I have never worked for and have no idea what the “Maharal Network” is until I read the rubbish you wrote on your blog post. This is absolute dreamy nonsense you have been pedalling for a long time including to some media.
– Cathy Odgers
Shady NZ shell company merchant GT Group’s global footprint just keeps growing, as do its links to the dreamy nonsense that is the “Maharal Network”. In our latest global tour, let’s visit Romania and Moldova first, via Ukraine and New Zealand.
As we saw in a previous post, Angelique Elizabeth Lilley, housewife and improbable media mogul of Nelson, New Zealand, and also, minion of Ian Taylor of the notorious GT Group, briefly owned a piece of a dissident Ukrainian TV station. That transient ownership was part of the murky process by which apparent henchmen of the corrupt despot Yanukovych seized the TV station and turfed out the dissidents; not that it did Yanukovych much good, as we see now. The apparent henchman. Alexander Altman, didn’t do very well out of it either: in January 2014 the UK courts breached GT Group’s wall of secrecy and determined that Altman was the controlling mind behind the company skulduggery. He landed, in absentia, an 18 month sentence for contempt of court.
There’s another story of media-control machinations, in which Ms Lilley crops up again. She turns out to have dabbled in Eastern European TV ownership before, right next door to Ukraine, in Moldova (January 2012), in connection with deals by a Romanian multimillionaire, Sorin Ovidiu Vântu:
Another example of media consolidation is the investments and acquisitions made by the Romanian holding Realitatea–Catavencu in Moldova. Starting in 2009, the Romanian businessman Sorin Ovidiu Vântu purchased the music television station Muz TV, then launched Publika TV and Publika FM stations. Also starting in 2010, Stiri Media Group—part of the Realitatea–Catavencu holding—acquired a 25 percent share of the online platforms Unimedia.md, Vesti.md, Ladyclub.md, and lcomunicat.md.
In most cases, the consolidation of media groups served political purposes; it is the political agenda of the owners, rather than consolidation per se, that led to a reduction in media pluralism and diversity.
“Stiri Media Group”, Vantu’s vehicle, just means “News Media Group”. Ms Lilley gets her name check in News Media Group’s recorded ownership profile, which goes like this:
News Media Group SRL is owned by a chain of companies, as follows :
News Media Group SRL (Moldova ) – ROCHDALE INTERNATIONAL LIMITED ( Australia) – RSHRS LIMITED – Nayland ENTERPRISES LIMITED ( Australia) – Atherstone LIMITED (New Zealand) – Angelique LILLEY (New Zealand) , who owns 51 companies.
On July 2, 2011 News Media Group called the Coordinating Council (BCC) to divest its broadcasting licenses to Media News TV. On July 6, 2011, the transfer came into effect.
News Media TV is part of the following chain of companies: Introstyle Solutions (United Kingdom); Dumitru Tira – Newsmedia Group – Bluelink Comunicazione; Sorin Ovidiu Vântu – Reality TV; Interactive Media Unimedia.md, DND Media – Gheorghe Saghin .
As you might expect from the association with Lilley and GT Group, Romanian “businessman” Sorin Ovidiu Vântu has form. If your Romanian isn’t up to it, this German re-report translates reasonably smoothly:
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Bucharest (Mediafax / ADZ) – The Supreme Court has enforced a two year prison sentence against businessman Sorin Ovidiu Vântu for aiding a criminal. The trial of Sorin Ovidiu Vântu, his driver and a Moldovan businessman started back in October: the trio had sent money to the convicted criminal Nicolae Popa, to enable him to dodge an international arrest warrant. A director of the fraudulent Ponzi scheme “National Investment Fund” (FNI), Popa had been sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, he had been able to stay in Indonesia, from where he was extradited a few months ago.
Even for a Romanian multi-millionaire, where you wouldn’t necessarily expect an orthodox bio, Vantu or Vântu has a colourful past:
Romanian businessman Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, best known now for his ownership of a media group including Realitatea TV news channel, signed up as an informer for the Ceausescu-era secret police Securitate in 1983, his file – under the conspirative name of Nus – appearing closed in 1988, as it results from a series of documents of what appears to be his personal file. A former Securitate officer confirms Vantu had been recruited while in prison where he was serving time for embezzlement and included after his release in the network of an officer in Roman, the city where SOV lived before 1989.
HotNews.ro and the Kamikaze magazine investigated the secret past of the man who they say changed the fate of the presidential elections in 2009. From documents and witness accounts results SOV was a felon arrested for embezzlement in 1982, recruited by Securitate as an informer in 1983 and an illegal trader after release in 1985 until the revolution. After the Revolution, he stood in public attention as associated with former Securitate officers involved in complex businesses.
Contacted twice, at the beginning and the end of the investigation, Sorin Ovidiu Vantu said he retained his right to have a reaction after the report is published. A series of documents from his Securitate personal file shows that Sorin Ovidiu Vantu was recruited by the Securitate at the age of 28, in April 1983, while serving a five-year sentence for embezzlement at the Bacau penitentiary. The IVth Counter-information Direction opened Personal File no.8046. The Direction was among others in charge with recruiting informers from among detainees.
Younger NC readers, if there are any, might need to be told that the Securitate were Romanian dictator Ceausescu’s especially murderous and numerous secret police. Like a few CIA and KGB folk over the years, Securitate veterans seem to have found a new vocation in organized crime, once put out to grass. More detail on Securitate connections and the FNI Ponzi surfaces in the same article:
Sorin Ovidiu Vantu’s links with former Securitate officers started before 1989 but continued many years after the revolution. A June 2000 Radio Free Europe analysis shows that in 1997 the head of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) of the time, Costin Georgescu, said in the Parliament that GELSOR group, with which Vantu’s name was associated, included 27 firms, was working 90% with officers of the former Securitate or of the SRI, and was built on a limited responsibility firm run by Colonel Rudareanu.
GELSOR was associated with the National Investment Fund (FNI), one of the biggest pyramid schemes of the ’90s. The business collapsed in 1999 and left over 300,000 people without their invested money. Many FNI branches across the country were run by officers of the Securitate or the SRI.
So Vantu and his Ponzi mate, Popa, go back a long way, and they are both ex-Securitate, and they’re part of a big gang of other ex-Securitate types. Peachy.
Some back story, involving another detour to Romania, indicates that GT Group would find it tough to plead ignorance of the dubiousness of Sorin Ovidiu Vântu. His ownership profile reveals that the GT Group companies in the News Media Group chain were set up in early 2011, by which time this had happened:
Romanian police arrested offshore consultant Laszlo Gyorgy Kiss in Bucharest in early October, one month after reporters working undercover for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) recorded him explaining how to cheat on taxes with offshore companies
Kiss is the financial mastermind behind a complex financial scheme that embezzled and laundered funds from Petrom Service, an oil services company, according to what prosecutors of the Organized Crime and Terrorism Investigatve Department (DIICOT) said in arrest documents. The scheme is similar to one Kiss explains in a book on how to evade taxes.
Kiss is accused of money laundering and complicity in embezzling €8 million along with six top managers of Petrom Service (now called PSV Company) who were also arrested. The authorities are trying to find out if Romanian mogul Sorin Ovidiu Vîntu who annexed PSV to his other businesses was ultimately behind the theft, possibly as a ruse to avoid taxes. To hide traces of their theft, prosecutors allege the group signed fictitious consulting contracts with a network of offshore companies. The money was paid into offshore bank accounts in Cyprus and Bulgaria
The prosecutors say — and an OCCRP transborder investigation seems to confirm — that Kiss set up the network that helped the group steal and hide the funds. All of the companies were registered at the same address, by Delaware Intercorp, Inc (www.delawareintercorp.com), a Delaware based registery agent. The agency regularly worked with Kiss and with Ian Taylor, his New Zealand partner.
None of this seems to have bothered Taylor all that much: we can see that he carried right on acting for Sorin Ovidiu Vîntu, Vantu, or Vântu.
To sum up: the Securitate hasn’t completely lost its grip on the Romanian media since 1989. They’ve just got a different way to control big pieces of it now, courtesy of Nelson housewife Angelique Elizabeth Lilley and GT Group, inter alia.
Now we come to Introstyle Solutions and the UK. Following up on Introstyle Solutions takes us straight to another shell company incorporator. Like GT Group, he has a vast geographical footprint and deplorable connections. He’s a chap called Erez Maharal. To make the link, note Introstyle Solutions’ corporate director, B2B Company Secretary Limited, and registered address…
Cornwall Buildings, 45 Newhall Street, Suite 211
That address and that corporate director turn up in the NC blog post on which Ms Odgers kindly commented. Maharal had an obvious major role in the construction of the multibillion-dollar Russian moneylaundering network which is connected to the Magnitsky murder:
Erez Maharal also acted briefly as a director of another UK company, Administrative Office Limited; another director there was Sabine Boze, who is also a director of yet another business services company, B2B Company Secretary Limited. Meridian Companies House, Administrative Office Limited and B2B Company Secretary Limited all have registered addresses in Cornwall Buildings, 45 Newhall Street, Birmingham, UK.
Between them, these names link together a reasonably large shell company network, and that’s what I am calling, for the moment, the “Maharal network”. The pieces of it that one can find in easily accessible public info imply that it is, or was, quite a big deal.
Maharal has cropped up before in cahoots with GT Group, in New Zealand, in this NC post. Now, in the story of the Moldovan media asset shuffle between GT Group companies in New Zealand, and the Maharal company Introstyle Solutions in the UK, we again see these two prolific shell company agents working very closely together.
I don’t know who’s in charge of the Maharal companies and related agents right now; after some press exposure, Maharal appears to be backing away from the limelight. One unpleasant possibility is that the thicker-skinned Taylor, already the builder of a network of UK companies comparable in size to his former New Zealand network (that means, at least a thousand companies), has taken over the Maharal franchise in the UK, too.
Even without the Maharal business, Taylor is a great big wheel in UK shell companies. From just a few days ago, here’s a new report in the UK national press on what just 19 UK Taylor-related companies can do, via another Moldovan connection:
Front companies in the UK are at the heart of an investigation into one of Europe’s biggest money-laundering operations, allegedly forming part of a conspiracy to make $20bn (£12.5bn) of dirty money look legitimate. The funds are believed to have come from major criminals and corrupt officials around the world wanting to make their ill-gotten cash appear “clean”, so they can spend it without suspicion.
At least 19 UK-based front companies are under suspicion. The scandal highlights how lax corporate rules have made this country an attractive destination for global organised crime. The secrecy company directors are entitled to under UK law is also hindering attempts to identify the “Mr Bigs” behind the scam.
An investigation by The Independent and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an NGO, has identified dozens of firms in a global web spreading from Birmingham to Belize.
That’s “dozens” in this one scam, and $20Bn of laundered money. But GT Group and associates have incorporated a readily-traceable thousand-plus live companies just in the UK. At the average of around $1Bn in laundered money per company, implied by the 19 companies that have actually been nabbed, the full UK network, a thousand companies, or more, has rather a lot of raw money-laundering capacity: $1Trillion-plus. Presumably there are practical limits that mean the usable capacity is quite a bit smaller than that, but whatever number you pick between $20Bn and $1Trn, it is pretty daunting; just as big as the dreamy Maharal network, or even bigger.
Nevertheless, Taylor is still not quite on the official radar in the UK, despite the best efforts of the Moldovan investigator, a Mr Sarco:
Mr Sarco said: “We hope our colleagues [at Britain’s National Crime Agency] will uncover what activity took place in the UK, but our main difficulty is that the relevant authorities in the Russian Federation are being less co-operative.” He said he had contacted the Serious Organised Crime Agency (which merged into the NCA last year) with information about the scam. The NCA declined to comment, saying it was unaware of any investigation.
Perhaps the NCA will snap into wakefulness once they grasp the extensive Russian connections of Taylor and of the surviving Maharal network, or the potential for abuse of these same types of UK shell company structures by the likes of the Islamic State. Thus, the NCA might forestall an embarrassing conversation with any Americans there might be who actually want the anti-Russian sanctions program to have some bite, or are serious about terrorist finance.
That embarrassing conversation would have to be followed by a huge amount of tidying up in the UK: not just the shell companies and their bank accounts, if traceable, but UK company law and the way UK Companies Office operates, too.
How successful that tidying up would be, if it ever started, is anyone’s guess. The international precedents are discouraging. Just six weeks ago, with the help of the OCCRP, NC documented the New Zealand end ($600Mn) of the very same GT Group-built moneylaundering network that has now gained national press exposure in the UK, in the pages of The Independent. That’s a good five years since GT Group and Taylor and shell company abuse first became hot news in New Zealand.
Just like the dopey Brits, the foot-dragging New Zealand authorities should probably be looking forward to some embarrassing conversations with influential Americans.