The Murder of Ján Kuciak: The City of London and Slovakian Corruption
This article is a follow-up piece to “Russian Dolls: The Biggest Scandal Never Reported.”
On 21 February 2018, 27-year-old investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were found dead at Kuciak’s home in the village of Veľká Mača in Slovakia. Kuciak had been shot twice in the chest at close range. Kušnírová had been shot once in the head. The killings sent shockwaves across Europe, with many alarmed by the erosion of press freedoms across the continent. Ján Kuciak’s murder came just months after the assassination of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Both journalists had followed the trail of dirty money uncovered in the Panama Papers, unearthing a series of corruption scandals linking the criminal underworld and big business to the highest echelons of state power in their own respective countries.
Ján Kuciak’s last story — a joint investigation by Aktuality.sk and the OCCRP — was published posthumously. It concerned the alleged embezzlement of EU structural funds by businessmen in eastern Slovakia with ties to the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, one of the most powerful organised crime syndicates in Italy. The corrupt nexus reportedly included two individuals (one of whom was a former member of parliament) with a close personal relationship to Prime Minister Robert Fico, as well as others with ties to politics and Fico’s Smer-SD party. In the wake of these posthumous revelations and mass street protests prompted by the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, Robert Fico was forced to resign. In October 2018, Slovak President Andrej Kiska published an open letter alleging a decade-long cover-up of serious organised crime schemes by Slovak state institutions and officials.
Three people have now been charged with the assassination of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. One of the accused — Zoltán A. — has alleged that the celebrity businessman Marián Kočner ordered the killing of the young journalist in a hit reportedly worth €70,000. Kočner currently faces no criminal charges relating to the murder. Yet in the last year of his life, Kuciak reported extensively on the alleged criminal activities of Marián Kočner, whose name featured in ‘mafia lists’ leaked by the Slovak police in 2005. His connections to the Slovak underworld have been well-publicised, as have his close ties to government ministers and state officials, including influential prosecutors and investigators.
In September 2017, Kuciak filed a police complaint against Kočner due to alleged threats made against him. The Aktuality.sk journalist had been reporting on the so-called Glance House case, a complex and protracted legal dispute that concerns the transfers of flats within a luxury apartment block in the village of Bernolákovo, near Bratislava. Kočner and his associates feature prominently in the alleged fraud. The Prosecutor General’s Office has begun disciplinary action against ex-general prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka for his conduct surrounding Glance House. Last month, a new audio recording surfaced appearing to suggest that Kočner had given instructions to Trnka, some of which related to the handing out of bribes to public officials. A criminal complaint has since been filed with the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Jan Kuciak’s investigations — all of which remain preserved on the Aktuality.sk website — consistently signposted the centrality of UK-based shell companies in the elaborate schemes of those individuals linked to serious criminal enterprise in Slovakia, as well as the corruption of its state institutions. These companies preserve an opaque ownership structure typically through the use of so-called ‘nominee-directors’ who offer a convenient legal fiction that enable the identities of their beneficial owners to be concealed from plain sight. Key allegations published by Ján Kuciak in response to both the Glance House case and the so-called Five Star Residence case concerned the same UK-registered shell company, Commercial Development Investment Ltd (CDI).
CDI is now known to be an investment vehicle of Marian Kočner, controlled by his friend and business partner Jana Šlachtová. In October 2018, Kočner and Šlachtová were charged alongside three others in relation to suspected tax and insurance evasion concerning the transfer of flats in the Five Star Residence complex in Bratislava. Building liens suggest that the transfers were wholly fictitious, and that CDI was used to facilitate the illicit exchange. In the Glance House case, attempts were also made to transfer ownership of flats to the UK-registered entity. Ex-general prosecutor Trnka authorised the transfers. An entity known as Corporate Directors Limited (now dissolved) assisted in the incorporation of CDI back in 2001. It was last registered to offices at Ascot House, 2 Woodberry Grove in the London suburb of North Finchley — an address that was at the centre of last years’ Russian Dolls exposé.
From December 2001 to June 2015, CDI’s registered address was flat №15 in the City of London Corporation’s Stopher House estate in Southwark. During this period, its company secretary was listed as Corporate Secretaries Limited. This management company formerly occupied the same North Finchley address featured in Russian Dolls. For two decades, 2 Woodberry Grove was home to a company formation ‘cottage industry’ that manufactured tens of thousands of shell companies, many of which were provided by the infamous incorporation agent A1 Company Services (now officially dissolved), enabling its numerous clients to conceal the beneficial ownership of their wealth for a plethora of reasons, including: criminal money laundering, serious fraud, embezzlement, tax avoidance and political corruption.
Just days after the publication of Russian Dolls, the administrators behind Shenley Secretaries Limited (formerly Temple Secretaries Limited) — the long-term, acting company secretary for A1 Company Services — took rapid measures to cover their tracks, shifting the registered office address of the company to 15 Stopher House, Webber Street, on 21 September 2018. In a coordinated move, Corporate Secretaries Limited moved to the same address on the same day, clearly indicating that the two companies are commonly-controlled. In an attempt to bamboozle auditors and the public alike, both companies have since moved to a new address — 2nd Floor 9 Chapel Place, nearby to Bond Street. In addition to utilising an index of so-called ‘sham-directors’ located in every offshore haven conceivable (Corporate Secretaries has just one such nominee director resident in Mauritius), this shadowy of network of company formation professionals utilise many more ‘sham-addresses’ in a game that resembles musical chairs.
In November 2018, the UK Government launched its updated Serious and Organised Crime Strategy, highlighting the role of “key facilitators” including lawyers, accountants and estate agents in enabling transfers of dirty money — “whether complicit, negligent or unwitting” — throughout the global financial system. It is less a legal grey area and more a legal racket. Light-touch regulation has long made Britain a haven for money laundering. Shell companies and ‘off-the-shelf’ (dormant) companies set up, sold and administered from the UK have consistently been used to facilitate serious criminal enterprise in all four corners of the globe. The City of London remains the shining centrepiece in a worldwide system of secrecy and offshore tax havens. Little is known of the networks and methods of these facilitators, yet the scale of the company formation racket exposed in Russian Dolls is truly unprecedented.
Almost every illegal laundromat so far uncovered has implicated the same few providers, agents and addresses in the UK’s capital. Members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign —now subjects of the Mueller indictments — used shell companies from the addresses to funnel their mercenary profits from Ukrainian corruption back into the United States. The corporate structures of the parent company of the infamous Cambridge Analytica were thoroughly embedded in the same shadowy nexus. Prominent ex-politicians and cabinet ministers have taken advantage of these opaque corporate structures in order to privately line their own pockets after leaving public office. In July 2018, the BBC reported that it had learned that the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta is laundering “billions of euros in illicit profits through the City of London with the help of corrupt “enablers”, including lawyers and accountants.”
Ján Kuciak’s investigations into Slovakia’s deep-rooted corruption problem places the machinations of its mafia-state nexus parallel to the activities of the same elaborate and shadowy network of commonly-controlled TCSPs (“Trust and Company Service Providers”) and nominee-directors that have serviced corruption the world over. Slovak celebrity businessman Marian Kočner and his mafioso associates have long been clients of these corporate enablers that have acted — and continue to act — in the manner of an international criminal gang. More firms featuring in the ownership structures relating to Marian Kočner and the Glance House case share the same links as CDI. Kočner transferred a €23 million bankruptcy claim concerning his company Gapeja to the UK-registered entity Mafferton Limited. The owners of the company remain obscure. Company records list nominee-directors resident in Cyprus and Antigua.
The firm was itself incorporated by an employee of Cobus Group, a fiduciary firm that provides trust and company services, wealth structuring and management. Cobus Group Limited formally shared the same address as Corporate Directors and Corporate Secretaries — 4th Floor, Lawford House, Albert Place. Companies House documents also reveal that Mafferton once operated out of 15 Stopher House, Webber Street. Corporate Secretaries Limited was listed as company secretary from July 2009 to June 2015. In an entirely separate case concerning Kočner and reported on by Ján Kuciak, the cut-price purchase and sale of the Welten Golf Resort in Bác, alleged to have obscured a VAT fraud, was initiated by the UK-registered entity Exton Systems Ltd. The firm was formerly registered to 15 Stopher House. Its company secretary was listed as Corporate Secretaries and it was incorporated by Corporate Directors Limited. Another agent attached to the Cobus Group served as nominee-director.
The rabbit hole goes deeper still. The same “enablers” that are connected to the misdeeds of Marian Kočner and his gang of mafia associates are also directly implicated in the provision of fictitious companies that have been used for all manner of corporate fraud and white-collar crime in a country that is bedevilled by corruption. As early as 2005, a company called Speculate Limited (dissolved in 2016) was linked to František Mojžiš, the owner of the BDV Drukos pyramid scheme in which tens of thousands of people lost their investments. Its last registered address was 15 Stopher House. Company records listed nominee-directors based in Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. Corporate Secretaries were recorded as company secretary. The same enablers can now also be implicated in the on-going controversy surrounding the Slovak construction giant Váhostav-SK.
In October 2014, the Slovak government controversially bailed out Váhostav-SK after it was declared insolvent, buying up much of its €136 million debts to hundreds of small and medium-sized subcontractors. The subject of its ownership structure has been placed under close scrutiny. In 2017, Váhostav was fined by the Public Procurement Office (ÚVO) for filing incorrect data in the company registers. The company was also accused of paying preferential treatment to certain creditors as a result of its botched restructuring. One of the creditors — Lomark, s.r.o. — was owned by a UK-registered entity with unknown owners. Oldbury Consultants Limited formally occupied 788–790 Finchley Road, before finally registering to Suite №2, First Floor, Kenwood House. Corporate Secretaries was listed as the company secretary from 2006 to 2015.
Shell companies associated with same network of facilitators have also allegedly serviced the subversion of Slovakian democracy. During the 2010 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Robert Fico accused the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party of laundering money to finance its campaign. One of Fico’s claims related to a loan of several hundred thousand euros to the SDKÚ from a London-based firm, Allied Wings. The company was linked to Destor Investments Limited, a company that held 100% shares in another company, Involve s.r.o., the registered owner of the SDKÚ logo. Corporate Secretaries Limited and Corporate Directors Limited were listed as the company secretary and founder of both companies, respectively. Almost unbelievably, Robert Fico was himself once associated with a company that shared the same address as the firms implicated in the SDKÚ funding scandal — Elwing Limited, once registered 10 Dunstan Close. It too listed Corporate Secretaries as its company secretary.
Further allegations concerned the SDKÚ’s controversial privatisation of the state-owned Bratislava Hotel Forum in 2003. Links were alleged between the party financing companies and the buyers of the hotel, namely the UK-registered entity Diamond Hotels UK. Company records show that Damian James Calderbank featured in the corporate structures of both Destor Investments and Diamonds Hotels UK. His name also appears in connection with companies involved in the so-called Moldovan ‘Grand Theft’ of 2015, when funds worth $1 billion were siphoned out of three Moldovan banks through the use of UK and Hong Kong shell companies. Another of Váhostav’s unsecured creditors — Regio Enterprise Ltd ( registered to 15 Stopher House) — also recorded Damian James Calderbank as one of its directors.
In the midst of the Slovakian party funding scandals, Ex-SKDÚ treasurer Igor Kucej conceded that the financing entities had been set up for him by the Prague-based TCSP Akont Trust Company. Kucej insisted that Akont’s company formation professionals had expressly chosen the London addresses and managers without his input. In 2016, the Czech quarter of Transparency International revealed that Akont maintained strong links to the now-defunct Czech chapter of Mossack Fonseca & Co., the Panamanian law firm whose activities and clients were the subject of the Panama Papers leaks. The owner of the Prague branch of Akont was listed as the London-based company Akont Holding & Capital Limited, a subsidiary which remains active and is registered to another key address — Suite №2, First Floor, Kenwood House, 77a Shenley Road, Borehamwood.
Akont’s London-based subsidiary formerly occupied 788–790 Finchley Road (from 2005 to 2011) and 2 Woodberry Grove (from 2011 to 2017). Corporate Secretaries was listed as the acting company secretary throughout much of that period. The nominee-director attached to fiduciary firm Cobus Group served as the the incorporating agent for Akont Holding & Capital. Cobus Group Limited (dissolved in 2016) and the affiliated Cobus Services Limited were formerly registered to offices at 2 Woodberry Grove. For both companies, the company secretary was listed as Corporate Secretaries Limited. A former director of Corporate Secretaries was a Cobus employee, a German national registered to the Kenwood House address. The Cobus Group also trades under the name of Emford Global DMCC, a company formation agent registered in Dubai. Emford itself trades under the name of A1 Global Formations.
One of the former directors of Akont Holding & Capital Limited is an individual named John Montagu Stuart Wortley Hunt. His correspondence address was once listed as 788–790 Finchley Road, one of a number of London addresses that featured prominently in the Russian Dolls exposé. The ICIJ’s offshore leaks database reveal that Montagu Stuart Wortley Hunt was a former shareholder of the Czech chapter of Mossack Fonseca. His name and others associated with many of the above-listed companies also appeared on a list of so-called ‘sham directors’ compiled from a joint investigation by The Guardian and the ICIJ in 2012. Jesse Grant Hester, whose name also appeared on the list, is another notorious sham director. He was the subject of a BBC Panorama sting back in 2012, operating in his capacity as founder of the Mauritian firm Atlas Corporate Services.
Jesse Grant Hester’s name is mired in controversy. He was listed as a director of a corporate entity which an official enquiry showed had been used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to cheat the United Nations’ Oil for Food program. Like another nominee-director Damian James Calderbank, Hester’s name also appeared in connection with company documents implicated in the so-called Moldovan ‘Grand Theft’ of 2014. Hester is also listed as having been a director of the Slovakian branch of Akont (Akont Slovakia s.r.o) from 2010 to 2016. Both John Montagu Stuart Wortley Hunt and Hester were former directors of Finchley Secretaries Limited (registered to 2 Woodberry Grove), concretely linking them back to the UK-based network of TCSPs and shell companies.
Further connections emerge. The European Development Company, s.r.o. (EDC) was an entity that featured in another controversy unearthed by Ján Kuciak, throwing light on more of Marian Kôcner’s shady business dealings. The controversy concerned yet more fictitious transfers of properties at the Donovaly mountain resort between 2010 and 2012. EDC was allegedly used to defraud the Slovak state of €4 million of VAT refunds. Its director was listed as Kočner’s associate Jana Šlachtová. Company records show that it was also affiliated to the UK-based company Caldbeck Management Limited, registered to 10 Dunstan Close and administered by Corporate Secretaries Limited. Prosecutions launched against Kočner in the summer of 2016 were prematurely brought to a close by the National Criminal Agency (NAKA) investigator Štefan Jombík. Kuciak disovered errors in Jombík’s case resolution.
According to Kuciak’s investigations, EDC had been set up by WPB Holding & Finance NV, the Dutch affiliate of the Prague-based WPB Group, the parent company of now-defunct WPB Capital, once one of the largest credit unions in the Czech Republic. In 2014, the Czech National Bank (CNB) revoked WPB Capital’s license following allegations that the fund had used a network of companies to inflate its capital. WPB Capital continues a protracted dispute concerning its debts with the UK-registered Trowmart Limited (pithily renamed Llanfair Caereinion Cwni Daliannol Ltd), a company with an opaque ownership structure that was based out of 15 Stopher House. Corporate Secretaries was listed as its company secretary until 2014. WPB’s UK affiliate WPB Finance Limited (now dissolved) was last registered to offices at 2 Woodberry Grove and administered by Corporate Secretaries Limited. The managerial ties between the WPB Group, Akont and Mossack Fonseca & Co. CZ. have been widely reported on in the Czech media.