Barron’s On a Deadly Russian Tax Heist

Bureaucrats and thugs laundered hundreds of millions through Credit Suisse

Bill Alpert has a must-read story in Barron’s this week—a wild tale of overt Russian corruption involving a $230 million tax scam, a suddenly wealthy tax official, an elaborate money laundering scheme, and a body count:

Interior Ministry police claim the complex scam was pulled off by a sawmill worker and a burglar, both currently serving five-year sentences, in cahoots with four others, all of whom are now dead. One had a fatal heart attack before the crime took place. A second fell from his balcony. The third plummeted out a penthouse window.

And then there was Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer for Hermitage who died in prison after complaining police were torturing him to retract evidence that the $230 million had been stolen by a ring of corrupt tax officials, Interior Ministry cops and career criminals.

Alpert tells the story of Hermitage Capital, a London-based hedge fund whose co-founder Bill Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005 for being an activist shareholder gadfly on corrupt state companies like Gazprom.

A year later, the Interior Department raided Hermitage’s Russian offices and took documents that ended up in the hands of a convicted murderer who used them to start the tax fraud. Read the story for the full account, but the $230 million is still “missing” because Russian authorities say “all the bank records police needed in order to trace the loot were in a truck that crashed and exploded in 2008.”

Hermitage got hold of some Credit Suisse bank records that allow Alpert to follow the money laundering. And he lays it all out here: shell companies in Vanuatu, New Zealand, and the British Virgin Islands, multimillion-dollar villas in Moscow, Dubai, and Montenegro built by bureaucrats making $50,000 a year, and these guys (emphasis mine):

In early February 2008, another $9 million arrived in the Credit Suisse accounts from other accounts held by companies registered in Moldova, Cyprus and the U.K. The U.K.-registered Nomirex Trading Limited, for example, was incorporated by Erez Maharal, a Gestalt therapist and bank-secrecy consultant in Zug, Switzerland. Nomirex’s director was a yoga instructor in the Cyprus resort town of Limassol. While Nomirex was running $8 million through its accounts, it described its business as “inactive” in filings with the U.K.’s corporate regulator.

All this is gripping stuff, and there’s a bigger point, too: The critical role the secretive Swiss banking system plays in enabling money laundering schemes and the global infrastructure that passes on the illicit money. Like this:

The money arrived at Credit Suisse through a globe-spanning trail of shell companies created by a Who’s Who of offshore-secrecy consultants — including a New Zealand agent whose operation we’ve previously found amid North Korean arms trafficking and money laundering for a Mexican drug cartel

All this bizarre activity should have raised red flags at Credit Suisse, but it didn’t.

So Alpert gives us this great kicker:

“Credit Suisse would have to have done due diligence on their clients, ” says Mark Pieth, the University of Basel law professor who is bringing Browder’s complaint to Swiss authorities. “They would have to have found that Vladlen Stepanov was married to the head of a tax authority and that the Stepanovs were bringing in more money than they should have in their possession.”

In an e-mail, Credit Suisse spokesman Marc Dosch said the bank is confident in its control framework. “Credit Suisse takes allegations against its compliance standards very seriously,” he wrote. Now Switzerland’s attorney general can take them seriously, too.

Fantastic work by Alpert and Barron’s.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,