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

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.

Rosneft Distraction

I got another notification in my Google Alerts yesterday about the Rosneft “privatization” scheme. According to the Russian press, the money for the purchase of the 19.5% stake in Rosneft came from Russian bank VTB:

But this just raises more questions, as Russia’s former deputy Finance Minister Sergei Aleksashenko points out.

First, Aleksashenko points out, despite the Russian government’s claims to the contrary, the money from the “sale” did not reach the federal budget last year. Of course, we already knew this based on both the statements of Glencore and Qatar, and on the filings I shared in my last post on this subject.

But a government official lying about something in Russia is nothing new, and you can’t fire them for it. So there cannot be “any political continuation of this story”.

Then there is still confusion about how the money is supposed to be transferred to the federal budget. Technically, the money should be paid to Rosneftegas, then paid to the budget as a dividend on profits earned from the sale. But that would not equal the full 692 billion roubles. And it would not show up on the books until this year or even next year.

But nobody in Russia cares about any of this, Aleksashenko says. Rosneftegas won’t be audited, and won’t be investigated. And these are all just “technical details” anyway. The main question that nobody seems to be able to answer is “who is the real buyer of the 19.5% stake in Rosneft?”

“The official version of a parity partnership of Glencore and QIA (Qatar investment fund) does not maintain the minimum checks on plausibility. Indeed if the partnership is created on the principle of 50/50, then why do the financial contributions of the participants differ by an order? The Qatar foundation paid 2.5 billion euros, and Glencore only 300 million [euros]?”

And then there is the question of why Glencore got a contract for gas deliveries, and Qatar didn’t. “Where is the equality there?” Aleksashenko asks.

Note: this is not entirely true. As I wrote last week, the deal on the gas deliveries was with QHG Trading LLP (which is equally split between a QIA subsidiary and Glencore Energy UK).

“Continuing on. We still do not know who Intesa’s partner is and who lent the buyer [Qatar] 2.5 billion euros.”

Then Aleksashenko casts doubt on the ability of the “borrowers” [Qatar & Glencore] to repay the loan. He also notes that the terms of the loan from Intesa are still a mystery.

But this is also not quite true. The paperwork for the three loans (possibly only two?) has been uploaded on the website of Companies House in the UK, but I am having difficulty making any sense of them. The numbers don’t match what we were told, and the participants are still murky. Who is QHG Cayman, for example. And Intesa is still listed as the lender.

Even so, Aleksashenko writes, if the “borrowers” (QHG Investment & QHG Holding) cannot repay the loans, then the “lender” (technically still Intesa) will own the shares.

“And that, it seems, is the essence of the transaction.”

He then reminds his readers that the initial proposal was for Rosneft to “buy” its own shares from Rosneftegas and then sell the same shares to an outside buyer at some later date. But this idea was allegedly rejected by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But, Alexsashenko continues, that it seems likely that Sechin’s original plan was implemented, but “with modifications”. And he alleges that VTB’s role here was to distract from this fact.

Rosneft Mysteries

Yesterday Reuters had a headline that caught my eye: “Rosneft signs 5-year oil supply deal with QHG Trading”.

Of course, I had questions. So I went digging. It turned out that this was the deal that had been agreed to last month with Glencore as part of Rosneft’s “privatization” scheme. But more than that, filings with Companies House in the UK revealed that Glencore had set up a complex structure just prior to the deal’s announcement in early December.

This is perhaps not so strange if you had read Glencore’s statement from early December about the proposed partnership with the Qatar Investment Authority.

In the press release, Glencore stated that they had put together a “limited liability structure fully ring-fenced and non-recourse to Glencore…”

So what does the structure look like?

On 5 December 2016 Glencore registered three LLPs (Limited Liability Partnerships) in the UK. They are as follows:

QHG Investment is split equally between QHG Holding & Qatar registered Qatar Holding LLC (a subsidiary of Qatar Investment Authority). The structure had initially been divided between Glencore UK Limited and Glencore Energy UK Limited. QHG Holding replaced Glencore UK on 28 December, and Qatar Holding did not sign on until 30 December, replacing Glencore Energy UK.

QHG Holding is split between Glencore Energy UK, Qatar Holding LLC, and an entity called QHG Cayman Ltd. (more about this later). Again the pattern repeats, and Qatar did not sign on until 30 December, this time replacing Glencore UK.

And finally, QHG Trading is split equally between Glencore Energy UK and Qatar Holding LLC. And Qatar again replaces Glencore UK on 30 December.

Now here is where it gets interesting. On 3 January 2017, three charges are registered. QHG Investment registers two “fixed charges” from “Intesa Sanpaolo S.P.A., London Branch”.

 Unfortunately there is no paperwork to show exactly what the deals entail, but according to Companies House, one of the charges:

  • Contains fixed charge.
  • Contains floating charge.
  • Floating charge covers all the property or undertaking of the company.
  • Contains negative pledge.

And the other charge:

  • Contains fixed charge.
  • Contains negative pledge.

QHG Holding also registers a “fixed charge” from “Intesa Sanpaolo S.P.A., London Branch” on 3 January 2017:

  • Contains fixed charge.
  • Contains negative pledge.

A quick look at “Intesa Sanpaolo S.P.A., London Branch” shows no such charges, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But it does raise more questions about where exactly the money for the transaction came from, and where it went, or if it even existed at all. Meanwhile, Reuters reported on 3 January that Intesa said they were underwriting “a loan for up to 5.2 billion euros ($5.4 billion)…”.

According to the Russian business daily RBC, Rosneft was supposed to conclude the privatization deal by 15 December 2016.

“On the same day, Rosneftegas transferred funds from the transaction to the federal budget. However, Glencore only confirmed the completion of the settlements on 3 January 2017 [the same date as the charges mentioned above, -ed.] and Rosneftegas on 4 January. In [its] January report the state holding company reported “the end of all corporate and technical procedures of closing and settlement”, associated with the transaction. Rosneftegas specified that it came to… more than 50 documents and agreements signed in “more than five” jurisdictions.”

RBC also reported that QHG Investment LLP holds a 100% stake in QHG Shares PTE which was registered in Singapore on 8 December 2016. The authorized capital of QHG Shares PTE is divided into 201 ordinary shares & totals €10,243 billion. QHG Shares PTE holds the 19.5% stake of Rosneft that Russia “privatized”.

And another mystery remains: who is the beneficial owner of QHG Caymen Ltd.?  RBC couldn’t find it, and neither can I.

$50 Million Tax Free

In the middle of the unfolding Khodorkovsky drama, a story emerged that another Russian businessman was facing troubles with the government in Moscow. Nikolai Bogachyov had agreed to sell a stake in a project to develop the South Tambey field on the Yamal-Nenetsk peninsula to a consortium of three foreign companies: Spanish Repsol, Shell, and Petro Canada. Bogachyov held the production license for the field, which was estimated to contain reserves of 1.2 trillion cubic metres of gas.

The Russian state-owned natural gas company Gazprom sued, claiming that South Tambey had been theirs to begin with, and was given up in a shady deal by the company’s former leadership. The dispute was finally resolved in an out-of-court settlement in the middle of 2005.

Nikolai Bogachyov’s background is typical of the Soviet nomenklatura. Born in 1955, he lived in New York as a child while his father, Vladimir, worked at the UN as a journalist for TASS (a typical cover for the KGB at the time) from 1959 to 1964. Vladimir returned to the United States at least once after that assignment. He reportedly had an affair with the Communist artist, Alice Neel, in 1969.

The elder Bogachyov was later involved in the formation of Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (LDRP) in the early 1990s, but soon split off to form his own party, according to a 1994 article in the Washington Post.

Nikolai Bogachyov claimed he walked away with $20 million in exchange for his cooperation with Gazprom in 2005. He had allegedly previously demanded $50 million. Either of these amounts were mere pocket change when discussing the long-term potential of a field like South Tambey.

Whatever really happened behind the scenes is still unclear, but it most likely did not take place as reported. Filings with Companies House in the UK indicate that Bogachyov did walk away with nearly $50 million, tax-free.

Over a period of about 18 months, Bogachyov gave up his shares in exchange for a series “loans”. He first took a loan of $15 million from Switzerland-based commodities trader Glencore, using his shares in Yamal LNG as a guarantee.

Bogachyov then took $20 million from an arm of the Irish-registered emerging markets investment vehicle Ashmore. He again used the same shares as collateral. Using the second loan of $20 million from Ashmore, Bogachyov paid back the $15 million from Glencore. He was now ahead $5 million.

Over the next several months, Bogachyov continued to take loans from Ashmore using the same shares as collateral.

Tambey then transferred these loans to two shell corporations: one in Nassau, Bahamas, and the other in Moscow.  After an appropriate period of time, the two shell corporations were declared insolvent, meaning that the UK company could not pay back the original loan to Ashmore. The UK company then declared insolvency itself, effectively defaulting on the loan. The shares were then transferred to Ashmore, who presumably then transferred them to Gazprom.

But the scam was that both shell companies were associated with Bogachyov. The parent company of the UK-based Tambeygas was the Nassau company Prato Investments Limited. Prato was the recipient of $1,543,096 in loans from Tambeygas. The second company, Moscow-based Ruad Gas Limited received $46,142,618 in loans from Tambeygas. Ruad was also a subsidiary of Prato, and was registered at the same address where Bogachyov’s Yamal Energy Partners was registered.

In the end, Bogachyov walked away with a little under $50 million (less ~$2.3 million in fees), tax-free.

P.S. There is a second part to this story, but I am still trying to untangle it.

PaNOrama

A protest took place yesterday in Tbilisi against the proposed Panorama project in the historical old district of the city. I tweeted a few links with the background of the project, but I’d like to bring up another aspect to all of this.

 

In March 2014, the Georgian Co-Investment Fund brought its proposal for the Panorama development to Tbilisi City Hall.

The following month City Hall rejected the plans saying that the Fund had provided insufficient documentation. The city authorities also indicated that they were unhappy with the location Ivanishvili had chosen for the project, and suggested an alternative.

“The planning and technical-economic research of the project needs more justification. It is also important to make the correct selection of city planning in terms of a comparative study, based on the analysis,” read the report.

City Hall was not opposed to more development for tourism, but the location of Panorama was problematic for both environmental and historical reasons.

The local NGO “Green Alternative” says that “the project will upset the ecological balance in the region. In addition, historic conservationists assert that the development plans will end any chance the city has of being a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Tbilisi will lose money as a result. The old district of Tbilisi was proposed as a World Heritage site in 2007.

The Fund’s CEO, Giorgi Baciashvili, insists that Panorama will boost tourism. But Ivanishvili, who says he’s doing this out of the goodness of his heart, admits that the project is unprofitable. At least at first. He claims that the project could become profitable eventually if others join. But so far Ivanishvili still appears to be the only investor in the estimated $500 million project.

In addition, several plots of land that Ivanishvili owned were sold to the Georgian Co-Investment Fund. The Fund was established by Ivanishvili in 2013, with an initial investment of $1 billion by the billionaire. The amount paid by the Fund to Ivanishvili has not been disclosed.

Meanwhile, Ivanishvili appears to be stacking Tbilisi City Hall with his own people. In January, a new Deputy Mayor was appointed. Grigol Liluashvili previously worked at Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank, and at another company associated with the Panorama Project.

According to the news portal Civil.ge: “Liluashivli…said that “timely” implementation of infrastructure projects would be among his priorities.”

His predecessor had reportedly been sacked due to the fact that he was taking too long to implement infrastructure projects.

A former City Hall employee has recently alleged that he was sacked and then charged with bribery due to his boss’s refusal to approve Ivanishvili’s pet project. This has not been confirmed, but rather denied by others involved.

City Hall’s Irakli Abesadze has also accused Ivanishvili of installing his own people at City Hall to further his own agenda.

“The recent personnel changes have nothing to do with the problems at the capita or improvement of the living standards of citizens. The appointment of Cartu Group employees at the government of Tbilisi serves for contribution of Bidzina Ivanishvili”s personal interests,”- Irakli Abesadze said.

What should be a straight-forward request for the municipal government to follow standard procedures has now turned into another example of the country’s king-maker imposing his will on the local government.