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Tracking corruption from the heart of Europe to UK Overseas Territories: murder, death threats and a wall of silence

Article by Peter Sabo and Pavla Holcová

December 9, 2020

Tracking corruption from the heart of Europe to UK Overseas Territories: murder, death threats and a wall of silence

In February 2018, Europe was shocked by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová. Kuciak, who worked for the Slovak news outlet, had collaborated with Czech investigative journalist Pavla Holcová on large scale corruption cases like the Panama Papers or the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) led investigation into Italian organised crime in Slovakia. A few months after Kuciak’s assassination, journalist Peter Sabo joined In the course of their investigative work, both Holcová and Sabo have come across cases that highlight the dubious role UK companies and persons play in the facilitation of financial crime and corruption.


Slovakia – Peter Sabo –

On 25 June 2020, I found a bullet in my mailbox. It was a terrifying experience as just over two years ago an investigative journalist from the same newsroom – – Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová were assassinated. I joined after Jan and Martina were killed not as a replacement, but because I wanted to continue in Jan’s great work together with his colleagues.


It is a strange feeling to find a bullet in your own mailbox. Initially there is fear, and I think that is a normal bodily reaction. After a few hours and days, however, you start to realise a different feeling, one that is quite the opposite, a strange sensation of pride and satisfaction. You know that you are doing your job as a journalist well when somebody, who is not exactly your fan, is expressing it in a different, twisted and scary way.


Yet that is something we as journalists do, we stand in the frontline against corruption, mafia and injustice. Our only weapon is the publication of facts, in the form of stories, and delivering them to the public. This weapon can be very effective. However, there are vast ways in which this weapon can become tangled and made effectively inoperable. As we see progression in technologies, as we move from the ‘real’ world to the online one, this evolution does not only affect media and journalists, but also crime and mafia.


As Slovakia is a small country, in the heart of Europe, with (at least some) digitalisation and publication of vital state owned data, such as a companies’ registry, beneficial owners register, and landowners’ register, we have pretty strong open-source investigation tools. Quickly, members of organised crime groups, corrupt politicians and oligarchs learned that these tools create the kind of publicity that can harm their businesses. And at this point, the existence of a united Europe and globalisation kicked in. Even the smallest and most insignificant crook can establish a company somewhere else around the world  for just a few euros and let people in Slovakia think that behind some suspicious company is a rich foreign investor, but actually it is just another (shell) company in Cyprus, the UK or Panama. At the end of the day, we do not know who owns certain companies and who is cashing out money from, let’s say for example, a dubious oil business.


For investigative journalists this poses a serious problem. If ‘big’ countries like the UK let people cover their dirty businesses it creates problems also for the rest of Europe. For example, the UK is one of the main operating countries for VAT fraudsters. As uncovered in a cross-border investigation I co-authored in 2019 called Grand Theft Europe in the EU, six billion euros were stolen from VAT.[1] In many cases, these frauds are going through the UK, with UK companies used as middlemen or effectively out channels for VAT frauds. For example, UK citizens, companies and banks have been tied to large scale carbon trade VAT frauds. In just eight weeks in 2009, fraudsters claimed back £300 million from the UK Revenue and Customs (HMRC) before it stopped paying up and HMRC is still pursuing that money through the courts.[2] Anecdotally, the country following behind the UK as the next worst offender is Slovakia – at least in customs frauds involving China.[3]


However, this information is already well-known. Digging deeper to demonstrate how Slovak oligarchs are exploiting the UK rules one could point to the recent case involving Norbert Bodor. A Slovak oligarch, Bodor is currently being held in the custody of Slovak police on corruption charges and on suspicion of being the head of an organised group that had co-opted Slovak police into their own organised criminal group.[4] Bodor was caught sending four million euros to a fictive and fraudulent bank, which built its advertising on the fact they would not share any information with authorities and would cover the client – which is illegal in the EU. Therefore, if somebody is trying to use this type of a bank it should at least raise some doubts about this type of financial transactions.


Bodor has tried to explain this transaction as an investment into a startup in Ireland. In addition, dubious contracts were provided by the co-defendant operating as the ‘bank’ in this scheme. It was not a surprise to see that a UK-based notary and another UK-based company acting as a middleman were also mentioned in these contracts. While a Dutch prosecutor later found that the UK notary writings were forged, the role of UK companies featuring in even most palpable frauds endures.[5]


Yet another example is a corruption case in Turks and Caicos (TCI), a British overseas territory. These exotic islands have come through a full-scale corruption case over the last decade in which practically the whole local government apparatus was involved. The local government was such an integral part of the scheme that the UK provided their own investigators and prosecutors to solve this crime. A 2008-2009 commission led by Sir Robert Auld, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, found a ‘high probability of systemic corruption in government and the legislature and among public officers in the Turks & Caicos Islands’, which had consisted largely of bribery by overseas developers.[6] His preliminary investigation identified that a Slovak oligarch, Mario Hoffmann, was involved. Hoffman was bribing government officials to get land in the Caribbean in order to start a 600 million euros project to build a hotel resort with golf course.[7]


Subsequently, a special investigation and prosecution team (SPIT) led by Special Prosecutor Helen Garlick was established. As a result of the SPIT’s investigations a number of former officials, including the former TCI Prime Minister, were charged and in December 2015 a trial against them started, which has still not reached a conclusion.[8] For Hoffmann’s part, however, the criminal case against him was dropped in 2012 when he agreed to make a deal in which he paid millions in retribution.[9] He also agreed to stop his development plans and relinquish his special status on TCI. Basically, he made a deal in which he bought his freedom and innocence – at least in the eyes of the UK jurisdiction.


The problem is that the money came from Slovakia. It means Slovak laws were violated and also the source of the crime took place in Slovakia. But so far Hoffmann has dealt with this crime only in respect to TCI. As Slovak law does not acknowledge the same way of ‘deal-making’ that was accepted by the TCI Government, and in turn UK investigators, one would expect that Hoffmann will be prosecuted and in the end sentenced in Slovakia. However, as the British authorities have either not responded, or provided limited answers, to information and legal assistance requests from the Slovak special prosecution office, the oligarch has still evaded justice and continues to operate in Slovakia without concern.[10] Question is – what is the problem? Is it just a lack of communication by the British authorities? Or laziness? Or ignorance about a small EU country? Or is the case not very appealing to the UK? At this point, we do not know.


Czech Republic – Pavla Holcová –

For years now, the UK has been known as a European country with probably the highest density of enablers of organised crime. We, as journalists, are still hitting the same schemes: Limited Companies, formation agents and formation houses, same addresses in London or Edinburgh where thousands of companies have a postal address but have never really shown any presence there.


Even though any country in the world can be used as a tool to anonymise ownership of the company, the UK and its offshore territories have a special place on the map of organised crime top destinations. And please, do not come along with an old song of tax benefits and tax optimisation. Real organised crime members or corrupted politicians do not really care about paying taxes. But they do care about anonymity, economic stability and enforcing the law – simply they do not want to lose the funds they manage to steal from state budgets, collected on bribes or siphoned off state companies. This is why many of them invest into London real estate.


I often hear from the Czech authorities that they see the money flows coming from the UK or going through Czech accounts to the UK. Even if the Czech see those payments as suspicious and start to investigate, UK authorities usually do not provide any useful information, rather the opposite. “The transaction is OK, you don’t need to investigate any further.” And this is just the UK – the last piece of mosaic in long and complicated financial schemes used by organised criminal groups – including those created by corrupted officials (as seen in Slovakia).


The really painful experience is to deal with the UK offshore territories, where the essential information about ultimate beneficial owners of the companies involved in terrorism, money laundering, contract killing, stealing from the state budgets of the poorest countries and stashing bribes should be found. Should be, but isn´t. Many of those territories, which are still bound to the UK and have their legal system based on UK law, simply use the fact that the lack of transparency in their business registries is the core of their national income per capita.


The problem is not the technology itself. There are quite transparent, digitised and user friendly business registries and the update and accuracy of the information is required by the law. But those rules of transparency are applied only to local citizens. Any foreign entity, after paying the proper fees, can use the benefit of old school paper and the pen registry, archived in big halls and rooms stuffed with rotting documents. Do you need your information? Go and find it. Impossible. Anonymity granted. Some such offshore companies come with a bank account, others with bank accounts and permanent residency. The best ones also come with a passport – a passport where you can choose your new name, new identity.


After a harsh worldwide criticism, British Virgin Islands will introduce a public register of company owners in 2023 (why rush it, right?). Andrew Fahie, BVI’s Premier and Minister of Finance, told the island’s House of Assembly that the Government would work “towards a publicly accessible register of beneficial ownership for companies,” albeit “subject to reservations.”[11] Based on my experience as a journalist, making initiatives ‘ subject to reservations’ creates potential loopholes for those rich enough to work around.


Peter Sabo is an investigative reporter based in Bratislava. Prior to joining the Slovak news outlet in May 2018, Sabo worked in the business sector and has a bachelor degree in Applied Informatics and Automation in Industry from Slovak University of Technology.


Based in Prague, Pavla Holcová is an investigative journalist and founder of independent outlet In 2013, she joined OCCRP and is a regional editor for Central Europe. Holcová has contributed to major cross-border projects such as the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, the Russian Laundromat, and the Azerbaijani Laundromat. Together with her colleague Ján Kuciak, she exposed ties between the Slovak government and Italian mafia. She has also investigated massive illegal arms sales to Syria during the war, explored links between the global cocaine trade and Balkan organized crime groups, and identified illegal real-estate investments by politicians. In November 2016, Pavla was selected among a hundred New Europe changemakers and a hundred people changing Central and Eastern Europe for the better. In 2018, she was selected for the European Young Leaders initiative.


Image by Axelspace Corporation under (CC).


[1] Peter Sabo and Laura Kello, Grand Theft Europe: Threads of the emission mafia also lead to Slovakia,, May 2019,; Peter Sabo, White horses and mysterious boxes. How VAT is handled in Europe,, May 2019,; Grand Theft Europe: A cross-border investigation, Correctiv, May 2019,

[2] How major banks turned a blind eye to the theft of billions of pounds of public money, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, May 2019,

[3] The Union is asking Slovakia for more € 300 million for customs fraud,, September 2018,; Martin Turcek, More hundreds of millions of sanctions? Customs fraud continues, Slovakia does not solve it,, July 2020,; The European Commission is recovering money from the UK for customs fraud. Is Slovakia in danger of a similar fate?, Parlamentne, September 2018,; Marian Koren and, Customs fraud: Commission sends second alert to Britain to pay 2.7 billion euros,, September 2018,

[4] Peter Sabo and Laura Kello, Oligarch Bodor invested in Penta’s business, which took many years to merge,, August 2020,;

[5] Peter Sabo, Dutch prosecutor: Bodor tried to hide his assets, transactions show signs of money laundering,, September 2020,

[6] Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Mark Simmonds, Turks and Caicos Islands Commission of Inquiry 2008-2009,, December 2013,

[7] Martin Turcek and Peter Sabo, The oligarch got rid of the corruption scandal for millions. Now he can catch up with him,, October 2019,

[8] Turks and Caicos Islands Special Investigations and Prosecution Team:

[9] Mario Hoffman Pays TCIG $7million to Settle Salt Cay Cases Salt Cay Cases, Turk & Caicos The Sun, August 2012,

[10] Requests for information were made by Slovak authorities directly to the TCI government or to the UK through Eurojust (the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation). See: Martin Turcek and Peter Sabo, The oligarch got rid of the corruption scandal for millions. Now he catch up with him,, October 2019,

[11] David Pegg, British Virgin Islands commits to public register of beneficial owners, The Guardian, October 2020,

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