Days after the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri refused to state who owns 17 Black, the mysterious Dubai company linked to his Panama company, the company owner’s identity may have just been revealed.
Maria Efimova, the former Pilatus Bank employee turned whistleblower, took to Twitter to claim 17 Black is owned by Manuchehr Ahaadpur Khangah – an Azeri-Iranian oligarch who used to have Pilatus Bank accounts for a number of now-defunct Maltese companies.
She also claimed that Khangah, a keen gambler, had named the company after the 17-point rule in blackjack. Questions sent by Lovin Malta to Khangah have not been responded to as of the time of writing.
17 Black was first named by Daphne Caruana Galizia in February 2017 in a cryptic blogpost which included the faces of Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri, as well as of Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and former EU Commissioner John Dalli.
In an email sent to Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, leaked in the Panama Papers, Mizzi’s and Schembri’s financial advisors Nexia BT named 17 Black as one of two Dubai companies that would be transferring $1 million annually to future bank accounts owned by his clients’ Panama companies. While Schembri has stated 17 Black was included in his business plans, Mizzi has reiterated that he had set up his offshore structure for family planning but has refused to sue Nexia BT for misrepresentation.
A leaked report by the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU) found that 17 Black had received at least three payments – one single payment of €161,000 from the local agent for the tanker supplying gas to the LNG power station and two separate payments amounting to €1.1 million from a Seychelles company called Mayor Trans owned by an unnamed Azeri national. According to a report from Azeri news website Dia.AZ, Mayor Trans is owned by another Azeri oligarch called Rufat Baratzade – a shareholder of US mobile payments company Net Element Inc.
According to the FIAU, the €1.1 million was sent to 17 Black via ABLV, a Latvian bank that was recently embroiled in an international scandal after the United States accused it of enabling transactions linked to North Korea’s weapons program and of facilitating corruption connected to Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine. The European Central Bank eventually forced the bank to close its doors.
The damning email leaked to the Panama Papers
Who is Manuchehr Khangah?
Khangah, a citizen of both Azerbaijan and Iran and a resident of Dubai, is the chairman of the Azeri AZ Group of Companies. In a US State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks in 2012, he was described as being a very close “collaborator” of Azeri ruler Ilham Aliyev who served as a frontman for powerful minister Kemaladdin Heydarov.
In December 2014, Khangah used Nexia BT to set up a Maltese company called Mulsanne Investments and six subsidiary companies named after famous composers – Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and Vivaldi.
The companies were set up a week after Joseph Muscat made an unannounced visit to Azerbaijan, during which he held a meeting with Ilham Aliyev and signed an oil and gas cooperation agreement.
MFSA records show Khangah’s companies all set up company information accounts at Pilatus Bank. The companies were closed down less than 12 months later, just before Maltese law would have required them to present a statutory audit.
Liquidation documents show that Mulsanne had recorded accumulated losses of €627,198 which were offset by a shareholder’s loan of €627,717. The six subsidiaries each incurred accumulated losses of €8,273 – ostensibly in incorporation expenses – which were also paid off by a shareholder’s loan.
According to Efimova, Khangah used his Pilatus Bank account for money laundering purposes – by ‘loaning’ money from another Pilatus Bank client, transferring that money to Mulsanne Investments in the form of a shareholder loan, and moving it to a separate holding company in Guernsey.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has refused to state who owns 17 Black, citing ongoing magisterial inquiries, while his chief of staff Keith Schembri last week ignored repeated questions about the company’s owner.