating that a hotel is planned for the site. I did see some people in hardhats wandering around the outside of the building recently, but no work appears to be happening.

Chikhradze’s own social media activity also shows that he has franchised with LafargeHolcim in the cement business here in Georgia. A new cement factory was opened in Poti this past October.

The remaining 60% of Capital Bank was bought in late 2015 by Netherlands registered ESOL BV. ESOL is controlled by a 54 year-old American citizen located in Florida, Gilbert Richard Armenta. Armenta has at least 15 companies registered in Florida alone. He has also been involved in court cases in the US since at least 2009 for a scheme he ran with his Florida registered private equity firm E Oliver Capital Group Inc. He was sued in Texas by Huawei for breach of contract. Huawei eventually won a judgment in 2012 of about $4.2 million, though whether they were able to recover any of it is unclear. Another 2012 judgment in New York found that Armenta and EOCG owed $37.5 million (this sounds like some form of the onward loan scam that I’ve written about here before, but it is hard to tell for sure from the article I linked to… if somebody wants to correct me on this, please feel free).

ESOL BV is also the holder of about 9% of Australia’s BlueNRGY Group Ltd. The company is currently facing a class-action lawsuit which alleges that “…BlueNRGY issued materially false financial statements during the Class Period” [June – October 2014]. BlueNRGY’s chairman, William C Morro, was also a member of the board at Capital Bank.

Shortly after Armenta & ESOL appeared on the scene as “investors” in Capital Bank, the ponzi scheme, OneCoin, also appeared in connection with the bank. The association officially only lasted about a month, before the company moved to an account with US based TD Bank. Both the address and the company associated with the TD account are Armenta’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is also the US address used by BlueNRGY.

OneCoin bills itself as an alternative to the increasingly popular cryptocurrency BitCoin. An interview with OneCoin’s Ruja Ignatova explains the background and what they are allegedly trying to do with it.

 

Ignatova claims to have worked for McKinsey for 5 years, after studying at Oxford in 2004.

However, in September last year, the UK’s Finance Conduct Authority issued a warning to consumers regarding the scam, writing:

We believe consumers should be wary of dealing with OneCoin, which claims to offer the chance to make money through the trading and ‘mining’ of virtual currencies.

They also warned that:

As OneCoin is not authorised, consumers who deal with it will have no protection from the Financial Ombudsman Service or the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

An article in July had a takedown of OneCoin, explaining how the scheme works, and why it is not in fact a legitimate form of crypto-currency.

Another discussion on the scam referenced Mavrodi’s MMM scam that ran throughout the 1990s in Russia (which I have written about here).

Meanwhile, the story of OneCoin continues to play out in Bulgaria, with investigative journalists there following Ignatova’s activities there (though unfortunately, still only in Bulgarian).

View story at Medium.com

Casinos

The Georgian government is pinning its hopes mainly on tourism to boost its economy. Last autumn, the Prime Minister stated that the country hopes to host eight million tourists a year by 2020. And they are well on their way to achieving that goal. More than six million tourists visited Georgia last year. The government even planned an advertising campaign surrounding the visit of 2016’s six millionth tourist.

According to the World Bank:

“Tourism is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in Georgia – total contributions accounting for 23.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 20.1% of total direct and indirect employment in 2015. The sector also currently provides as much as 36.4% of total export earnings.”

One draw is the casino scene. Georgia is well placed to take advantage of the gambling market. Most tourists come to Georgia from the neighboring countries of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. All three have strict anti-gambling laws. Azerbaijan and Turkey have banned casinos altogether, while Russia only allows them to operate in strategic locations, targeting tourists themselves. In 2009 Russia banned casinos in all but 4 enclaves: Kaliningrad, Krasnodar, Altai in eastern Siberia, and the Far East. But at the time, little infrastructure had been built.

More recently, Sochi has been added to the list. The hopes that Russia had placed in making the 2014 Olympic site of Sochi a tourist mecca for winter sports enthusiasts have not panned out. The government has instead turned to casinos to make up for the disappointing returns on their infrastructure investment. The first casino was officially opened on 5 January 2017.

In Georgia, meanwhile, the casino industry has been growing, as the government has tried to make the market attractive to investors, offering incentives like a flat tax, no income tax, and no tax on payouts. Earlier this month, the third annual Georgia Gaming Congress took place in Tbilisi, bringing together representatives from the government and various players in the gambling industry.

And it seems to be paying off.

In 2011, gambling contributed to government coffers the [Georgian currency] lari-equivalent of just about $7.3 million.”

Just two years later, according to a 2014 report by Transparency International Georgia,

“…the turnover of gambling and other gaming companies totalled approximately GEL [Georgian Lari] 1.213 billion while duties collected from permits were over GEL 105.2 million, making up to 1.4% of the 2013 state budget revenues.”

Trasparency also found:

“As of 1 October 2014, there are 94 gambling or gaming companies operating in Georgia. This list includes 32 large companies. Most companies are operating in Tbilisi, followed by Batumi and Kutaisi.”

The owner of stakes in several of the casinos in Georgia appears to be Davit Yakobashvili. Yakobashvili has been involved in the casino business since the 1990s, opening one of the first casinos in Moscow (shut down by Putin’s 2009 order).

In an interview [Rus] last year, Yakobashvili stated he saw no problem ethically with having interests in casinos.

“There are people who need an adrenaline rush… and they find it at the casino. By the way, I myself don’t play, I’ve never liked it, but I don’t blame anyone either.”

Georgia

I have been taking a break from Russian politics and have recently been looking at the situation here in Georgia instead. As I’ve moved over into more open-source intel over the past couple of years, I’ve found that eventually everything connects and Georgia is no exception to that maxim. There is no escaping Russia, and all the more so if you are their neighbor. I am hoping to turn this into a small series about some things that have been happening here.

I have some ideas about what I want to focus on, but if you have questions of your own about the situation here, please ask in the comments section, and I will try to find out what I can.

Why I Quit Twitter

I’ve been asked by several friends now about my views on the situation in the US. I have lived abroad for the last four years, so I feel like an outsider observer. Let me be clear, I did not vote in this last election. I got a lot of flak for it, but I still refuse to apologize for my decision. There was nothing in Clinton’s past record to recommend her. But Trump’s lack of experience was also worrying.

But what really bothered to me was the fact that the discussion on issues were once again pushed aside in favor of name calling and finger pointing. I think the US system is terribly broken, and needs to be reformed, but neither candidate was offering a way out. This only exacerbated my feeling of apathy. I would now self-describe as “agnostic” when it comes to American politics.

At the same time, I have been driven to quit Twitter. I initially joined the social media platform because I wanted to find others who were similarly interested in politics and foreign policy, especially in relation to Russia, a place and culture that has fascinated me for decades.

But in the past year or so I noticed that people were tribalizing. People had formed groups based on a common set of beliefs and were refusing to engage with others who held differing viewpoints. But worse than this, these groups were ganging up on people who held opposing views. Name-calling, bullying, etc. were taking place. In addition, I was blocked by several people for pointing out facts that did not agree with their agenda. No discussion took place. I just noticed one day that I had been blocked from seeing their tweets.

Far from being a place for discussion and debate that Twitter was initially, it had turned into an unwelcoming, and even sometimes frightening place. And I realized it had become a microcosm of what was happening in society at large. The fragmentation and tribalization of groups who could not see eye to eye. But instead of discussing their differences rationally, they had resorted to name calling and bullying, or just refused to talk to one another.

In addition, I had noticed for about a year or more that I was not getting many responses from people who wanted to discuss issues, but wanted to show off their own knowledge about or hatred of Russia. I laughed about it at first, but after awhile it started to get annoying. I confess I even started muting a few people because of it.

I joined Twitter initially to engage with people who had similar interests. Both to learn from others and to share my own views. And it was great for that. I met a lot of people from around the world who I would not have had I not had the platform. And I am grateful to the people who were willing to engage in discussion and healthy debate.