Maduro’s USD 158m ‘Mature’ in Bulgaria’s Investbank

Nikolay Marchenko

Colombian billionaire Alex Saab is the alleged owner of the frozen in Bulgaria Venezuelan assets. Saab was detained in June in Cape Verde on an international arrest warrant from the United States. At the request of former US Ambassador to Sofia Eric Rubin, the authorities blocked EUR 141.5 million in lawyer Tsvetan Tsanev’s accounts in the Bulgarian “bad apple” bank Investbank. The money remains frozen, according to court documents which Bivol has seen. Meanwhile, Venezuelan lawmakers sent several requests to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, asking for the funds to be released to buy food for Venezuelan people, Bivol learned during a joint investigation with Armando Info, a website of Venezuelan journalists exiled in Colombia.

Transaction from Adon Trading FZE to Investbank PLC

The opposition majority of the National Assembly of Venezuela has been investigating since 2019 Bulgaria’s role in the laundering of petrodollars through Investbank. Salva Foods 2015, Group Grand Limited, Asasi Food FZC, Mulberry Proje Yatirim Anonim Sirketi, and Adon Trading play a key role in sham food deliveries. They are linked to billionaire Alex Saab Moran.

Saab is under arrest, awaiting extradition to the United States

Colombian billionaire of Lebanese origin Alex Saab is seen as one of the most powerful oligarchs from President Nicolas Maduro’s circle and the alleged ‘treasurer’ of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah in Latin America.

Alex Saab is in US sanctions list

He was arrested by the authorities of Cape Verde at the insistence of the United States, where he is wanted on charges of laundering money from Venezuela. The 48-year-old entrepreneur was detained in accordance to an Interpol red notice in relation to his indictment by the US Department of Justice.

Saab was arrested in June 2020 when his private plane landed in Cape Verde to refuel. The billionaire was on its way to Iran as a representative to negotiate food and medical supply contracts, according to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry.

Interpol Red Notice on Alex Saab

The same website reported on August 4, 2020, that a court in Cape Verde had given the green light for Saab’s extradition to the United States but the information has not been officially confirmed yet. According to the Cape´s Verde laws, Saab´s legal team have yet two choices to appeal the court decision

Moran was placed on the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanction blacklist in July 2019, and his relatives were sanctioned in September. The United States accuses Saab of setting up a corrupt supply chain enabling Maduro and his regime to profit from imports of food aid and its distribution since 2016 in Venezuela, even before international sanctions against the Maduro regime.

Together with his business partner Alvaro Pulido, Saab is also accused of money laundering after transferring approximately USD 350 million out of Venezuela through the United States to overseas accounts during the first business that they got from the chavista regime in 2011 to build houses.

In Bulgaria, Saab’s name is linked to several companies associated with attorney Tsvetan Georgiev Tsanev. Tsanev’s name has previously surfaced in other scandals such as the hijacking of the tanker BADR. Tsanev has also been part of a group of “European investors” negotiating with a Cosa Nostra boss to acquire a stake in a diamond concession in South Africa, as revealed by an investigation by Bivol from 2015.

‘Tsanev &Partners’ Office in the same place with ‘Ruspetroleum Bulgaria’ (Photo: Bivol)

Bivol, as a partner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), participated in a large-scale international investigation by IRPI/ANCIR into the diamond business of the Italian Mafia in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Bivol revealed in an investigation in February 2019 that Tsvetan Tsanev has had close business relations with individuals from the so-called “Bankya Circle” over oil business with Russia.

Tsanev, himself, downplayed the affair in South Africa and denied participation in the saga with the tanker BADR. He sent a statement to Bivol in which he explained that the

“only true fact” in the investigations was that “some Italian mafia boss and I, myself, have visited South Africa at different times and have been interested in the same publicly announced sale”.

“I learned about the BADR affair from Bivol’s articles and found all of it very amusing,” he wrote.

Second letter from Caracas to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

“Venezuela Investigates Petrodollars in Bulgaria” (Bivol)

As Bivol wrote, three Venezuelan lawmakers (Luis Parra, Richard Arteaga and Conrado Pérez) arrived in Sofia secretly in April 2019 and met with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs’“Americas” department official. There, they handed over their first letter to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, requesting that the funds in Investbank be unfrozen.

The first photo that leaked to the press showed only Richard Arteaga and Conrado Pérez. But the original photo, obtained by Armando Info, reveals the presence of Luis Parra, who acts as President of the Venezuelan National Assembly since January 5, 2020, with the support of Chavistas and an attempt to remove Juan Guiado from that post.

Venezuelian MPs in Sofia (Photo: Armando.Info)

At the time of the Venezuelan lawmakers Europen trip to defend Saab’s business, the US Treasury Department was carrying out a full-blown investigation into Saab´s companies. In fact, just three months later, in July 2019, the Treasury targeted and sanctioned Asasi Food FZC (UAE), Group Grand Limited (Hong Kong) and Mulberry Proje Yatirim (Turkey), all associated with Maduro’s regime food business, while some of them are mentioned in Sofia court documents. 

Another letter signed by Venezuelan lawmakers Conrado Perez and Freddy Superlano was addressed  to the Bulgarian Prime Minister on April 9, 2020, which Bivol has obtained as well. Freddy Superlano was not in the group of Venezuelan MPs who traveled to Europe. He, himslef, denies participating in the trip to defend Saabs businees and çonfirms that he still sides with the opposition, unlike the other Parliamentarians involved in the plot who are now against Juan Guaido. They claim in the letter that they have checked some of the activities of the companies, which, according to Armado Info are close to Alex Saab, and have not found any violations.

They describe their inspections and suggest that there are no grounds for the continued withholding of the funds in Investbank.

Second Letter from Venezuela’s MP to PM Boyko Borisov

“It is important to point out that the goal of our parliamentary visit was, as we set out in our request for a meeting, first of all, to provide you in the attached annex with a certified copy of the decisions taken by the Special Subcommittee regarding the investigations into on these companies; in this sense, we suggest that companies that have complied with the mechanisms of parliamentary control and other legal requirements be able to consider these actions in order to continue their commercial and financial activities as intended. Secondly, we ask you to launch a cooperation scheme in the areas of control mechanisms, sanctions and embargo measures to strengthen the fight against corruption and against all those companies that neglect and do not comply with the measures of parliamentary control established in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and in particular this Special Subcommittee, which was entrusted with the investigation of the cases concerning the Local Committees for Supply and Production CLAP.”

Alex Saab’s money is in Investbank

Petya Slavova and Gen. Rumen Gotsev (Collage: Bivol)

Although the authorities reported only USD 60 million, the total amount of funds frozen by the Bulgarian court at the request of the National Security Agency (DANS) is USD 158 million. They probably could belong to the offshore companies of Alex Saab and PDVSA. The money is in the accounts of attorney Tsvetan Georgiev Tsanev, deposited in Investbank, whose majority shareholder is Petya Slavova.

Bivol obtained seven court rulings on the seizure of the funds, some of which confirm the decisions of the lower instances to freeze the accounts of Tsvetan Tsanev, whose name is mentioned in the court documents as Ts.G.Ts.

The City Court (SCC) froze the funds on grounds of the Measures against Anti-Money Laundering Act with a ruling issued on May 31, 2019.

“There is presented evidence of performed operations with bank accounts with holder Ts. G. Ts. and a statement that there is a suspicion of the laundering of money with an unidentified origin in a particularly large amount and the probable investment of this money in the financial and credit system of the Republic of Bulgaria”, the ruling states.

The ruling of the Sofia Court of Appeal (SCA) mentions information submitted by DANS’ Financial Intelligence to the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office:

Former US Ambassador to Bulgaria Eric Rubin (Photo: Trud Daily)

“In the light of the presented evidence, this panel of judges is of the opinion that there are sufficient grounds to suspect money laundering acts and acts of criminal origin. The information and reports from DANS are official documents as they had been prepared by authorized officials and had been compiled within the scope of their powers. In the scope of these proceedings, the court is not mandated to examine whether there is a reasonable suspicion of a crime. The origin and movement of the money should be checked in the course of the expected criminal proceedings.”

One of the court decisions, that of the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC) from June 17, 2019, explicitly mentions Adon Trading FZE, a key company from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which according to the Venezuelan journalists of Armando Info may be directly related to Alex Saab.

Approached with questions about his connection with Adon Trading, as well as possible connections with PDVSA and the companies Salva Foods 2015 and Group Grand Limited, attorney Tsvetan Tsanev replied that only Adon Trading FZE was among his clients.

Adon Trading FZE (UAE)

The company “maintains a correspondent account in Investbank whose funds are blocked,” Tsanev replied by email. “I do not practice business relations with my clients, and our relations are strictly regulated by law as mandated and are formulated in contracts for legal services and legal powers. If possible, I would like for your article to explicitly reflect the fact that PDVSA has never been my client, I have not maintained any relationship with this company, let alone business ones. The company never had a correspondent account and none of our clients has ever supplied materials, parts or goods to this company,” the attorney clarified.

Tsanev denied personally knowing Alex Moran Saab.

“Mr. Alex Moran Saab is not my client and I don’t have the honor of knowing him.”

Tsvetan Tsanev Office in Sofia, Bulgaria (Photo: Bivol)

Tsanev also said that “the goods were purchased mainly in the European Union, Turkey, the UAE, Switzerland and others. The destination of the funds was to the bank accounts of the manufacturer or supplier of the purchased goods, which had been also duly checked for compliance and transfers had been made only after the approval of the relevant financial and banking supervision authorities”.

Saab’s wife brother-in-law as a proxy

Lorenzo Antonelli (Photo: Expresa.me)

The company Adon Trading FZE, which is mentioned by the Bulgarian courts as one of those whose funds are deposited in Tsanev’s accounts, is managed by Lorenzo Antonelli, who is the brother-in-law of Alex Saab’s wife.  

 

 

 

 

Adon Trading Hong Kong

Antonelli is also the director of Adon Trading Limited, registered in Hong Kong, in the accordance with the documents Armando Info received. 

Tsanev told Bivol that the UAE company “specializes in the trade of pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and food products.”

Adon Trading Hong Kong 1

He confirmed that he knew Antonelli, but saw no problem with him or the company.

“Prior to the opening of the correspondent accounts, the company managed by him was subject to an in-depth KYC inspection in accordance with the requirements of Bulgarian and international law and was found to fully comply with them “.

Antonelli Energia Solare

However, since the KYC (Know Your Client) inspection in question was carried out by Investbank, whose management is associated with Tsanev, this argument can hardly be taken for granted. It is a fact, however, that Lorenzo Antonelli is not yet included in the OFAC list of sanctioned persons because of their association with Saab.

ADP SAS Di Antonelli

But the Italian authorities (Guardia Finanza) froze in 2019 the accounts of a number of companies associated with Alex Saab’s wife and Lorenzo Antonelli, according to Italian media reports (see “Who is Lorenzo Antonelli. An interesting biography”, “War for Venezuela’s gold” and “Italian Guardia Finance seizes USD 1 million from Alex Saab”). It is not clear why Investbank had not taken this public information into account in its KYC inspections of Antonelli.

Bivol’s partners from the OCCRP and the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) have found several companies, that eventually are with the alleged participation of Lorenzo Antonelli in the Italian Commercial Register. These include Energia Solare in Prato in partnership with Antonelli Sabrina, ill Patorello SAS in Turin and ADP SAS in Chieti.

Antonelli Il Pastorello

Lorenzo Antonelli is also the man, on behalf Alex Saab, behind some turkish  and british companies, like Marylins Capital Limited,  that have deals with Maduro’s government to sell venezuelan gold, learned Armando Info and Bivol. For example, Antonelli is a partner with Italian businesswoman Patrizia Fiore (both are ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owners’) in Glenmore Solutions Limited (25 Jermyn Street, Suite 29, Bank Chambers, London, SW1Y 6HR, England, UK), which is the final owner of Glenmore Proje Insaat, another turkish company related to Alex Saab and with some mining deals with the venezuelan government since 2018.

Lorenzo Antonelli is also co-owner in Kinloch Investment Limited (UK) with ultimate beneficial owners: Bunyamin Altun (Turkish) and Camilla Fabri (Italian) . Antonelli is established like ‘Director’ on June, 19 2018. He is established on this management board position months before the removal of officer (director) of Colombian Citizen Mario German Garcia Palacio on October, 22 2018. Lorenzo Antonelli is also one of ultimate beneficial owners of Jamasa Properties Limited (UK). The Company has three previous names: OSUYO LIMITED, TEAM YOU LIMITED and FLOWER FIRST LTD.

The company Adon Trading Fze is associated with Alexander Ronald Ramirez Mendoza, who is also close to Alex Saab and represented Adon Trading in Venezuela offering fertilizers to venezuelan farmers during 2018 and 2019. One of the transactions in the account of Adon Trading FZE in Investbank was made through an intermediary bank, the Turkish Aktif Yatirim Bankasi A.S.. At least one company, that could be connected with the group of Turkish companies Yatirim is found in the Bulgarian Commercial Register.

Aktif Yatirim Bankasi

Two individuals, Salih Bulent Ertuna and Dragomir Ognyanov Boyadzhiev are in the management of the company “Vaha Trade”, while the sole owner of the capital is Info Yatirim Benkul Deralyash. According to his LinkedIn profile, Dragomir Boyadzhiev is a managing partner of Sentra, a member of the Board of Bianor and chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Investment Managers.

Boyadzhiev is also a former procurator and portfolio manager of Expat Asset Management (2008 – 2010), according to his LinkedIn account. Expat is the representation of an offshore company of the same name based in Liechtenstein. The sole owner of the capital is Expat Capital, one of the best-known wealth management companies in Bulgaria. The representative and manager of the company in Bulgaria is Nikolay Vassilev Vassilev, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy (2001-2003). We recall that Liechtenstein was one of the main destinations of the Venezuelan lobbyists, who then visited Bulgaria in April 2019.

Boyadzhiev declined to confirm or deny whether Info Yatirim and Aktif Yatirim Bankasi are part of the same financial and business group in Turkey.

As far as I know, the two companies have nothing in common. Facts about the company can be easily found. The majority shareholders are individuals and minority investors who have bought shares on the Istanbul Stock Exchange,”Dragomir Boyadzhiev told Bivol.

“In fact, “yatirim” means “investment” in Turkish. In addition, as of July 31, 2020, I have been relieved of the position of Manager of Vaha Trade, and a few days earlier there was an entry in the Commercial Register for my and my colleague’s dismissal,” Boyadzhiev explained.

Russian Borets (Fighter) – from Serbia to Venezuela

Borets International

In Venezuela, Mendoza manages the Borets Venezuela SA branch of the Russian Borets Production Company. Borets, which specializes in oil production equipment, is one of the largest producers of oil pumps in Russia and in the world. Its office in Venezuela is in the Zulia oil region.

This Russian company is one of the key suppliers not only to Gazprom Neft but also to the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA. The shareholders of Borets US Inc. include the US company BW Holding Corporation, but it is run by Russians – Andrey Emelianov, Alexey Patsev and Dimitry Shaposhnik.

Borets also works in Colombia and Dmitry Shapochnik sits on its Board there. The main owner of the branch is an offshore company from the British Virgin Islands, Borets Services Ltd., which is run by another Russian citizen, Vladislav Vigovskiy.

‘Borets Servise Serbia’ DOO

Bivol’s checks of Borets’ financial statements show that the Russian company has production facilities in Eastern Europe as well, operating in Serbia since January 8, 2010. Gazprom Neft has been operating in Serbia for years, after buying the local NIS Petrol. The limited liability company Borets Servise Serbia DOO (Srednje-Banatski Region, Zrenjanin 23000, Beogradska 26) is represented by Fedor Kormakov. In Slovakia, Borets’ company is ZTS-KABEL s.r.o..

The dozens of Borets’ plants and companies in Russia and around the world have a sole capital owner in an offshore jurisdiction, Oilfield Equipment Development Center Limited (Seychelles).

Weatherford Bulgaria

In 2007, the US oil and gas drilling company Weatherford International acquired about 30% of the Borets group of companies. Weatherford allegedly has subsidiaries in Bulgaria – Weatherford International Ltd. is a company affiliated with Weatherford Bermuda Holdings Ltd. (Bermuda). Both are represented in Bulgaria by the US citizen Charity Rush Cole.

Kremin’s Gray Cardinal Igor Sechin

Borets is not an accidental company, as in the Russian Federation the energy sector and especially the oil production are under the strict control of the gray cardinal of Russian President Vladimir PutinIgor Sechin, the Chairman of the Management Board of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, who is also a former KGB officer and a former Deputy Prime Minister for Energy. His nickname is Darth Vader.

Rosneft bought the Russian and Venezuelan assets of Weatherford in August 2014 for USD 400 million after a deterioration of relations with the United States. The website Neftegaz.ru reported then that this happened after the meeting of Igor Sechin with Lance Marklinger, President Global Sales of Weatherford.

Igor Sechin and Nicolas Maduro (Photo: YandexZen)

Igor Sechin is the mastermind of the expansion of Rosneft and other Russian oil giants in Latin America and especially in Venezuela. The opposition media regularly mock him for the huge investments in joint projects with PDVSA and the billion-dollar loans for the Caracas regime.

It was not until the spring of 2020 that Sechin announced that Rosneft was (at least temporarily) leaving Venezuela’s oil production.  Last february the Treasury Department sanctioned Rosneft Trading S.A, incorporated in Switzerland, for operating in the venezuelan oil sector as a broker and transport of the venezuelan oil

Popular journalist Konstantin Eggert wrote about this in the Russian online edition of Deutsche Welle. According to the article, the Russian-controlled company Rosneftegaz has bought all the assets of Rosneft in Venezuela.”

Vladimir Putin on Rosneftegaz Event (Photo: TASS)

“In return, Igor Sechin’s company received 9.6% of its own shares from the Russian state. The value of this package can be estimated at about USD 4 billion… The head of Rosneft has proved that there is only one person in Russia who is bigger than him. And this is Vladimir Putin,” Eggert wrote.

А number of international media, such as The Times, have written that Rosneftegaz’ tracks disappear in a complex scheme of offshore companies, at least part of which is controlled by Putin’s family.

Putin’s “cash” in Rosneftegaz is at least $30 billion, according to political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky’s 2017 Echo of Moscow interview.

“I do not claim that this is Putin’s money. But that’s the money he controls,” he said.

This means that Borets’ subsidiaries’ operations in Venezuela have been enabled to by Igor Sechin and Rosneftegaz, that is, by the Kremlin and that their partnership with circles around Alex Saab and Nicolas Maduro is a long-term one.

“Uncompromising investigations” into the Bulgarian affair

La Gran Aldea about MP’s trip to EU and Bulgaria

The newspaper La Gran Aldea quotes Bivol and Armando Info in an article about MP Jose Brito Rodriguez accompanying Venezuelan heads of parliamentary committees during a trip across Europe and to Bulgaria. The Venezuelan media calls the scandal the “Bulgarian affair” and the actions of the lawmakers “shameful”.

The publication explains that the Venezuelan MPs who traveled to Europe and Bulgaria represent the “controlled” by Maduro’s regime pseudo-opposition. They are currently investigated by parliamentarians from Juan Guaido’s team for their “European tour”, as, according to the Venezuelan journalists, it is quite possible that it was paid by entrepreneurs close to Alex Saab.

“In a new parliamentary election, their past will probably play a bad joke on them, and this time they will not be able to count on the support of a serious party to propel them to the top, as was the case of Jose Brito, who failed three times in his bid to become provincial mayor and then surprisingly won a seat as a member of a powerful parliamentary group, a triumph that he never saw as his own. This led him to accept the tempting and free trip around Europe, albeit in economy class, a demonstration on the part of the sponsor,” La Gran Aldea writes.

It points to the investigations of Bivol and Armado Info, calling them uncompromising stories that confirm the connection of the parliamentarians with the government and its “sponsor” Alex Saab.

Nicolas Maduro and Alex Saab (Photo: Semana)

“The report by Roberto Deniz published by Armando Info, the article of the Bulgarian site Bivol and the geolocation by the site Bellingcat, which shows the MPs, who sold themselves to the most generous broker, visiting Bulgaria, photographed in front of Raiffeisenbank, or posing on the highway on the way to Liechtenstein, indisputably refute the attempts of Jose Brito and his friends to deny the accusations.”

Bivol was unable to confirm whether anyone answered the letters to Borissov and whether the Venezuelan lawmakers are planning a second trip to Bulgaria in an attempt to unblock the hundreds of millions of assets frozen at the request of the United States.

Tsvetana Krasteva, a spokesperson of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Bulgaria Ekaterina Zaharieva, told Bivol that the

“Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not received an official letter from the indicated citizens on that date.”

The government press office did not respond to our request.

We want the money back, Caracas tells Bivol

Estefania Melendez (Photo: Facebook)

According to Estefania Melendez, the diplomatic representative to Bulgaria of Acting Venezuelan President Juan Guaido her government’s position is clear. “We must end the criminal regime of Nicolás Maduro, who is the ring leader of an international criminal corporation that stole and drained Venezuelan resources,” the Ambassador told Bivol.

According to her, Colombian billionaire Alex Saab is a representative of the corrupt regime’s illegal business interests and the largest intermediary in the trade of “blood gold” from the gold-mining regions of Venezuela on international markets.

“He also organized the purchase of low-quality food, which is sold to Venezuelan citizens to socially control them and launder money. That is why he is being investigated by the United States, detained and is in the process of being extradited,” Melendez said.

Regarding funds frozen at the request of the United States around the world, the Ambassador confirmed the cooperation of Guaido’s government with “recognized strategic allies”.

Alex Saab’s Connections (Scheme: Armando Info)

“The National Assembly has set up a mechanism for the monitoring and disclosure of syphoned assets that have been taken out of the country illegally. It has also established a committee for protection and return of assets, including those in Bulgaria,” Melendez concluded.

She is adamant that the government of Juan Guaido “will continue to exert pressure in all directions to achieve justice” regarding Nicolás Maduro and his associates.

Bivol and Armando.Info knew that the bulgarian investigation was not the only european case against Alex Saab and his business with Nicolás Maduro.

 

Nikolay Marchenko, Sofia

Roberto Deniz, Bogota

Bulgarian Version Editor: Atanas Tchobanov

Bivol and Armando.Info are Partners in ICIJ 

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