The German Commerzbank is in the news for two reasons: there are rumours that the German government might be about to take it over – and German prosecutors have, according to the Wall Street Journal, indicted five men on charges of laundering $150m for Leonid Reiman, Vladimir Putin’s minister of communications 1999-2008. Four of them are bankers from Commerzbank and known to have advised Reiman. The fifth man is the Danish lawyer Jeffrey Peter Galmond (whose saga WSJ has followed closely), who isn’t only connected to Russian oligarchs but also to some of the Icelanders who got very rich very quickly.
Galmond is a Danish lawyer who went native in St Petersburg of the 90s when mayor Anatoly Sobchak (1937-2000) was the city’s most powerful man. The mayor was a sort of mentor to both Putin and Reiman who came to outshine the mentor.
At the same time, an Icelandic father and son, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson were building up their fortune. Their St Petersburg story was told in two articles in Euromoney in 2002, when the two, together with their co-investor from Russia Magnus Thorsteinsson, were buying the Icelandic Landsbanki. These three were hired by a company set up by an English businessman, Bernard Lardner and his Icelandic partner Ingimar Ingimarsson. In a new book by Ingimarsson he tells the story, earlier told in Euromoney, but in greater detail.
Lardner had a successful financial career behind him, first as a brilliant financial analyst in London, later as an investor, interested in countries going through privatisation, such as in South America and St Petersburg.
After selling a phone company the two set up, Lardner and Ingimarsson ventured into soft drinks with machinery that Gudmundsson was selling in Iceland. To run their Baltic Bottling Plant, Gudmundsson recommended his son. Bjorgolfsson quickly learnt Russian and was in charge of the operations.
As time went on, Lardner and Ingimarsson didn’t quite trust the Icelanders. Preferring stronger ties to the Western soft drink industry they decided to hire an Englishman from the soft drink industry to run the operation. But before it happened they learnt, in late 1995, that Gudmundsson now owned BBP. This came as a bit of a surprise to them since they didn’t know they had sold it. The Russians who owned 25% of the company didn’t seem to mind. Both Ingimarsson and Lardner experienced unpleasant pressure and threats.
Lardner quickly decided that there wasn’t much they could do. Ingimarsson tried both the Russian and the Icelandic courts. Though rulings went in the favour of Ingimarsson and Lardner there was no way of enforcing them. In the end, the company they once owned was empty – the assets had moved elsewhere and the three Icelanders had developed a highly profitable brewery, later sold to Heineken.
Heineken’s spokesman says to Icelog that when Heineken bought the brewery it conducted due diligence. But that was seven years after Gudmundsson claimed to have bought BBP and many new companies had come into being.
On his Icelandic website, Bjorgolfsson disputes Ingimarsson’s story, calls it fiction and promises to refute this fiction when he has had the time to look at old documents. He also writes on the website that Galmond has never represented him but that two lawyers working for Galmond have. Also that he has never met Reiman.
According to Ingimarsson, Galmond was Bjorgolfsson’s lawyer in the court cases related to the Baltic Bottling Plant and was later involved in the sale to Heineken. In Danish media Bjorgolfsson has been mentioned as a client of Galmond, as have companies connected to Jon Asgeir Johannesson, Baugur and other smaller Icelandic companies. Claus Abildstrom, Galmond’s partner, sat on the board of Magasin du Nord after Baugur bought the company in 2004.
Now back to Galmond. Around 2000 the Danish lawyer appeared on the Russian business scene as a Western investor, just what Russia needed. In 2001 he bought a stake in the Russian mobile company Megafon. But a prelude to this acquisition transpired in a German civil case in January 2008 involving Commerzbnk. The bank’s annual reports 1996-2001 showed certain assets to belong to the bank when they were actually held in trust for Galmond. Commerzbank was ordered to pay €7.3m.
Galmond’s ownership of the Megafon shares came under scrutiny shortly after he bought them when the Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman claimed this was indeed his stake. This dispute has kept courts in the Netherlands, Sweden, Britain, Switzerland, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda busy over the years. These cases have unveiled that Galmond wasn’t just an ordinary investor but a straw-man for Reiman who was forced to resign in the end.
In spring 2008 this fierce battle came to an end, or some sort of a resolution, when Alisher Usmanov bought the Megafon stake from Galmond. Usmanov is one of the oligarchs who have made London their home and he was, incidentally, a Kaupthing client and a Kaupthing shareholder in 2008: just before the collapse of Kauphting it had decided to lend him respectively €1,1bn and $1.2bn.
Just as the court case Berezovsky vs Abramovitch gives an idea of Russia in the 90s, the Megafon cases have shown the craft of money laundering and other Russian operations during the first decade of this century.
In 2004 Galmond’s company, IPOC, had to issue a guarantee to a Swiss court of $40m in one of the innumerable Megafon court cases. The court couldn’t accept the money without checking its origin. It didn’t quite trust the Ernst & Young report IPOC provided and got a PwC accountant in London to scrutinise IPOC’s information. The PwC accountant came to the conclusion that the intricate web of IPOC companies was sheltering a money-laundering scheme.
This fascinating report, that I have read, is indeed a handbook for money laundering detection. It gives a careful description of signs of money laundering, describes both the general theory of money laundering and its practice in IPOC. A payment that to the untrained eye seems just a payment from one company to the other is something entirely different to the expert who uses Financial Action Task Force methodology.
One example is very high consultancy fees. Anything strange there? After the Olympus case we know that yes, abnormal consultancy fees can hide irregularities. The expert points out that if the company that gets paid for consultancy doesn’t have any staff to carry out the consultancy, ie is only a shell, then that’s possibly a sign of illegal flow of money. Another example is inter-group loans where loans are given to shell companies with no operations that could profit from loans.
It’s interesting to keep in mind that mobile companies are very well structured for money laundering because it’s easy to set up false transactions on a large scale and move funds between countries. A telecom company in Bulgaria buys international calling time, ie access to international cables, from a broker in Bermuda, which the Bulgarian company owns. Somewhere in the world there is a server that functions as a VoIP caller. It calls over a rented line to Bulgaria and sets up connections to different places around the world, all going by the cable access bought via Bulgaria from own Bermuda company. No one can track the scam and by the way, the company can also hold on to VAT instead of paying it to Bulgaria and countries it calls to. This is an easy and efficient way of moving large amount of money quickly, digitally and untraceably, all over the world.
But back to Galmond. The court case in Switzerland showed he laundered money, with Bermuda companies involved. Bermuda authorities aren’t known to be hyper-sensitive to the origin of the money sloshing around in Bermuda companies. But because money laundering in the IPOC Bermuda companies was virtually proven in a Swiss Court Bermuda decided to liquidate IPOC companies in Bermuda. In 2008, IPOC pleaded guilty of furnishing false information and perverting the course of justice in the BVI, with the BVI authorities confiscating $45m from IPOC companies. And so on.
Inter-group loans, loans between related parties and high consultancy fees were all prominent in the companies owned by the Icelandic high-fliers before the collapse of the Icelandic banks. The major shareholders of the Icelandic banks all had companies that were set up in intricately complicated ways, stretching between many secret jurisdictions. As the SIC report shows the documentation in the banks and the companies left much to be desired.
This doesn’t mean that these companies were huge money laundering schemes. Not at all. But it’s interesting that a lawyer, known to be have run money laundering companies, also had well-known Icelandic clients. The rumours about money laundering and Russian connections in the Icelandic banks never died out. I’m not jumping to any conclusions but the fact is that prominent members of the Icelandic business community used a lawyer who is a proven expert in money laundering and closely connected to powerful Russians.*
*I have been told that the US Federal Reserve released a report (before 2008) on money laundering in the world where the Icelandic banks were mentioned. Unfortunately, I have never seen this report – I’m told it was classified and consequently it doesn’t appear amongst the Feds published material. If anyone has a copy, I would be most grateful to see it.
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