As Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky slowly died in a Russian prison from abuse and neglect, US$230 million (5.4 billion Russian Rubles) in taxes stolen from his client disappeared into a maze of phantom companies, crooked banks and offshore accounts. Magnitsky, accused of the largest tax scam in Russian state history despite being the whistleblower who reported it, knew who pulled off the theft but not who the powerful people behind them were.
He died rather than admit to a crime he didn’t do. Magnitsky was the loser. But the winners until now have not been identified. Reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Barron’s and Novaya Gazeta, spent months tracking banking records and offshores companies to identify two beneficiaries of the deal: businesses of a Russian state transportation official’s son and the ex-husband of a tax official who granted the refunds.
The Money Flow
The scam began with a Russian police raid on the offices of Magnitsky’s client: Hermitage Capital Management investment fund. People impersonating company employees then used official stamps and documents seized in the raid and pled guilty to various crimes. The company was fined amounts that offset the company’s earnings for the year, and the impersonators then filed for a giant tax refund.
Three phantom businesses, shell companies that exist only on paper, applied at Moscow tax offices #28 and #25 on behalf of Hermitage for a refund which was instantly granted. Magnitsky, who reported the fraud, believed wrongly that if officials only knew what was happening they would react. They reacted by imprisoning him for tax evasion, demanding he write a confession, denying him medical care and beating him repeatedly. He lasted one year dying in 2009.
In 2009 and 2011, secret trials in Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court fixed legal blame for what was a massive, arcane scam on two low-level ex-convicts: sawmill worker Viktor Markelov, once found guilty of manslaughter, and a robber,– Vyacheslav Khlebnikov.
Both pled guilty. Both got minimum sentences of five years in a correctional colony. They were not even ordered to pay back the stolen money. Irina Dudukina, a spokeswoman for the Investigative Department of the Russian police, announced to the public that it was impossible to find the refund money because documents of the Moscow bank UBS were burned up in a truck crash. She had no details on when or where this crash occurred or why the documents were in a truck. And she didn’t specify why investigators didn’t try to get the same documents from the Russian Central Bank, which had copies of many of the transactions.
No government executive or bureaucrat involved in the deals that sparked the rebate, in the illicit tax refund, or in Magnitsky’s death has ever been charged with anything.
A government investigation concluded that the tax officials who handed out the rebates had been tricked by fraudsters, so it was not their fault.
Tracking the Money
Banking records of the three companies that got the illegal tax refund – Makhaon, Parfenion and Rilend – show that the stolen money dissipated into phantom companies through thousands of banking transactions. Soon after these transactions, the three companies dissolved. Phantom companies fronted by proxy shareholders and directors designed to hide the real owners, made certain for years that who really was benefitting from the huge heist remained a secret.
OCCRP reporters worked out a money trail that Russian officials were either unable or unwilling to follow.
In January and the beginning of February 2008, for example, Parfenion wired $63 million USD to the bank accounts of two phantom companies: ZhK and Fausta. Another transaction took place directly where Fausta sent $21 million USD to ZhK’s accounts.
ZhK, which received in total about $39 million USD, was established in November 2003, by Marta Dmitrieva of Moscow. Dmitrieva told OCCRP reporters that while, yes, she did file documents with the tax office, she knew nothing of ZhK.
“I have never been a shareholder or director of the company,” she said. “I didn’t have a job, and I found an Internet commercial that said there was a possibility to work as courier and applicant for different companies.”
The sole shareholder of ZhK was Anatoly Dvoinikov from the village of Poselki in the Penzenskaya region, 640 kilometers from Moscow. Court records OCCRP reviewed show that Dvoinikov is likely a proxy shareholder and the director of many phantom companies.
In November 2008, ZhK was folded into a new commercial entity along with two other companies. The address of this new corporate creation was in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, more than 6,400 kilometers from Moscow.
Russian organized crime commonly uses the tactic of reorganizing companies to cover up fraud.
Fausta, the other company that got money from Parfenion – about $45 million USD – was registered in July 2007 by Sergey Kirillov from Moscow. Kirillov told OCCRP he did not establish the company.
“I don’t know anything about this company,” he said. “Nobody asked me to establish it. Maybe some people got my passport details from banks where I took loans.”
In March 2008, just a month after getting the Parfenion millions, Fausta was dissolved, according to the Russian Tax Service. Fausta’s banking records show that the money went from its bank account into the bank account of Univers another Moscow company.
Univers was registered in October 2007 with Natalya Senchukova listed as the sole shareholder and director. The Russian state commercial registry lists her as a shareholder in more than 30 companies and she is likely another proxy.
In November 2008, Univers was reorganized too in much the way ZhK had been. It was folded in with another company and the headquarters also were moved from Moscow to Vladivostok.
OCCRP has obtained documents showing that the same registration agents reorganized both Univers and ZhK.
Univers received money from Rilend and Makhaon, too. But bank records show that these transactions were made not directly, but through an intermediary company, called Anika.
From the accounts of Univers and ZhK in Sberbank, the largest state-owned bank in Russia, and in Mosstroyeconombank, a small Moscow bank, money went into what is called a “correspondent bank account” held by tiny Krainiy Sever bank in one of Russia’s biggest banks, Alfa Bank. Small banks commonly keep correspondent accounts within large banks so that they can more easily make foreign money transfers.
From Feb. 5-13, 2008, $33 million poured into to Krainiy Sever’s correspondent account from Univers and ZhK. OCCRP has obtained court documents from cases unrelated to the Magnitsky case which indicates that this account has been a major recipient of money stolen from the Russian budget. Court decisions mention a number of phantom companies (including Starmiks, Optimtorg) which wired money to this account. (Doc1, Doc2, Doc3, Doc4, Doc5).
Police files OCCRP has obtained also mention many of these companies including ZhK, Univers, Starmiks, Optimtorg, as phantom firms used to launder money stolen from the Russian budget in December 2007.
The Krainiy Sever account was used as a kind of “border point” from which money flowed to companies registered abroad.
On Feb. 13, 2008, a Russian court ordered that account seized and a month later the Central Bank of the Russian Federation cancelled Krainiy Sever’s banking license for violation of the law “to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism”.
In a press release the Central Bank said that Krainiy Sever managers had lost control of their Moscow subsidiary. Court records show that during two weeks in February of 2008, bank clients, mostly phantom companies, suspiciously wired $300 million into bank accounts in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Cyprus belonging to companies from the United Kingdom, British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Belize.
OCCRP got in touch with an ex-police officer who investigated money laundering proceeds in Krainiy Sever.
“When we raided the Moscow office of the bank, we met a guy there with a laptop from which he wired billions of rubles to different countries through the Internet. The guy was crying that he is from the FSB [Federal Security Service, the main secret service in Russia] and promised us a lot of problems”, said a former law enforcement officer who asked that his name not be mentioned for fear of retribution.
Two phantom companies from Moldova, on the eastern border of the European Union, were among the foreign recipients of money from Krainiy Sever. Bunicon-Impex SRL and Elenast-Com SRL had accounts in Banca de Economii in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. OCCRP obtained banking records of these two companies which show they received $52 million from Feb. 4-13 from the Krainiy Sever account where the Magnitsky money had gone. The last transaction was on the day the account was seized by Russian authorities. Almost all of their other transactions were also from Russia. Money came into the two companies as rubles and went out in dollars to dozens of companies located in different countries.
A third recipient of Magnitsky funds was Nomirex Trading Ltd. even though it was listed in United Kingdom records at the time as inactive. Nomirex and Bunicon are known to be part of an interconnected laundering network, dubbed the Proxy Platform by OCCRP, which has been used by Mexican drug cartels, Vietnamese, Russian and Moldovan organized crime and others. (see Sidebar: Russian Laundering Machine).
On Feb. 4, 2008, Bunicon received rubles from the Krainiy Sever account and the same day converted it into $4.5 million USD. The next day, $726,000 was wired to Nomirex through its bank account with the Latvian Trasta Komercbanka.
The day after Nomirex got the money from Moldova, it wired $1.9 million to Quartell Trading Ltd in the British Virgin Islands. Swiss prosecutors are investigating Quartell based on a Money Laundering Suspicion Report that Hermitage filed with Swiss Attorney General Erwin Beyeler. Quartell transferred the money it received from Russia to Baikonur Worldwide Ltd from BVI. And it in turn wired it to a Cyprus company, Arivust Holdings Ltd, which had a bank account at Credit Suisse.
What stands out in this dizzying movement of money is this: Arivust is controlled by Vladlen Stepanov, the ex-husband of Olga Stepanova, who was the head of Moscow tax office #28, when it approved the fraudulent tax return.
A bank statement for her ex-husband’s firm indicates that money that came into the account was spent on luxury property in Dubai. Stepanov has long maintained that he earned the money in his accounts and that he had nothing to do with the tax refund theft. He even sued political activist Alexey Navalny for reposting a Hermitage video that alleged he benefited from the Magnitsky money. Stepanov won that case. However, the wire transfers show that money did come directly from the Magnitsky money. Meanwhile, Olga Stepanov’s whereabouts and what happened to her after the refunds are unknown.
A Credit Suisse banking statement pinpoints the same accounts as the source of payments made for property in Dubai for Elena Anisimova and Olga Tsareva, Stepanova’s deputies in the Moscow tax office.
“Stepanov had the possibility to explain it away because there was a gap in the money flow,” said a Hermitage representative who asked that their name not be used. “Nobody could prove the origin of the money he had received on his accounts. Today, after banking records from Russia and Moldova became public, the chain has become direct. Now it is obvious that money which Stepanov received on his accounts had been stolen from the budget.”
Stepanov refused to comment on the OCCRP findings.
Another company which received Russian money from Moldova is Prevezon Holdings Ltd owned by Denis Katsyv, the son of Petr Katsyv, the wealthy and powerful former minister of transportation in the Moscow region. Petr Katsyv is considered one of the wealthiest civil servants in Russia. According to Forbes Magazine he is worth more than $4 million in 2012, and real estate records OCCRP obtained show the son is worth far more. In 2012 the father left his ministerial post to head the General Department of Moscow Region for Cooperation with Federal Authorities.
On Feb. 5, 2008, Bunicon received rubles equivalent to $9.4 million USD in 2008 exchange rates in two transactions from the correspondent account of the Krainiy Sever bank. The next day Bunicon sent $410,000 to Prevezon’s account at the Swiss bank UBS AG.
On Feb. 13, 2008, Elenast received the equivalent of $800,000 USD from the same correspondent account, and transferred more than half of that amount to Prevezon.
Records from the Cyprus commercial registry show Prevezon Holdings Ltd was registered in 2005 and is owned by Denis Katsyv (1000 shares) and a company called Martash Investment Holdings Ltd from the British Virgin Islands (1 share). Martash Investments is also owned by Denis Katsyv.
Denis Katsyv told OCCRP that his company never dealt with any companies from Moldova.
“I am really surprised to hear that,” he said. “I give you 200 percent that it is impossible. I am ready to help you in your investigation and show the banking statement of Prevezon to prove that it never received such money.”
Katsyv never showed the statement. Instead he called reporters and said he became shareholder in Prevezon only in April 2009 and had nothing to do with any Moldovan money. Records from the Cyprus commercial registry show Katsyv actually became a shareholder in June 2008, a few months after the transfers. Prevezon’s sole shareholder at the time of the transfers, Timofey Krit, is Katysv’s current business partner and the director of Prevezon.
This is not the first time the Katsyv family has run afoul of the law. In 2010, the Katsyv family was mentioned in a money-laundering case of Israeli bank Hapoalim which was investigated by Israeli authorities.
According to court records OCCRP obtained, millions of dollars were transferred through Katsyv-controlled accounts at the bank. Israeli prosecutors insisted that bank managers concealed the real beneficiaries of this accounts in violation of anti-money-laundering rules. But their lawyers blamed Katsyv’s business for the bank’s problems. The court eventually agreed and found the bank managers not guilty.
According to the judgment, Katsyv’s company Martash Investment had to sign a secret agreement with the Israeli government to avoid indictment.
“If the clients of the bank [Katsyv family] had denied signing the agreement, they would have faced charges and an indictment. The situation described by the lawyer [for Hapoalim managers] leads to the conclusion that the clients of the bank, who are the main culprits, apparently bought their freedom for money,” the final ruling in the case says.
New York Properties
The Katsyv family owns more than $17 million in New York real estate alone despite a new US law that says those who benefited from the Magnitsky case cannot enter the country.
On Nov. 12, 2009, the Katsyv-owned Prevezon Holdings Ltd registered itself as a foreign business corporation in Brooklyn and on Nov. 30 that year Katsyv’s company set up a US business. Two weeks later it signed a deed on a condominium at Pine Street in Manhattan, for $829,000. The same day Prevezon Holding Ltd signed another deed and bought a second condo in the building for $1.2 million. Alexander Litvak, director of Prevezon Holdings Ltd, signed both deeds.
The New York State Division of Corporations lists seven companies with names similar to Prevezon Holding Ltd that together own more than $17 million in New York real estate. Property records show that all the similarly named companies are affiliated with the same directors and managers, including Litvak and Krit, current director of Cyprus-based Prevezon. Some also own other New York City properties including five units in a luxury condominium complex at 20 Pine Street in the heart of Wall Street. A number of these are currently for sale for between $1 and $2 million each.
Katsyv’s businesses are closely tied to another controversial figure: Russian oligarch Lev Leviev. Leviev and Katsyv’s businesses often trade assets. (see Leviev story)
While the money trail leads to Stepanov and Katsyv, they are not the only persons involved with the Magnitsky money. The whereabouts of hundreds of millions of dollars still missing lie unlocked in other banking records that are still to be checked.
The story was a cooperative effort of OCCRP, Novaya Gazeta and Barron’s. It was reported by Mihai Munteanu (OCCRP), OCCRP/Novaya Gazeta and Bill Alpert (Barron’s). It was coordinated by Paul Radu (OCCRP). OCCRP can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.