Corruption remains a burning issue in Slovakia

By bne IntelliNews April 19, 2010

Jiri Kominek in Prague -

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico may be hoping that the scandal over selling carbon credits on the cheap has burnt itself out, but as more details about this corruption case emerge, there are signs it could rumble on until polling day in June.

Slovak government sources confirm to bne that in late 2009, US and Swiss investigators flew to Bratislava to brief Slovak government officials about their findings concerning the true ownership structure and offshore bank details of individuals behind a company called Interblue Group, whom they suspect of being involved in money laundering activities via the US, Switzerland, The Federation of St. Kitts & Nevis, and possibly other locations.

Interblue, which was then registered to a garage in the US town of Snohomish in Washington state, was sold by the Slovak Ministry of Environment up to 15m tonnes of carbon credits for €5.05 per tonne in May 2008 when neighbouring countries were selling similar carbon emission credits for €10-13 per tonne, meaning the government missed out on an estimated €75m of revenue. "We now believe the individuals ultimately behind Interblue intended to use some of the proceeds to finance coalition members in upcoming elections," a source close to the case tells bne .

"Recently obtained evidence indicates these same individuals could be involved in similar fraudulent schemes that include rigging public tenders and tampering with EU funds destined for Slovak infrastructure programmes ultimately worth billions of euros," the source adds, implying that further revelations could emerge.

Slovak police and the Prosecutor General's Office began investigating the case in late 2008, with the government eventually dismissing three environment ministers in the process in May of 2009, and the PM Fico's Smer party assuming control over the Ministry of Environment that had previously been controlled by coalition partner Slovak National Party.

But that wasn't the end of it. In mid-2009, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began investigating Interblue and by late December, the company owners had shut down their US garage-based operation and relocated to Zug, Switzerland, re-naming the firm Interblue Group Europe.

Following the visit of US and Swiss investigators to Bratislava in late 2009, however, the Slovak government moved to distanced itself from the entire matter. "We do not know who is behind Interblue Group," Slovak government spokesman Branislav Ondrus told the press in February.

This was despite the FBI and Swiss authorities revealing to the Slovaks the ownership structure and offshore bank details of Interblue, whose owners are said to have close links to the country's governing coalition and Russian organised crime groups engaged in money-laundering, Slovak sources close to the country's investigators say. "We will not comment on the details of the case until full completion of our investigation", Svetlana Mockova, spokesperson for the Slovak Prosecutor General's Office, tells bne.

Furthermore, these individuals are said to be linked to a web of companies registered in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which, in turn, are domiciled in offshore locations ranging from the US, South Pacific, Cyprus, the Netherlands and the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to name a few.

Caribbean getaway

This would not be the first time that Slovak companies have been implicated in crooked offshore schemes linked to Caribbean islands.

The UK government suspended self-government and imposed direct rule over the British Overseas Territory of Turks & Caicos in August 2009 following a lengthy investigation that revealed long-term systemic corruption on the part of the island group's democratically elected government. At the heart of the scandal lay a financial relationship between the now former PM of Turks & Caicos, Michael Misick, and Slovak investment firms J&T and Istrokapital, which are headed by Slovak entrepreneur Mario Hoffman. The UK government investigation revealed that not only were J&T and Istrokapital planning to construct a €400m luxury resort, said to be the largest in the Caribbean, they were also using the island territory as a private bank, de facto purchasing its government to do their bidding. At some point during the episode, Misick granted Hoffman permanent residence in the territory and made frequent use of the latter's fleet of private jets.

With the Turks & Caicos losing its appeal as a destination for offshore money when the UK took over, another Caribbean island appears to be trying to take its place in the sun.

On November 24, Denzil Douglas, the prime minister St. Kitts, flew to Slovakia and discussed with local officials the possibility of opening an Embassy in Bratislava. "Mr Douglas was accompanied by Christian Kalin and Wendell E Lawrence who arrived on a fact-finding mission to explore the possibilities of opening an Embassy in Bratislava," Slovak foreign ministry spokesman Peter Stano confirms to bne. "Mr. Douglas first broached the subject of opening an embassy with our minister during a session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2009."

Messrs Kalin and Lawrence work for the Jersey-based Henley & Partners, which specialises in arranging offshore trusts and citizenship-through-investment schemes. Kalin works in the Zurich office, while Lawrence represents Henley & Partners in the St. Kitts capital of Basseterre. Kalin confims to bne his company was hired by the government of St. Kitts to assist them in diplomatic law matters in Slovakia and maintains offices in Bratislava.

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