Maria Efimova, one of the main sources behind the explosive Egrant story published exactly a year ago by Daphne Caruana Galizia, has spoken to Lovin Malta about her tumultuous few months working at Pilatus Bank, the bizarre police interrogation that followed and her contact with the now-assassinated journalist.
It was quite by chance that Efimova, a Russian national, landed her now-famous job as executive secretary to Pilatus Bank’s chairman and founder Ali Sadr Hasheminejad – who was recently arrested in the United States and charged with laundering money and evading US sanctions on Iran. Her husband, a Cypriot national, was searching for work through a recruitment agency, found the vacant position at the newly-opened Maltese bank and applied for it.
“He thought the position fit his background in front office and cash operations, but it turns out it was more suited to my background [in international compliance and anti- money laundering,” Efimova recounted. “My husband encouraged me to apply myself, so I sent in my CV and I found myself a job as Ali Sadr’s executive assistant.”
The two moved to Malta in 2016, but Efimova could feel from the get-go that there was something not quite right about the bank.
“When I was interviewed by Ali Sadr, my genuine opinion was that he was not qualified to be called a banker and to run a financial organisation,” she said. “His instructions were not that clear and not that professional and in some particular areas of banking procedure I felt that I was actually more experienced than he was.”
Ali Sadr lived in the United States but he used to spend a couple of days in Malta every ten days, and indeed one of Efimova’s jobs was to calculate her boss’ visits, for Sadr to then hand in to the US authorities for tax and residence purposes. When he was in Malta, Ali Sadr used to sleep at the apartment of his old friend Hamidreza Ghanbari, who as Pilatus Bank CEO, used to run the bank in Sadr’s absence. Including Sadr and Ghanbari, the bank only employed twelve employees.
“The atmosphere at the bank was quite neurotic,” Efimova recalled. “There were rows everyday, the management wasn’t polite at all and kept using inappropriate language, and everybody was in a rush all the time. There was no order and the deadlines were always very tight, and I believe it was all down to a lack of management skills.”
To make matters worse, Efimova didn’t even receive a monthly salary from Pilatus Bank – a case she eventually took up with the Department of Industrial Relations, which then ordered the bank to pay her wages.
“The Maltese authorities confirmed with me that the fact I was married to an EU citizen gave me almost all the same rights as an EU citizen,” she said. “However, Ghanbari insisted that he couldn’t put me on the bank’s payroll before I had a Maltese residence card and that I would be paid in arrears afterwards.”
The two other Pilatus employees named by Efimova were its head of legal and compliance Claude-Ann Sant Fournier and its risk officer Antoniella Gauci – both formerly employed at KPMG, the audit firm of Pilatus Bank.
“I believe the connection between KPMG and Pilatus Bank is a deep and strange one,” Efimova said. “Both Claude-Ann and Antoniella left KPMG for much more senior positions at Pilatus Bank, which for me is too much of a coincidence. Once I had an argument with Claude-Ann about some thing to do with transactions and compliance legislation and she told me that the bank has many connections with the Maltese government and that I should not worry and just do my job.”
Egrant panic stations
Michelle Muscat with Leyla Aliyeva in 2014
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s story, which the Prime Minister has vehemently denied, went like this: Leyla Aliyeva, the daughter of Azerbaijan’s ruler Ilham Aliyev, owned a Dubai company which in turn owned an account at Pilatus Bank. The famous Panama company Egrant, which Caruana Galizia claimed belonged to Michelle Muscat, also owned a Pilatus Bank account as well as an account with an unnamed Dubai bank. Between January and March 2016, Aliyeva paid biweekly $100,000 instalments into Egrant’s Dubai bank account. Then in March 2016, Aliyeva made a single payment transaction of $1.07 million to Egrant’s Dubai account, but this was blocked by one of Pilatus’ two US correspondent banks before passing through. Both correspondent banks eventually cut ties with Pilatus Bank.
Efimova was working with Pilatus Bank in March 2016 and she remembers the incident well.
“I remember it was in the afternoon and there was lots of shouting about this transaction that had been stopped by one of our corresponding banks,” she said. “Unfortunately I can’t recall the name of the bank and I wasn’t participating in the operational department procedures, but I noticed that everyone – especially the management – was very anxious. This was a particular transaction between sender and receiver and yes, the name ‘Egrant’ kept coming up during the conversation because it was the beneficiary of the transaction. I kept receiving calls from Nexia BT about this transaction and eventually Ghanbari told me to forward all calls from Nexia to him directly.”
Efimova doesn’t know whether the two US corresponding banks had shut off correspondence with Pilatus because of this incident and whether Pilatus had eventually started conducting USD transactions through its account at Bank of Valletta. However, she remembers that Pilatus Bank had an account and a client account at BOV and that BOV used to call up Pilatus “quite often”.
Pilatus Bank CEO Hamidreza Ghanbari
The safe in the kitchen
Efimova recalls how Pilatus Bank had tried to make her falsify documents to present to officials of the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU) at an on-site inspection.
“When you make a transaction of significant amounts, the clients should provide sufficient documentation such as invoices and agreements, but for most of the bank’s transactions there were none of these documentations and I was asked to make those documentations myself. There were also signatures missing on payment instructions and account opening forms and I was asked to falsify them. I refused of course, because I suspected that if something went wrong they were just going to blame me for the violations. I don’t know whether the bank ended up giving falsified documents to the FIAU or not.”
One time, FIAU officers were at the bank and Claude-Ann Sant Fournier gave Efimova a key to retrieve a document from a safe. The safe, Efimova recalled, used to be in Ghanbari’s office but had been relocated to the kitchen after refurbishment works were carried out on the bank.
“When you entered the kitchen, immediately on your left, there was a safe that looked like a big cabinet,” Efimova said. “People used to go there quite often and I remember because I was constantly disturbed whenever I was eating lunch in the kitchen and had to leave whenever they came in to search for documents.”
Curiosity got the better of Efimova and she didn’t immediately retrieve Sant Fournier’s document but looked for a folder containing declarations of trust of companies that hold accounts at the bank.
“It wasn’t a very big folder and maybe that’s why it caught my attention. It was full of declarations of trust and some other corporate documents, and having experience in corporate services, I knew that declarations of trust are the most interesting documents because they show the UBOs of companies. I started reading names and I saw the name Muscat under the Egrant one. I already knew it was the surname of the Prime Minister so I made a mental note to do some research to check for a connection.”
Efimova refused to confirm whether or not she had obtained a copy of the Egrant declaration of trust and whether or not she had uploaded it onto the cloud, arguing that disclosing such information would go against the advice given her by magistrate Aaron Bugeja – who is carrying out an inquiry into the Egrant story.
The bizarre police interrogation
Jonathan Ferris was one of two police officers who interrogated Maria Efimova
After Pilatus Bank dismissed Efimova from her job, it also filed a police report against her for misappropriating funds. Efimova was interrogated by two police officers – Lara Butters and Jonathan Ferris, the latter who later joined the FIAU and is now claiming he was sacked from that job because he wanted to dig too deeply into the Egrant story.
Efimova reiterated that the police officers had actually allowed Ghanbari and Sant Fournier to listen in to their interrogation of her, an accusation the police have denied.
“Ghanbari and Claude-Ann were sitting down and left me standing on my feet during my interrogation,” she said. “The police officers told me that everything was against me and that the bank might forgive me if I were to plead guilty, that sort of psychological pressure. I was mortified when I saw the Pilatus Bank employees there because I thought they were trying to show me they could do pretty much anything they want to me. Then I got very angry and I asked Ghanbari if he remembers that I used to bring food to his office. He told me that he remembers and I told him that he should be aware that I used to spit in his food whenever I brought it to him. I also asked for an interpreter, just so that I could have a neutral person present to witness all these illegal actions.”
When Ghanbari and Sant Fournier left the room and the interpreter entered, Efimova gave a statement to Ferris – including about how Pilatus Bank had asked her to falsify documents and signatures. Efimova believes a light bulb went on in Ferris’ mind after she gave this statement.
“Ferris had first warned me that I would go to jail and then get charged in court and then end up in jail again, but after I gave my statement he released me on bail. I believe that Ferris and Butters had been instructed by high-ranking police officials to put pressure on me, but then maybe Ferris realised that the story was not just about the fraudster who bought tickets from the bank’s account. He might have decided to look deeper into the story because he told me to come back in five days to give another statement. When I entered the police station five days later, Ghanbari was there again but Ferris told me to come back another day and get all the documents with me. After Ferris left the police to join the FIAU, I personally started sending reports against Pilatus Bank to the FIAU, which I could do because I have an anti-money laundering officer certificate that allows me to report all suspicious transactions I witness.”
“Maybe Ferris was the person who received my reports, maybe he started to investigate the story and eventually ended up a whistleblower himself…”
‘The people in power are very dangerous’
Efimova didn’t immediately contact Daphne Caruana Galizia with her information on Egrant but decided to do so when the police, who had seized her passport, refused to allow her to travel to Russia to attend her mother’s funeral.
“I realised that I was facing a very strong enemy which gave me the message that it can do whatever it wants with me,” she said. “I then felt that I should do something with the information I had.”
Efimova chose to confide in Daphne Caruana Galizia because she had already written articles about Pilatus Bank. Caruana Galizia took around five-six months to get back to Efimova and when the two finally met up, Caruana Galizia already had a copy of the declaration of trust allegedly showing that Egrant belongs to Michelle Muscat. However, Caruana Galizia wanted to corroborate her information with Efimova.
During her time in Malta, Efimova was contacted by her father from Moscow who said that he had been visited by a private Russian detective who asked him whether Efimova’s mother had really passed away.
“I asked my friends in Russia to contact this detective, and he told them he was contracted by this other agency. My friends spoke to this agency and explained the situation in Malta and the agency told them who hired it. I have the person’s name and it is a high-ranking Maltese government official, but I don’t have any written evidence so I won’t say who it is yet.”
“The incident shocked me, which is why I hope the Greek Supreme Court will rule against my extradition to Malta. If a member of Maltese government managed to intimidate my father, can you imagine what will happen to me in Malta?”
From her time in Malta, Efimova has come to the conclusion that the people in power are “quite dangerous”.
“They are dangerous to the entire country because they give the wrong picture of Malta internationally, and the reputation of the whole country is being destroyed for the sake of a few people. I cannot understand how the country allows these few people to make such great damage, but that’s just my personal opinion.”