Red Cross and Greenpeace sucked into tax black hole

Charities are unwittingly being used to hide the identities of tax avoiders in schemes involving millions of pounds

Jon Ungoed-Tomas, Duncan Campbell and Craig Shaw | Published in Sunday Times  28 April 2013
Yacht moored next to tropical beach
The British Virgin Islands is one of the world’s most secretive tax havens (Jean-Pierre De Mann)

A FEW minutes’ walk from Buckingham Palace lies one of London’s most exclusive terraces. Apartments in the imposing grade II listed buildings that line Grosvenor Crescent, prestigious even for Belgravia, sell for as much as £50m.

Yet Grosvenor Crescent has had a troubled history in recent years. It is a story that leads more than 4,000 miles to the offshore tax haven of the British Virgin Islands and to a mysterious charitable trust of which even the charities it was supposedly set up to benefit have never heard.

Five years ago, an ambitious entrepreneur, Raheem Brennerman, then 29, unveiled plans for a development of part of the crescent. Residents would have their own in-house chef, use of a yacht and a Rolls-Royce Phantom to ferry them to shops or restaurants.

The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was impressed, lending £146.5m to the scheme for the “trophy” apartments in June 2007. It was a part of the ill- considered spending and lending splurge that led to the bank announcing the biggest losses in British corporate history the following year.

In June 2009, RBS asked for the return of a large portion of its money — £118m — as the Grosvenor Crescent development was hit by tumbling property prices. In a letter sent to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a group of islands in the Caribbean where the company behind the scheme was based, a lawyer asked hopefully for the cash to be paid back “within one hour”.

It was, however, a complicated money trail and RBS is still waiting to get all its cash back. The initial loan had been made to Zegna III Holdings, incorporated in the BVI — a British overseas territory that has become notorious as one of the world’s most secretive tax havens. It was controlled by a Seychelles company Nuevitas International Holdings.

The actor Paul Hogan, seen with his wife Linda Kozlowski, is taking legal action against a trust based in the British Virgin Islands

The actor Paul Hogan, seen with his wife Linda Kozlowski, is taking legal action against a trust based in the British Virgin Islands (Lucas Dawson)

Brennerman, who is originally from Nigeria, and Nuevitas International Holdings in turn controlled a BVI trust — the Trigon Trust — which could be used to bank the profits from property deals and buy “yachts, boats, motor vehicles [and] works of art”.

Trust documents seen by The Sunday Times reveal the unlikely beneficiaries supposed to enjoy such trappings of huge wealth: Cancer Research UK, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the National Trust and a diabetes charity.

Last week, the charities involved said they had never given permission for their names to be used and had not received any money from the Trigon Trust.

The London firm Bloomsbury Management Services, which helped create the trust, said it had advised its clients that the charities should be informed about the Trigon Trust. According to the charities, that never happened.

Brennerman insists Trigon was formed in good faith and it was initially intended that the charities would benefit. In the event, a source close to Brennerman says no money was distributed.

Whatever the intention of the Trigon Trust, experts say tens of thousands of similar charity-fronted trusts have been quietly formed in tax havens. They say such structures are used to conceal the ultimate beneficiaries.

Naming a charity as the main beneficiary of a trust reduces the requirements for identity and anti-money-laundering checks and they can be removed from trust documents shortly before any funds are distributed without the charity knowing anything about it.

Robert Peach, a trust recovery law specialist at Coffin Mew solicitors in Portsmouth, said: “We call [these trusts] ‘black holes’ because you never normally know who is really intended to benefit.

“They are mainly offshore, taking advantage of lax laws. Billions [of dollars] could be out there.”

A leak of 2.5m records relating to more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has lifted the lid on this practice. Hundreds list charities and campaign groups as beneficiaries of tax haven trusts, including Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the British Red Cross.

Last week charities and campaign groups expressed their anger at the way they had been exploited. John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, which has been named as a beneficiary of a trust in the Cook Islands in the south Pacific, said: “It looks like our name has been exploited by somebody operating from an island notorious for facilitating tax avoidance.

The Red Cross was unaware it was being used by tax avoiders

The Red Cross was unaware it was being used by tax avoiders (Ben Gurr)

“Global tax loopholes are costing governments trillions, setting back the fight against poverty and environmental destruction. The fact that tax avoiders may be using the names of campaign groups to pull it off is a distasteful irony.”

Many foreign charities are also on the list. Some are now investigating whether they can take legal action to stake a claim on these hidden offshore assets.

One of the financial advisers who has honed the use of trusts for tax avoidance is Philip Egglishaw, known at “the Bowler Hat Englishman”. He is subject of an international arrest warrant after allegedly masterminding one of Australia’s biggest tax evasion schemes. He denies wrongdoing.

In November 2003, investigators in Operation Wickenby, Australia’s biggest tax evasion crackdown, found documents Egglishaw had unwittingly left behind at the Sheraton On the Park hotel in Sydney.

The documents revealed how trusts could be set up without disclosing any link between the trustees and beneficiaries. The documents stated: “Trusts are typically used to avoid the following forms of taxation: income tax; capital gains tax; death duties; gift taxes; wealth taxes.”

Egglishaw helped devise a trust scheme for Paul Hogan, the Crocodile Dundee actor who has been investigated in Australia for unpaid tax. Hogan, who moved to America, has since settled his case with the tax authorities.

Egglishaw formed the Carthage Trust, which was run from the British Virgin Islands. About $34m was kept in the Corner Bank in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the benefit of the trust. The trust documents, however, listed the beneficiary as the British Red Cross.

A legal action was filed on Hogan’s behalf in a Californian court last year, revealing that this trust structure was bogus and that the British charity was never the intended beneficiary.

“The sole intended beneficiary of the Carthage Trust is Hogan, and this structure was adopted to maintain his privacy,” the documents say.

The action states Hogan had correctly declared his interest in the Carthage Trust to the US authorities. Hogan now accuses Egglishaw of stealing the money that he was meant to stash in a tax haven.

“The British Red Cross has no record of ever being a beneficiary of the Carthage Trust and we have never received any funds,” the charity said.

Grosvenor Crescent, which a British Virgin Islands trust hoped to redevelop

The leaked documents revealed that a London legal firm, Pearson Lowe, helped administer a number of trusts that appear to have been established for three wealthy Italian families.

Three Italian charities caring for blind people, mistreated children and Aids sufferers were named as the beneficiaries of the SICC Trust set up in the Cook Islands in January 2002.

All three charities — Lega Italiana per Lotta Aids, Unione Italiana Ciechi and Centro Bambino Maltrattato — have said they had no knowledge of this trust and never received any donations. They are now considering legal action to see if they can claim any of the funds sheltered in the trusts.

Trust experts say the use of charities to front trusts without their permission or knowledge has been going on for years. The International Red Cross has legitimately been used as a “reserve” beneficiary in some trusts, but the practice expanded to using charities as the main beneficiaries to conceal the ultimate destination of the funds.

Many of the trusts are “discretionary”, which in effect means the assets do not have to be distributed to the main beneficiaries. Financial experts say more rigorous compliance checks are required to stamp out the practice.

They warn the trust industry, however, that charities might now have a legitimate claims over the hidden funds. L Burke Files, an international trust agent and recovery expert, said charities could apply to take over the fund if courts rule that the trusts were shams to conceal the identity of true beneficiary.

Glimpse into secret world

The leaking of 2.5m documents, mainly from the offshore tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, has lifted the lid on the secretive world of offshore finance, writes Peter Newlands.
The material comes from two finance firms that specialise in offshore trusts: Commonwealth Trust Limited, based in the BVI, and Portcullis Trustnet, which has offices in many tax havens, including the BVI and the Cook Islands.

The material reveals how business leaders, politicians and other prominent figures around the world have benefited from moving money into offshore trusts.

Although the documents detail 122,000 offshore entities, most of the BVI’s 600,000 companies are still cloaked in secrecy and about 5,000 more are registered each month.

In a statement Portcullis Trustnet Group said it considered the leaked information to have been stolen: “We are taking this theft . . . very seriously.”

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The uncharitable use of trust to deceive

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In 1983, an ambitious 26-year-old doctor graduated from the Wisconsin Medical School. Thomas Ziolkowski, who was born in Milwaukee, chose to specialise in dermatology and set up a clinic in Boulder, Colorado. He also took a liking to Australia, and would visit from time to time.

But whatever he was paid and whatever satisfaction he felt from his work, it was not enough; Ziolkowski craved a grander existence and he found a shortcut. Just two years after leaving university, the young doctor had worked out a way to systematically gouge medical insurance companies for significantly increased fees.

In all, despite the millions of dollars flowing through it, the trust fund is worth a mere $11.

As a subsequent Colorado Medical Board investigation would find, Ziolkowski lined his pockets by charging separate fees to examine individual lesions on his patients. He brought each patient back again and again for appointments they otherwise did not need and for health checks they did not get.

Dr Tom Ziolkowski Australian citizen Tom Ziolkowski used two Australian AIDS charities as fronts to hide money from US tax authorities. Photo: Facebook

After receiving at least four complaints between 1993 and 1996, the board ordered him to stop his “continuing practice of requiring patients to make unnecessary return appointments”.

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Noting that he had claimed top billing of about $160 for one “high complexity” case that required him to look at two benign spots on a patient’s back, the board warned him in March 1996 that “your actions are highly suggestive of an intent to unfairly profit at the insurance companies’ or patients’ expense. This behaviour is totally unacceptable”.

That month, he was issued a “letter of admonition” by the medical authority and warned that “complaints disclosing any repetition of such practice may lead to the commencement of formal disciplinary proceedings against your license to practice medicine”.

Map of the countries in which Portcullis operated.

Ziolkowski ignored the warning. Within two years he was the subject of four new complaints that were found to warrant disciplinary proceedings and which were passed to Colorado’s attorney-general for prosecution.

On May 26, 1988, Ziolkowski gave up his licence to practice instead of contesting the new complaints (claiming to be suffering from ill health). But by then he had gone to significant lengths to protect the money he was making.

With the help of a Denver lawyer and a wealth management company that specialised in offshore secrecy, the Portcullis Trustnet Group, Ziolkowski then salted away his money in a trust hidden in Bermuda and companies domiciled in the British Virgin Islands. He turned from medicine to the sharemarket.

By 2004, he was trading via disguised accounts that were worth $2.4 million. He had properties stretching from the Colorado highlands to the glittering waterfront of Sydney; he later renovated a $2.5 million Manhattan loft in the same building as Tom Cruise’s ex-wife, Katie Holmes.

Ziolkowski, who became an Australian citizen in 2006, had been shown a means by which he could hide his funds and profits from US tax authorities – by using charities as a front. He chose two Australian not-for-profits, the AIDS Council of NSW and the AIDS Trust of Australia.

Although each charity has, since 2002, been listed as having an individual 47 per cent beneficial interest in the master entity created for Ziolkowski – dubbed the Voyager Trust – neither has received a single dollar.

The Portcullis global network.In all, despite the millions of dollars flowing through it, the trust fund is worth a mere $11, the nominal value of the shares in the two British Virgin Islands companies that sit within it.

In this deliberately complicated structure, the rivers of cash being traded by these companies is deemed as debts due to be paid back to Ziolkowski, a “creditor” under the scheme. That repaid money is regarded as a tax-free annual annuity.

Ziolkowski’s offshore adventures are a single example of what has become a booming and competitive market in tax avoidance. He is just one of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have used the murky offshore world to manage their wealth and minimise their taxes.

So industrialised has the practice become that financial analysts suspect that 30 per cent of the world’s wealth is now domiciled in offshore tax havens.

Now, the veil is being lifted from this secretive world. Since 2010, 260 gigabytes of offshore secrets, leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have been scoured by more than 80 journalists from 40 countries. The volume of material is larger than the diplomatic cables provided to Wikileaks.

So far, the ICIJ’s stories, published in newspapers around the world, have rocked governments and caused serious indigestion for private bankers in places such as Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and Hong Kong.

Then there are the rich and the powerful. French banking aristocrat Baron Elie de Rothschild created an offshore empire involving at least 20 trusts and 10 holding companies in the Cook Islands; two members of India’s Parliament were revealed to have links to the offshore world; French President Franç¸ois Hollande’s campaign treasurer was exposed as having secret investments in the Cayman Islands.

One of Mongolia’s most senior politicians, meanwhile, has said publicly he is considering the need to resign after his secret Swiss bank account was revealed.

And as the Herald reported in April, Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan has now accused his former tax adviser Philip Egglishaw of taking off with $34 million he helped Hogan hide in Switzerland. Like Ziolkowski, Hogan’s affairs were also hidden behind a charity, the British Red Cross.

‘If anybody in this country doesn’t minimise their tax, they want their heads read, because as a government, I can tell you you’re not spending it that well that we should be donating extra.”

Kerry Packer was blunt about both his tax strategies and his view of the government in 1991 when he testified before a parliamentary committee. But for those who use offshore havens, it is not a simple affair.

For Ziolkowski, the critical first step was finding someone in the business of offshore “asset protection”. Getting money offshore and into tax havens is only part of the problem. The rest is masking who really owns and controls it. This involves creating a so-called Special Purpose Vehicle comprising multiple companies and trusts.

On the top layer of the Ziolkowski scheme were the AIDS charities that were listed as beneficiaries of the Voyager Trust. The trust was nominally managed by its trustee, Managecorp Ltd (which was a subsidiary of the company that specialised in managing money in zero-tax jurisdictions, Portcullis Trustnet).

In fact, through Portcullis, the trustee answered only to Ziolkowski under the terms of a hidden “Nominee Service Agreement”.

The Voyager Trust’s sole assets, with a book value of a mere $11, were two British Virgin Island companies set up for Ziolkowski in the late 1990s, called Falcor Australia Ltd and Voyager International Enterprises Ltd.

On paper, the director of each company was Sydney accountant Steven Rosen. Each company has had at least $1 million in its accounts, according to bank records, which were used for stock and derivatives speculation.

As far as the banks and traders were concerned, Rosen managed these accounts. But in practice, Rosen had handed back the power to give instructions to Ziolkowski under a hidden “Limited Power of Attorney”. Mr Rosen confirmed to the Herald he made none of the decisions affecting the company: ”I had nothing to do with anything that the companies did or the way they operated.”

He said he had agreed to act as a nominee director but didn’t know of the existence of the trust, nor of its tax benefits to Ziolkowski. ”I was asked if I would fill the role because he needed an Australian resident … and so I agreed,” he said.

To ensure that the money in Ziolkowski’s stock accounts never reached the stated beneficiaries of his sham trust, the deal was set up as a loan from Ziolkowski to his own companies.

The effect was to create a tax avoidance shell around Ziolkowski, in which – but for the offshore leaks to the ICIJ – no one could have found out who owned the company accounts, or whether they paid tax in the US or Australia.

The use of charities’ names to mask the real owners of offshore trusts is a common and long standing practice of “doubtful validity”, according to offshore experts and investigators.

It’s largely known as the ”Red Cross” sham, of which many tens of thousands are believed to have been created around the world since the 1960s, most frequently citing the International Red Cross in Geneva or elsewhere as the purported beneficiary.

“This type of scheme [using charities as nominal beneficiaries] has been going for at least 30 years,” a trust recovery law specialist at UK solicitors Coffin Mew, Robert Peach, said. “We call them ‘black holes’ because you never normally know who is really intended to benefit,” Peach said.

The good names of dozens of other charities have been similarly exploited, according to trust documents seen by ICIJ. They include two other AIDS charities in Italy and Indonesia.

According to a study by Professor Peter Willoughby of the City University of Hong Kong, “the selection of the Red Cross [or other charity] as a discretionary beneficiary without intending to benefit it, is bogus”.

“The 90 per cent trick using the names of charities is something we often uncover,” offshore tax specialist and asset recovery expert Burke Files said. “These are sham trusts.”

Files’ opinion about the real purposes of trusts such as Voyager appeared to be confirmed by confidential correspondence between Portcullis Trustnet’s Jamie Williams and Ziolkowski’s Cayman Islands broker in December 2004.

“[The] discretionary beneficiaries … do not have a fixed interest. Most trusts we administer are discretionary in nature. In most cases this means the discretionary beneficiaries are not aware they have a discretionary interest and it is not often the intention of the trustee to inform them of such because of possible disruptive (and even negative) implications for the trust. This is the same situation here.”

Certainly neither AIDS charity has benefited. They’ve not received a cent and knew nothing of this until contacted by the Herald. Ziolkowski did not respond to the Herald’s inquiries .

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