“Do not mention Iran” *

HSBC clearly not in the Middle East
HSBC Middle East’s HQ until June this year. Clearly not in the Middle East

Jersey C.I. – If British politics hadn’t been in leopard-print convulsions a week past Tuesday, this little gem on the BBC News website about HSBC might have made bigger headlines.

It comes from a U.S. congressional report entitled (you have to love this) Too Big to Jail.

In a nutshell, it turns out the UK’s biggest bank escaped money laundering charges in the U.S. because of fears such a case would cause another financial meltdown, a la 2008. That was despite “blatant criminal violations”

And there we were thinking it was moral hazard that CAUSED the 2008 crisis. Silly us.

Oh, and HSBC’s biggest cheerleader? The UK’s very own Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne (although apparently the UK’s very own “regulator” the FSA, was getting in the way too).

FAST AND LOOSE

So what the heck’s this doing on a blog about Jersey?

Remember all that brouhaha about HSBC, Iran, Mexican drug cartels and money laundering? A lot of that was going down in Jersey about ten years ago, especially the Iranian stuff.

How? HSBC staff in places like Jersey were pretending money from Iran wasn’t from Iran in order to sneak the cash past regulators in America, which has (or had) rules against that sort of thing because Iran sponsors terrorism, wants nukes and is run by nutty mullahs.

Here’s what U.S. Senator Carl Levin said back in 2012, after it all came to light: “HSBC used its U.S. bank as a gateway into the U.S. financial system for some HSBC affiliates around the world to provide U.S. dollar services to clients while playing fast and loose with U.S. banking rules.

“Due to poor anti-money laundering controls, HBUS exposed the United States to Mexican drug money, suspicious travelers cheques, bearer share corporations, and rogue jurisdictions [Iran].”

One of those “affiliates” – the one at the centre of the dodgy dealings with Iran, outlined at length in U.S. congressional reports – was HSBC Middle East.

$2 BILLION

It is (or was) based not in the Middle East but on the Esplanade, right here in Jersey, opposite where the little choo-choo trains tootle along packed with holidaymakers.

Even if criminal money laundering charges never transpired, U.S. authorities eventually forced HSBC to stump up nearly $2 billion in a settlement.

You can bet the regulators in Jersey took an equally tough line.

Umm…

The Jersey Financial Services Commission has actually never said very much about HSBC Middle East.

Late last year it made this announcement, but it makes no mention of Iran.

And why would it?

For some reason, the announcement is an outline of an inspection the commission ordered focused on the years immediately AFTER the period (up to about 2007) when the U.S. identified so much iffy business going on down on the Esplanade.

Unsurprisingly, HSBC was well in the process of cleaning up its act by the time of the aforementioned Jersey investigation.

NO CIGAR

That said, what little the commission did say is still interesting. Here’s a snippet:

“The general trend was material non-compliance with Jersey’s regulatory, anti- money laundering and sanctions regime during the beginning and middle of the Reporting Period [from 2008 to 2012], followed by a substantial improvement in standards.”

And get this: the commission found that even after HSBC was in clean-up mode, 86% of a sample of HSBC Middle East’s customers between 2008 and 2012 posed a money-laundering risk.

86%. Almost. All. Of. Them.

Yet no $2 billion cigar for Jersey.

The commission’s crushing punishment for HSBC?

“HSBC Middle East’s remediation plan has been discussed at length with the Commission and significant progress has been made to date in its execution.

“The effectiveness of implementation of the plan will be independently verified during the course of 2015/16, and closely monitored by the Commission in liaison with regulators in the relevant jurisdictions.”

They must be terrified.

So terrified, in fact, that exactly two weeks after the commission published the above statement, HSBC announced its Middle East business would be moving its brass plate, if not its actual offices, to Dubai, a move it completed a couple of weeks ago.

How on earth will the commission keep an eye on it there?


*  The headline for this article is a quote from correspondence between HSBC employees during the bank’s sanction-busting dealings with Iran. They were discussing how to keep Iranian transactions off U.S. regulators’ radar

While Lawyers Argue, a City Chokes

Taranto in Italy. Choked. Picture from Italian newspaper La Stampa
Taranto in Italy. Choked. Picture from Italian newspaper La Stampa

JERSEY, C.I. – Taranto in Italy is so polluted that farming has become nigh-on impossible and cancer rates are sky high. Reportedly.

Local magistrates say the problem is the town’s steel plant, one of Europe’s biggest.

To pay for the clean-up, assuming a clean-up is even possible, authorities there are trying to seize €8 billion from the wealthy Riva family, which until recently owned the steelworks. They say they’ve done nothing wrong.

Officials have designated the whole sorry mess an environmental disaster. And it’s a legal mess with a paper-trail through Jersey.

SCRAP

Adriano Riva was a scrap metal merchant who started his steel company with his now-deceased brother Emilio in the 1950s.

By the 1990s, the brothers had come a long way.

Having made untold millions building one of Europe’s biggest steel producers, Gruppo Riva, Adriano set up four Jersey trusts* called Antares, Orion, Sirius and Venus. You don’t have to remember their names.


*A trust is no more than an agreement that someone (say, a Jersey trust provider) will look after something (money, castles, yachts) for someone (perhaps a wealthy industrialist) for the benefit of someone else (perhaps the children of wealthy industrialists). Apparently trusts were invented by knights of olde dashing off on crusades wanting to make sure their families were looked after if the crusade didn’t work out. A modern-day trust can also help mitigate tax liabilities. Generally speaking, there’s also normally no record of a trust outside the trust provider’s office, so trusts help keep things private. 


Adriano must have known Jersey is good at trusts.

These ones are run for the Riva family by UBS Trustees, a Jersey subsidiary of Swiss bank UBS.

They hold €990 million of “assets”, which Italy now wants to help pay for the clean-up in Taranto.

Complicating things, the actual money is at UBS headquarters in Zurich. Complicating things further, the Rivas say they haven’t been convicted of anything, and are fighting hard to keep the money. Here’s how…

SQUIRRELLED AWAY

Adriano set up the trusts to benefit his late brother’s children and….himself. Jersey Royal Court papers say it was in fact the late Emilio who put up the money for the trusts.

Whatever, it’s the family fortune.

And it’s not the first time the Riva fortune has been the subject of wrangling, which is relevant.

In 2009, the beneficiaries (Adriano, Emilio’s children, etc) took part in a tax amnesty whereby Italians with fortunes squirrelled away abroad could pay a one-off 5% tax rather than the normal full whack IF they brought it back to an Italian bank so it could work out the tax and pay the Italian treasury.

On paper, the money came back to Italy, but really it stayed in the Swiss accounts controlled by the Jersey trusts. Technically, though, it was henceforth held in the name of an Italian subsidiary of UBS: UBSF. All of this was above board, but the arrangement has now created a three-country legal nightmare. Mama mia!

That’s because now, the money in the trusts belongs to UBS in Jersey (which looks after it for the Rivas) while legal title to whatever’s in them belongs to UBS in Italy.

If you haven’t worked it out already, here’s why that’s a problem…especially for the Rivas.

CRIMINAL CHARGES 

In 2012, senior executives at Riva’s Taranto steel subsidiary Ilva S.p.A. – including members of the Riva family – were charged with criminal environmental offences.

The case is on-going and the Rivas deny wrong-doing, but the steel plant was put into administration by the Italian government and is now bankrupt.

A year later, in 2013, in an unexpected and separate turn of events, an investigation was launched into the Riva brothers and two accountants.

They were suspected of selling Ilva S.p.A. shares cheap to companies owned by Adriano with the proceeds being squirelled away… into the Jersey trusts. These allegations are also denied and to date no charges have been brought.

Not long after that, the State Attorney in Milan asked his Swiss counterpart in Zurich to freeze the Swiss UBS accounts belonging to the Rivas’ Jersey trusts while the environmental case is worked out.

The accounts remain frozen.

A decree issued by the Italian government now says the money should be handed over to help clean up Taranto, even though the Rivas have not been convicted of anything. The Rivas say this is unfair.

And to make things worse for them, the Italian government has also decreed that any money seized in any potential un-related prosecution (eg: suspect share deals) can also be seized for the same purpose, ie: cleaning up Taranto.

WORRIED

Worried about their fortune, the Rivas are appealing against all these rulings.

Initially, they were assisted by the Swiss authorities, which ruled that sending the cash to Italy broke Swiss law, but the Swiss have since changed their minds and ordered the accounts to be unfrozen.

Somewhat ironically, that has prompted the Rivas to instruct a Jersey law firm, Mourant Ozanne, to demand that the family fortune be re-frozen.

Various appeals are pending. It’s a quagmire, and all of it puts poor old UBS in a bind.

UBS Trustees (Jersey). Down here somewhere, past the Spar
UBS Trustees (Jersey). Down here somewhere, past the Spar

Like trustees everywhere, they’re duty-bound to do the best thing by the beneficiaries – while complying with the law. Doing both is not always possible.

Swiss and Italian authorities say that not releasing the money could result in criminal charges. Yet the trusts are with UBS in Jersey.

UBS in Jersey looks like it wants to comply but faces stiff opposition from the Rivas’ lawyers in the island, who have a big beef with how the Italian government’s going about all of this.

A temporary reprieve has been granted by an Italian court. It agreed with the Rivas who say the Italian government’s attempt to seize the money (officials want to use it to buy worthless bonds in the now-bankrupt steelworks to help fund the clean-up) amounts to illegal expropriation.

That might be alright if anyone had ever been convicted of anything, but the Rivas, they point out, haven’t been.  The Italian government’s appealing this one.

In the mean-time, UBS remains in a bind: comply with Italian and Swiss wishes and hand over the €990 million, or face the long arm of the law in its own backyard.

UBS in its Zurich home turf, where the bank DEFINITELY doesn't want to get in trouble
UBS in its Zurich home turf, where the bank DEFINITELY doesn’t want to get in trouble

A CUNNING PLAN

The Rivas’ attempted novel solution to all of this has been to simply change the trustees in Jersey: in effect, to take the conundrum out of UBS Trustees’ hands.

It hasn’t fully worked out though.

At Jersey’s Royal Court the Rivas’ lawyers have successfully applied for two completely different companies – one from Hong Kong and another from New Zealand – to become additional trustees alongside UBS in Jersey.

In theory, that gives them the power to over-rule UBS, and even send them packing, or at least order them to NOT hand over the money in Switzerland…. or Italy…or wherever it is.

A fly in that ointment, though, is that Jersey’s Financial Crime Unit (the police) does not approve of attempts to take the trusts out of UBS control. Nor, indeed, does UBS in Jersey, which fought the move.

Sir Michael Birt, a judge at Jersey’s Royal Court, met them halfway.

Allowing the new trustees to be appointed, he said there’s nothing irrational in trying to protect the family fortune. And confiscating it without a conviction, he pondered, may be in breach of European Human Rights.

So now the trusts are in the hands of those Hong Kong and New Zealand companies, a situation which Sir Michael backdated to September 2015.

But what’s inside the trusts remains tied up with UBS, which won’t play ball with the new trustees, not least because doing so would land it in hot water with the Jersey Financial Crime Unit. The JFCU suspects the contents of the trust could indeed be the proceeds of crime so won’t allow it to be shuffled about willy-nilly.

That means the new trustees, though now in charge, have to prove the money ISN’T the proceeds of crime if they want to do anything with it.

And it looks like that’s ultimately a call for the Italian courts, so don’t expect anything to happen quickly.

In the mean-time, Taranto festers.

Tanker War Loot?

tankerwar
Norbert Schiller’s 1987 shot of a Cypriot tanker not long after it had been attacked by Iran

JERSEY, C.I. – Cast your mind back to the Gulf War. Not that one. Nope, not that one. Yup, that one.

The Iran-Iraq War lasted most of the 1980s.

It was a humdinger. No-one really has the foggiest idea how many people died, but most agree it ranged from hundreds of thousands to more than a million, a good many of them civilians.

At the time, the world was living with the daily possibility that tensions between the US and Russia could erupt into nuclear death being rained on at least Europe, if not the whole of humanity.

But one thing the superpowers could agree on was the need to prevent Islam – at least the revolutionary Persian sort – spreading too far beyond Iran’s borders.

So the US, Russia, UK, Germany, Brazil, etc, paid and/or armed Saddam Hussein to slaughter the Iranian revolutionaries, who – for their part – were then and remain now a pretty nasty bunch.

They all set about the bloodshed with tremendous gusto but nobody won. It was all completely in vain. That said, the Iranian revolutionaries are still in power… and we all know what happened to Saddam.

Either way, the war was costly. According to Iranian Perspectives on the Iran–Iraq War, by Farhang Rajaee, the economic cost was more than a trillion dollars.

In the 1980s, that was equivalent to about a quarter of the United States entire GDP.

Talking money may seem crass here, but where there’s war, there’s cash. Buckets of it.

And some of the money from that war – allegedly – is still being fought over in the Royal Court in Jersey.

HOW SO?

In 1987 the war took a turn that really made the West sit up and take notice. Both sides started attacking oil tankers, mainly – but not exclusively – each other’s.

American tankers tended to get left alone.

This got Abdul Fattah Al Bader thinking.

He was an executive at the state-owned Kuwait Oil Tanker Company, which was nervous about what was becoming known as “The Tanker War”.

So Al Bader and his cronies set up offshore shell companies all over the world (although not in Jersey) that allowed the Kuwaiti tankers to sail safely under American flags. The wheeze also allowed Al Bader and his chums to pocket about $140 million.

Al Bader fled Kuwait for England before being sentenced in the 1990s to 35 years in prison in his home country. He’s dead now, but 20 years later and Kuwait still wants its money back.

One of the places they’re chasing it is Jersey.

SWANKY PAD

In particular, they’re interested in a London property – a swanky pad at 104 Berkeley Court, Marylebone Road, NW1 5NE.

104 Berkeley Court. Yours for a few million. Pic from Google Maps
104 Berkeley Court. Pic from Google Maps

It was bought around 2003 by a Jersey company (see where this is going?) called Westport Limited, which is a run by the very-much-still-alive-and-kicking Jersey-based trust company, Sanne.

They looked after Westport on behalf of Nouriya Al Mutawa, Al Bader’s sister-in-law.

Here’s where it gets tricky, and contested.

She says she used her own money to buy the flat for her sister and the late Al Bader so they’d have somewhere to live after he was held to account around 2003 for the tanker wheeze and made bankrupt.

Not so, say the Kuwaitis. The money for the flat was, they say, Al Bader’s loot and should be returned.

The Kuwaitis have been pursuing this in Jersey’s Royal Court for years. Nouriya Al Mutawa recently tried to have the case thrown out but failed. A public trial looks likely.

LOOKING STICKY

As evidence, the Kuwaitis point to another London pad, 80 Viceroy Court. You might not immediately see why this bit’s important, but stick with it.

80 Viceroy Court on the right, Regent's Park on the left...
From Google Maps: 80 Viceroy Court on the right, Regent’s Park on the left…

It was owned by a BVI-registered outfit called Pontirana Investments Limited, and it was to this comfortable hideaway that Al Bader and his fairer half first fled when things started looking sticky for them in Kuwait.

Kuwait’s liberation by the US in 1991 hadn’t done Al Bader any favours. At least he could escape to neutral England.

Or could he? The English High Court has long since ruled that 80 Viceroy Court was bought with dodgy loot. The Al Bader family were kicked out and Viceroy Court was turned over to the Kuwaitis.

Not content, though, they say Al Bader immediately sweet-talked his sister-in-law, Nouriya, into setting up the Jersey company in order to buy him ANOTHER London home.

To back this up, the Kuwaitis say it was Al Bader who told lawyers at the now defunct London law firm, Gardner Weller, that his wife or sister was about to buy a flat for his family. He also allegedly mentioned it to his own lawyers at the still-up-and-running law firm Olswang, who allegedly told him to draw up a lease between whoever ‘owned’ the place (his sister-in-law) and whoever lived there (Al Bader).

This, say the Kuwaitis, was all smoke and mirrors and is actually evidence that the £1.4 million used to buy 104 Berkely Court came from none other than Al Bader, who in any case never paid proper rent.

According to court papers, the Al Baders paid £1,000 a month… pennies for a multi-million pound central London des-res.

CROWNING IRONY

Yet there they lived until Al Bader died in 2009. Not long after, in an irony to crown all ironies, Mrs Al Bader fled England for her native Kuwait before being required to clear up her dead husband’s mess.

According to Jersey Royal Court papers, a UK warrant for her arrest remains outstanding and she is on an all-ports watchlist.

The Berkeley Court flat has, by the way, since been sold and the money – £3.25 million (that’s London for ya!) – is held up in an English court.

The difference now is that it’s not Mrs Al Bader but her sister, Nouriya, who’s left with the mess.

Nouriya says the £1.4 million actually came from her cousin, Anwar Sultan Al-Essa, who claims he owed it to Nouriya’s late brother, Fiaz Abdul Aziz Almutawa.

In effect, she says she inherited her brother’s debt. We don’t what his children have to say about that.

In any case, the cash and the flat it paid for were and are, says Nouriya, her, hers alone, and nothing to do with Al Bader or the dodgy tanker war loot.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL

The Kuwaitis disagree, saying the family are all in it together.

Nouriya, through her lawyer, Advocate David Blackmore from Jersey law firm Appleby’s, says the evidence is circumstantial and has asked – unsuccessfully – for the case to be thrown out.

But acting for the defrauded Kuwait Oil Tanker Company (which is owed many millions) Advocate Bruce Lincoln, from Mourant Ozanne, says Nouriya’s whole argument smacks of the same legal arguments Al Bader used when unsuccessfully trying to hang on to that original London property…. 80 Viceroy Court.

Back then, in the English High Court, Al Bader had said that 80 Viceroy Court had been bought with repayment of a debt from another of Nouriya’s cousins, a Dr Al-Mutawa. That, said Advocate Lincoln, had held no truck with the High Court years ago regarding 80 Viceroy Court, so nor should the current argument in Jersey’s Royal Court regarding 104 Berkeley Court.

“PULLING THE STRINGS”

Advocate Lincoln points to faxes from 2003, when the second flat, 104 Berkeley Court, was being bought, that seem to suggest Al Bader was in fact “pulling the strings”.

This line, from Nouriya’s lawyer at City law firm Devonshire to Al Bader, is suggestive: “If we are seen to be taking instructions from you on a daily basis, that will produce the very evidence that we do not want, namely it will suggest you are the beneficial owner.”

The Kuwaitis, via Advocate Lincoln, also wonder why Nouriya has, to date, come up with five different explanations as to where this £1.4 million to buy the flat came from. The court heard she simply “can’t remember” why this might be.

Al-Essa, for his part (he’s Nouriya’s cousin who re-paid the alleged £1.4 million debt) says he owed the money to Nouriya’s late brother Fiaz, who he’d bought ANOTHER flat from…in 1982…in Lebanon…for $60,000.

Quite how or why a $60,000 property transaction would even take place amid the 1980’s other most dreadful middle-eastern war (250,000 dead) is a mystery. How the $60,000 turned into £1.4 million is another.

Neither mystery was answered in Jersey Royal Court, which came down on the side of Advocate Lincoln and the Kuwaitis.

That is to say, Nouriya’s attempt to chuck out the Kuwait Oil Tanker Company’s claim was itself chucked out.

The case continues.