Shell company supergrass found dead


A wealthy Russian businessman who blew the whistle on massive Moscow corruption that involved New Zealand shell companies has died in mysterious circumstances in England.

Alexander Perepilichnyy, 44, was the third or fourth person linked to the scandal to have died suddenly.

His secret testimony, part of which was published in May last year by Fairfax Media papers, exposed Moscow’s Klyuev organised crime group which is accused of extorting around US$800 million (NZ$973m).

He revealed how the group laundered US$245m through Switzerland – including part of it through Queen St, Auckland, shell companies.

The Independent newspaper says Perepilichnyy, who had sought sanctuary in Britain three years ago, collapsed outside his mansion on a luxury private estate on the outskirts of Weybridge a week ago.

The newspaper says he was in seemingly good health. Surrey police said further tests will be carried out on the body.

“It was a sudden death and a post-mortem examination was carried out which was inconclusive and an inquest will now be held,” a police statement said.

“The investigation has been handed over to the coroner, subject to anything being found that requires further police investigation.”

The Independent said Swiss prosecutors were investigating the operation which involved Credit Suisse and the Moscow branch of London-based global investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital Management.

“Perepilichnyy was the guy who brought all the evidence they needed to open the investigation,” a source with knowledge of the investigation told the Independent.

“He brought with him records of shell companies, Credit Suisse accounts, property transactions. The whole lot.”

Evidence he had reportedly provided included records of shell companies – which serve as vehicles for business transactions without themselves having any significant assets or operations – bank accounts and property transactions.

The saga began on Christmas Eve, 2007, when a group of men arrived at Moscow Tax Office Number 28, claiming to represent Hermitage. They filed a tax return calling for a US$245m refund.

The head of the office, Olga Stepanova, wrote out the cheque, and the men disappeared.

Hermitage founder and chief executive Bill Browder said last year that he hired lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, 37, of the firm Firestone Duncan, to find out what happened to their money.

He uncovered a scam which he claimed was run by Stepanova, others in the Tax Office and the Interior Ministry police.

When Magnitsky went to the police they arrested him and imprisoned him in Butyrka Prison, where he died in 2009 after being tortured.

Browder says since he hired Magnitsky, he is “highly motivated to make sure all aspects of the story see the light of day”.

With Perepilichnyy’s help he found a network of shell companies created by Geoffrey Taylor and his sons Ian and Michael, who worked at an address in Queen St.

Through Vanuatu’s GT Group, they run Vicam (Auckland), a business that appears to exploit New Zealand’s easy company creation laws.

Although there is no suggestion of illegality on the part of Taylor, his family members, GT Group or Vicam (Auckland), many of their company creations end up used by international criminals.

Lawyer Jamison Firestone said last year they were interested in “how many pots GT shell companies got its fingers into”, adding there was also the wider issue of “New Zealand and organised Russian crime”.

Barrons, the United States business magazine, detailed what happened after the cheque was cashed at Moscow’s Universal Savings Bank, which then put itself into liquidation.

Its records were destroyed in a truck explosion and one of the nominees fell to his death from a window.

Browder and Barrons claim that they tracked Stepanova’s share of the money to Switzerland, where on January 23, 2008, Credit Suisse accounts received US$3.8 million from Bristoll Export – registered to Michael Taylor of 369 Queen St.

That firm was wholly owned by Midland New Zealand, in turn owned by Vicam. Bristoll and Midland shared one director, Charles Kalopungi, from GT Group’s Vanuatu office.

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