What Is a Company Formation Agent?
Hidden assets, money laundering, tax dodging, and the firms that help make it all possible. Here’s how formation agents can facilitate abuse of the global financial system.
With polo shirts selling for €1,760 and tailored suits priced as high as €50,000, shopping at Kiton, an Italian fashion boutique in Vienna’s fashionable First District, is reserved for the wealthy.
The offices and penthouse apartments above the store also come with hefty price tags. In fact, they are among the most expensive in the city. Their largest single owner, René Benko, 40, is a well-known Austrian real estate mogul who has publicized this exclusive urban district as the “Golden Quarter.”
With the arrival of the Kiton store in 2014, the upscale neighborhood gained a curious tenant. One of the men behind it, Rasim Asadov, is an Azerbaijani businessman and regime insider who appears to have access to significant wealth.
His store has posted repeated losses and owed millions of euros of rent to a subsidiary of Benko’s powerful Signa Group development firm. Nevertheless, Asadov and his partners invested additional money into the business, enabling it to stay afloat.
In addition to the boutique, Asadov, 37, owns a valuable condo in the Golden Quarter that he purchased through a legal loophole, as well as another Austrian company that manages large sums of money.
But, though he may be a valuable tenant for the Golden Quarter, Asadov isn’t simply an enterprising businessman.
He is the son of Azerbaijan’s first post-independence minister of internal affairs – and a key player in the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a slush fund that was used to pay out large sums of money to European politicians and their family members who spoke positively about the Caucasian dictatorship. The scandal has already led to the resignation of a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Asadov is also a business partner of the cousin of Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s Vice President and the wife of President Ilham Aliyev.
In early September, journalists from the Danish newspaper Berlingske and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported on a series of suspicious transactions out of Azerbaijan, a dictatorship run by the Aliyev family. Some €2.5 billion allegedly flowed from the country’s ruling elite to European politicians who spoke highly of the regime even as it was arresting journalists and political activists.
The billions were smuggled into the EU, mostly through four shell companies registered in the United Kingdom. Journalists in 15 countries, including at the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Guardian, analyzed the transaction data. DOSSIER traced the cash flows to Austria and tracked down Asadov, an important figure in the operation.
Asadov is registered as the founder of Baktelekom MMC, a small company headquartered in Baku, Azebaijan’s capital, through which almost half the money was smuggled into the network. The name of the company bears a striking resemblance to the name of Azerbaijan’s state telecommunications company, Baktelecom. However, Rasim’s Baktelekom appears to be a paper company with no offices, no employees, no website, and no real business presence.
As DOSSIER’s research shows, Asadov appears at the other end of the money trail as well. In 2014, he flew from Sardinia to Montenegro in a private jet. The flight was paid for by “Hilux Services LLP,” one of the four Azerbaijani Laundromat shell companies. Payments to European politicians that are being investigated as bribes flowed through this same company.
By 2014, the year that Asadov opened the Kiton store in the Golden Quarter, René Benko’s development project was going through a difficult period.
When he completed the first part of the district two years earlier, the Austrian daily Wirtschaftsblatt reported that his development firm, Signa Holding, had spent €500 million there. It was supposed to earn returns on its investment through “major business in retail” – high rents from shop owners.
When the first shop opened in the development in November 2012, local celebrities attended the opening and the newspapers were full of optimistic reports. Two years later, the tone had changed: The media reported that customers had stayed away, and some businesses were beginning to consider moving out.
Critics raised doubts about Benko’s usually strong instinct for the next big thing: They say he had apparently hoped that the luxury retail strip would attract wealthy tourists from the east. But the conflict in Ukraine, EU sanctions against Russia, and a weak ruble had foiled his plans. “Russians with high purchasing power are staying away,” Kurier wrote in July 2014.
At the end of August 2014, Die Presse did not mince words: The problems, it reported, were “Tuchlaubenhof and Seitzergasse, two of the main streets in the ‘Golden Quarter,’ that no one really wants to go to.”
Soon after, Asadov opened his business there.
But his store got off to a slow start. By the end of that year, the company recorded a net loss of over €430,000. Its second year was even worse, with a net loss of €1.76 million. Nevertheless, Asadov and his partners avoided insolvency by lending the business €2.4 million themselves. These personal loans were “subordinated,” meaning they were lower priority than others – they likely did not expect to get this money back.
They seem to have an understanding landlord in Am Hof 2 Immobilien GmbH, a company that belongs to Benko’s Signa Group.
According to the 2015 annual report of NAR Partners Handelsgesellschaft GmbH, the company that operates the Kiton store, unpaid rent made up the lion’s share of its accounts payable, amounting to over €4.5 million at the time. The report states that “negotiations with the landlord are currently underway to adjust the rent and reduce the rent for 2016 and the previous years.” It thus appears that Asadov was running a high-end business in Vienna’s most expensive quarter while owning his landlord millions.
When asked about the tenancy, a Signa Group lawyer wrote: “There was and is no business relationship with Rasim [Asadov] personally.” The Signa Group claimed not to have “any detailed knowledge” of Asadov and claims not to have known that he has close ties to the government of Azerbaijan.
The current management of the Kiton store has also distanced itself from Asadov. While he still co-owns the company, a spokesperson said they had no knowledge of his other business dealings.
The company representative declined to comment about its past performance, stating only that its previous management was fired in May 2017. The business, the spokesperson wrote, has since been restructured and is now being run more professionally. Asadov himself did not respond to DOSSIER’s written requests for comment.
The Kiton shop is not the only business relationship between Asadov and Benko’s Signa Group. On May 17, 2014, he bought a condominium of almost 300 square meters from Tuchlauben Immobilien GmbH, another subsidiary of the Signa Group, for about €4 million. The apartment is also on the Seitzergasse, diagonally opposite the Kiton store.
When foreign nationals purchase real estate in Austria, the government must generally approve the transaction. However, Asadov used a loophole.
In the purchase contract, the managing director of ARP Twelve GmbH, the company that bought the property, claimed that the majority share of the business was not in foreign hands. This was technically true, since it was, in fact, owned by another Austrian company called RA Mountain Holding GmbH.
This company, in turn, was fully owned by Asadov. This simple loophole in the Vienna law on the purchase of real estate by foreign nationals allowed him to evade scrutiny. Signa declined to respond to DOSSIER’s request for comment on the apartment deal, citing privacy.
Despite the high-loss fashion business and the expensive real estate purchase, Asadov likely has access to much greater financial resources. In its registration documents, another company he has operated in Vienna since May 2014, AE BG Eta Holding GmbH, lists its purpose as “the administration and management of personal assets, especially … aircraft.”
Documents accessible to the public suggest that the company manages a great deal of money. By the end of its second year of business, it had generated a net loss of almost €7 million. According to its annual report, these “start-up losses” were compensated by an unknown source. Asadov’s business partner in this endeavor is well-known: None other than Mirjalal Pashayev, the cousin of the First Lady of Azerbaijan, holds 50 percent of the shares.
This story is part of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a collaboration started by OCCRP and Transparency International. For more information, click here.