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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 January, 2005, 00:22 GMT
Bank to sue Abramovich over '9m debt'
By John Sweeney and Richard Behar
BBC, London

Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich
Abramovich has spent millions on Chelsea Football Club
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has cheated European taxpayers by using one of his companies as a personal piggy-bank, according to claims in documents prepared for a major court case.

A publicly-funded bank, backed by British, American, Japanese and European taxpayers, is set to sue the Chelsea boss in a Swiss court for payment of a 9m debt it believes one of his companies owes the bank.

A source at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) based in London said: "We have as much money as he does, and we'll see this through. We will pursue him anywhere he goes.

"We can last as long as he can. He may think he can get away with this in Russia, but he can't in Switzerland. He needs to learn that he can't."

The honeymoon between the British media and Mr Abramovich - who has spent 350m on getting Chelsea Football Club to the top of the Premier League - may be about to end as details of the planned court case emerge.

Money missing

A "Sweeney Investigates" BBC Two documentary, to be broadcast on Thursday, reveals that the billionaire blew huge sums on two yachts and even 12,000 on beauty treatments for his wife, Irena, according to a damning dossier compiled by the EBRD, whose brief is to finance the fledgling economies of Eastern Europe.

The bank sent letters in 2003 to Mr Abramovich, his associate and fellow Chelsea regular Eugene Shvidler and Sibneft, Mr Abramovich's oil company, demanding repayment of a multi-million pound loan.

As is often the case with Mr Abramovich's labyrinthine business dealings, the details of the case are complex.

The Sweeney Investigates programme reveals that EBRD granted a loan in 1997 to a Russian Bank, SBS Agro, and demanded as collateral first call over a loan the institution had made to a Swiss-based company called Runicom SA - a company Mr Abramovich used as a tax-efficient way to sell Sibneft's oil.

When SBS Agro collapsed in the Russian banking crisis in the late nineties, EBRD set out to recover the collateral from Runicom SA - but there was a problem. The money in Runicom SA had gone walkabout.

A confidential EBRD memo, dated 15 October, 2004, asserted "that Sibneft was a de facto or 'shadow' director of Runicom. Sibneft, as well as Mr Abramovich and Mr Shvidler, as former Runicom directors caused Runicom to transfer its assets to third persons for no or inadequate consideration".

Suspected forgeries

The third party, the bank learnt, was another company, this time based in Gibraltar, called, wait for it, Runicom Ltd.

The bank believes that Runicom SA of Switzerland and Runicom Ltd of Gibraltar are both ultimately controlled by Mr Abramovich.

EBRD lost a lawsuit in the Russian courts in 2000 after Runicom SA produced documents which it claimed showed that the loan had already been repaid to another concern - so it did not owe EBRD a penny.

The bank, however, suspected the documents were forgeries.

Senior banker Elizabeth Wallace, is quoted in EBRD's dossier as saying: "In the course of the investigation carried out by the EBRD, we discovered that the documents produced by Runicom contained numerous inconsistencies which pointed to the fact that some of documents had been forged at a later date.

"For example, the addresses on the seals were wrong and did not coincide with the current address of the organisation. Similarly, the loan repayment term and amounts were wrong; the interest amount was also wrong; the payer was also wrongly indicated - instead of the Swiss-registered Runicom SA, they indicated the Gibraltar-registered Runicom Ltd as the payer.

"And this is just part of the whole list of inconsistencies."

Bankruptcy claim

In August 2000, the deputy vice president, David Hexter, wrote "in the strictest confidence", to the Swiss Prosecutor General Bernard Bertossa requesting an official investigation into the affair.

"Substantial inconsistencies among the documents... create a question as to whether these documents are authentic... or possibly prepared with the aim of defeating the legitimate claim of a creditor toward Runicom SA."

Runicom SA denied that there were any irregularities with the documents. The EBRD took the case to the appeal court in Russia and in January 2002 it won a judgment in its favour for 9m.

Four months later, before the EBRD could collect a penny, Runicom SA was declared bankrupt. The bank asserts that Runicom SA had been emptied of money in favour of Runicom Ltd.

When it got its hands on Runicom SA's books, the bank found that big sums had been spent on items not exactly closely related to the oil business.

Beauty treatment

Lawyers for the EBRD said: "Runicom SA had numerous bank accounts with various banks which were charged with expenses made by Mr Abramovich or Mr Shvidler. The debits on Runicom's accounts are innumerable and it seems at the very least doubtful that all these expenses were made in connection with Runicom's business activities.

"One of many items catching the eye was the bank transfer confirmation in the amount of SFr27,800 (12,000) for services of a beauty farm to be rendered to Mrs Irene Abramovich which was sent on Runicom SA stationery by a Sibneft fax machine on November 14, 1997."

The EBRD's documents also show that in January 1999 Runicom SA paid part of a hotel bill for Mr Abramovich and a business associate, Alexander Mamut, worth ATS130,000 (around 4,700), and Runicom Ltd paid another part of the bill for ATS51,800 (1,900).

The dossier also includes claims that Runicom Ltd purchased two yachts, "Stream" and "Sophie's Choice" for 1m from a boatyard in Cannes.

Talks between the opposing sides broke down in July last year. Eugene Tannenbaum, who is a director of Sibneft and another Stamford Bridge regular, said the loan was "not our problem".

'No receipts'

One of the strange mysteries of the story is that 9m is small change for Mr Abramovich.

He has lavished 350m on Chelsea - so why bother tangle with a publicly-owned bank and run the risk that further embarrassing accusations will surface?

The bank believes that Mr Abramovich and Mr Shvidler broke Swiss company law by transferring the assets of Runicom SA to Runicom Ltd in Gibraltar, without due payment.

There was also, allegedly, "a complete failure of the directors to do a proper accounting". And, perhaps most embarrassingly, "there are no receipts and no explanations for the countless expenses Mr Abramovich and Mr Shvidler charged to Runicom's account".

Sibneft, Mr Abramovich and Mr Shvidler have always denied the EBRD's claims and plan to fight any legal action. They still maintain the original Runicom SA loan was repaid in full.

Sweeney Investigates was broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday, 20 January at 2150GMT.


SEE ALSO:
Chasing 'Mr Chelski'
24 Aug 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent
The oil tycoon tempted by Chelsea
17 Apr 04 |  Business
Russia set to question Abramovich
30 Jan 04 |  Business


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