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Svitlana Ogulenko says she is scared to death.
“My God, I work as a yard keeper. I have an adopted child, I pay my bills on time and I never did anything illegal. Could you explain how this will end for me? I have a feeling that the police will come and take me soon.” The Ukrainian Citizen told reporters in March 2013.
Although the 47-year-old lives in Ukraine’s Odessa region, she is, according to company records, the administrator and shareholder of a Romanian vegetable trading company called Albutz Com Ltd. The company owes almost €1 million (US$ 1.29 million) to the Romanian state in unpaid taxes.
Like others involved in this “vegetable” scheme, Ogulenko says she knows nothing about the company and has never been involved in any of its business.
Her identity was used without her knowledge, and she is not alone.
Six other women from the same Ukrainian region also “owned” companies and some of them owed huge amounts of taxes – something they say they learned only when they were summoned to appear before Romanian courts.
Reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) followed the documents in Ogulenko’s case to the family home in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi - an ancient port on the Black Sea.
Her husband, Viacheslav Ogulenko, was clearly irritated when he answered the door. “We do not have any business in Romania,” he said. “Svitlana never sold vegetables. We don’t have any vegetable business. It is not the first time we were asked about this. I think in the spring of 2012 we got a letter from Romania, but we threw it away.”
That letter was a notification from Romanian authorities trying to recover the debt incurred by Albutz Com Ltd, a vegetable trading company.
“Damn, is that our company or what?” Viacheslav Ogulenko asked rhetorically. Since they had nothing to do with the case, he said, “why should we spend money to go to some court in Romania?”
His wife was not at home, but spoke with OCCRP via phone a few weeks later. “Back in 2008, I saw an ad in a newspaper which said they needed cleaning workers in Romania,” she recalled. The pay was excellent—about US$ 2,000 for a month’s work. “I desperately needed money to renovate my house. So I decided to apply. I was contacted very quickly and then (was) helped to get a visa in just a few hours,” she recalled.
Ogulenko said she travelled by train to Bucharest. At the train station, “a person who introduced himself as a lawyer welcomed me and told me I would go into a six-month work program in Romania, and then another six months back at home, and so on. In order to get into the program, he asked me to sign some documents and I gave him my real address and real data. The papers were in Romanian, so I didn’t understand what was written there. I think that, instead of signing a labour contract, I signed something else, without even realizing it.”
Reporters for OCCRP found a copy of Ogulenko’s passport attached to the file of Albutz Com Ltd at the Romanian registry of companies. The copy shows that she entered Romania by train on 20 August 2008. Ogulenko remained in Romania for 40 days and was paid US$ 2,000, as she had said. On September 30, 2008, the company started its vegetable-trading activities.
The reporters tracked down the paperwork showing how the people behind Albutz Com Ltd used Ogulenko’s identity.
According to documents seen by OCCRP, in September 2008 the Ukrainian woman was brought to the Chiras & Constantinescu public notary office in Bucharest where she signed a stack of papers that were used to establish the new Romanian commercial enterprise
Ogulenko said she and several other women had been to the notary office, but repeated she had no idea what she was signing. The paperwork appears to be certified by Bianca Octavia Chiraş, one of the partners in the notary firm. Chiraş declined several requests to talk to OCCRP.
Several other women from near Odessa visited the same office, for the same reason: to establish fruit and vegetable trading businesses headquartered in Voluntari, a small town near the Romanian capital.
Two of them, Olena Korpusova and Svitlana Kaimakova, were there on the same day as Ogulenko, in order to give statements for two other companies in Voluntari. Reporters visited the addresses listed for the women but found no one who knew them.
Here’s how the tax evasion scheme worked, according to OCCRP’s investigation: companies were established in the names of the Ukrainian women but the power of attorney remained with a group of Turkish citizens who ran the companies. Some of the companies ran up huge tax debts, and when tax officials came calling, all they found were the Ukrainian women.
All necessary documents were signed and notarized at the Chiras & Constantinescu notary office.
A Romanian citizen was the link between the notary’s office, the Ukrainian women and the Turkish group behind the enterprise.
Viorel Tilincă, 52, said in a phone conversation with an OCCRP reporter that he was an employee of the notary office and ran errands for many years between the Turks and the office. One of the people involved was Sahin Yuksek, a Turkish citizen investigated for tax evasion together with other members of his family.
“I’ve known Sahin Yuksek since 1993,” Tilincă said. “I have also worked with other Turkish men, but I don’t know how many in total. I don’t keep track of them. I was only empowered to submit some documents or go to deposit money for the registered capital, when new firms were created. Do you think they were telling me what they did with these companies?
“I have been also interrogated by prosecutors about these companies. They asked how did I get to know the Turks. But there was nothing else I could tell them, because I was just a courier. It’s not my business what they did with these companies.” Tilincă told OCCRP reporters.
It was Tilincă who handled the company belonging to Olena Korpusova, the woman who had been at the notary office on the same day as Ogulenko.
Ogulenko’s company, Albutz Com Ltd, was physically located in a rented 14-square-meter garage in Voluntari, just outside Bucharest. The garage was rented from a Romanian citizen, Marin Răducanu, who signed a contract with Ogulenko.
Răducanu says he is not happy about any of this. “I have never seen this woman from Ukraine. A Romanian I met in the green market said he wanted me to rent this garage to him to make an office there. I don’t remember his name. But after that I’ve had all sorts of trouble with the authorities. I saw that the documents of my house appeared in the file of this company, documents I have never given to him. This really (annoys me).”
Răducanu’s garage is located just next to the property of Yuksel Rencuzogullari, a 43-year-old Turkish citizen, who is from Samandag, Turkey, the same town where Sahin Yuksek is from.
Recuzogullari was also a client of the same notary office and Tilincă also submitted paperwork on his behalf. Said Tilincă, “I do not keep track of these companies. Ask Yuksel. My job was to fulfil my mandate and that was it. Look for the link between Yuksel and Abbas Yuksek”. Abbas Yuksek is Sahin Yuksek’s brother and was also charged with tax evasion in October 2012.
At Yuksel Rencuzogullari’s home, his wife, Georgiana Rencuzogullari, denied any involvement in the fraud. “We don’t want to be involved in this affair. We were also called by DNA prosecutors” (DNA is the National Anticorruption Directorate) “and we told them everything we knew. My husband is away in Turkey, where he has his business. Occasionally he comes to Romania. But I cannot give you his contact data, because we have nothing to do with this story.”
And yet another property in Voluntari that belongs to Georgiana Rencuzogullari is listed as their home address by at least three of the Turkish citizens investigated for tax evasion.