Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Will special counsel Mueller surprise with Icelandic Russia-related stories?

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The Russian Icelandic connections keep stimulating the fantasy. In a recent Bloomberg article Timothy L. O’Brien calls on special counsel Robert Mueller to “check out Iceland.” The facts are indeed elusive but Mueller and his team should be in an ace position to discover whatever there is to discover, via FL Group. If there is no story untold re Russia and Iceland, the unwillingness of the British government to challenge Russian interests is another intriguing Russia-related topic to explore.

“Iceland, Russia and Bayrock – some facts, less fiction” was my recent contribution to the fast growing compendium of articles on potential or alleged connections between nefarious Russian forces and Iceland. The recent Bloomberg article by Timothy L. O’Brien adds nothing new to the topic in terms of tangible facts.

The Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was one of those who early on aired the potential connection. Already in 2009, in a Sky interview that O’Brien mentions, Berezovsky made sweeping comments but gave no concrete evidence, as can be heard here in the seven minutes long interview.

What however Berezovsky says regarding London, the dirty money pouring into London is correct. That flow has been going on for a long time and will no doubt continue: it doesn’t seem to matter who is in power in Britain, the door to Russian money and dirty inflow in general is always open, serviced by the big banks and the enablers, such as accountants and lawyers, operating in London.

What Berezovsky really said

Asked how Putin and the oligarchs operated, Berezovsky said they bought assets all over the world but also took on a lot of debt. “They took a lot of credit from the banks and so they were not able to pay that back. And the best example is definitely Iceland. And you remember when lets say three months ago Russian government declared that they would help Iceland. And Russia is so strong that they’re able to help even a member of Nato. And their trick is very simple because Russian let’s say top level bureaucrats like Putin, like others and oligarchs together they created system how to operate on the West. How to use this fantastic money to buy assets and so and so. They found this very clever solution. They took a country and bought the country, which is member of Nato, which is not a member of EU. It means that regulation is different. They put a lot of money, dirty money in general, yeah.

When asked further if Russians were buying high-end property in London with dirty money Berezovsky said this was indeed the case, all done to gain power: “The example which I gave you. As far as Iceland is concerned just confirmed realistically that Putin and his cronies made absolutely dirty money and tried to invest their money all over the world including Britain.”

This is very much Berezovsky but hardly a clear exposé. Exactly what the connection was, through the banks or the country as a whole isn’t clear. Sadly, Berezovsky died in 2013, under what some see as mysterious circumstances, others consider it a suicide. Incidentally, Berezovsky’s death is one of fourteen deaths in the UK involving Russians, enablers to Russian oligarchs or others with some Russian ties, recently investigated in four articles by Buzzfeed.

The funding of the Icelandic banks – yet again

In his Bloomberg article O’Brien visits the topic of the funding of the Icelandic banks. As I mentioned in my previous Russia blog, the rumours regarding the Russian Icelandic connections and the funding of the Icelandic banks were put to rest with the report of the Special Investigative Commission, SIC. The report analysed the funding the banks sought on international markets, from big banks that then turned into creditors when the banks failed.

O’Brien’s quotes Eva Joly the French investigative judge, now an MEP, who advised Icelandic authorities when they were taking the first steps towards investigating the operations of the then failed banks. Joly says that the Russian question should be asked. “There was a huge amount of money that came into these banks that wasn’t entirely explained by central bank lending,” Joly is quoted as saying, adding “Only Mafia-like groups fill a gap like that.”

I’m not sure where the misunderstanding crept in but of course the Icelandic central bank was not funding the Icelandic banks. As the SIC report clearly showed, the Icelandic banks, as most other banks, sought and found easy funding by issuing bonds abroad at the time when markets were flooded by cheap money. Prosecutor Ólafur Hauksson, who has been in charge of the nine-year banking investigations in Iceland, says to O’Brien that he and his team have not seen any evidence of money laundering but adds that the Icelandic investigations have not focused on international money flows via the banks.

As I pointed out in my earlier Russia blog, the Jody Kriss evidence, from court documents in his proceedings against Bayrock, the company connected to president Donald Trump, is again inconclusive. Something that Kriss himself points out; Kriss is quoting rumours and has nothing more to add to them.

Why and how would money have been laundered through Icelandic banks?

The main purpose of money laundering is to provide illicit money with licit origin. Money laundering in big banks like HSBC, Deutsche Bank and Wachovia is well documented and in general, patterns of money laundering are well established. The Russian Icelandic story will not be any better by repeating the scanty indications. We could turn the story around and ask: if the banks were really used by Russians or any other organized crime how would they have done it?

One pattern is so-called back-to-back loans, i.e. illicit money is deposited in a bank (which then ignores “know your customer” regulation) but taken out as a loan issued by that bank. That gives these funds a legitimate origin; they are now a loan. As far as I understand, there are no sign of this pattern in any of the Icelandic banks.

When Wachovia laundered money for Mexican drug lords cash was deposited with forex exchanges, doing business with Wachovia. The bank brought the funds to Wachovia branches in the US, either via wire transfers, travellers’ cheques or as part of the bank’s cash-moving operations. When the funds were then made available to the drug lords again in Mexico, it seemed as if the money was coming from the US, enough to give the illegitimate funds a legitimate sheen. Nothing like these operations was part of what the Icelandic banks were doing.

Money laundering outside the banks?

There might of course have been other ways of laundering money but again the question is from where to where. As I mentioned in my Russia blog, FL Group, the company connected to the Bayrock story, was short-lived but attracted and lost a spectacular amount of money. As did other Icelandic companies, which have since failed: there could be potential patterns of money laundering there though again there are no Russians in sight (except for Bayrock) – or simply examples of disastrously bad management.

Russians, or anyone else, certainly would not need Icelandic banks to move funds for example into the UK – the big banks were willing to and able to do it, as can be seen from the oligarchs and others with shady funds buying property in London. It was eye-opening to join one of the London tours organised by Kleptocracy Tours and see the various spectacular properties owned by Russian oligarchs here in London.

The Magnitsky Act was introduced in the US in 2012 but is only finding its way into UK law this year in the Criminal Finances Bill, meant to enable asset freezing and denying visa to foreign officials known to be corrupt and having violated human rights.

The Icelandic banks – the most investigated banks

There were indeed real connections to Russians in the Icelandic banks as I listed in my previous Russia blog. In addition, Kaupthing financed the super yacht Serene for Yuri Shefler with a loan of €79.5m according to a leaked overview of Kauthing lending, from September 2008. These customers were among Kaupthing non-Russian high-flying London customers, mostly clients in Kaupthing Luxembourg, such as Alshair Fiyaz, Simon Halabi, Mike Ashley and Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz.

None of the tangible evidence corroborates the story of the Icelandic banks being some gigantic Russian money laundering machine. That said, I have heard from investigators who claim they are about to unearth more material.

In the meantime we should not forget that Iceland has diligently been prosecuting bankers for financial assistance, breach of fiduciary duty and market manipulation – almost thirty bankers and others close to the banks have been sentenced to prison. Now that 2008 investigations are drawing to a close in Iceland, four Barclays bankers are facing charges in London, the first SFO case related to events in 2008, in a case very similar to one of the Icelandic cases, as I have pointed out earlier.

Exactly because the Icelandic banks have been so thoroughly investigated and so much is known about them, their clients etc., it is difficult to imagine there are humongous stories there waiting to be told. But perhaps Robert Mueller and his team will surprise us.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 5th, 2017 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorised

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