Old school friends in cash ‘laundering web’
28 Sep 2020

As schoolboys, their friendship was cemented while playing in the same rugby team at one of Britain’s most prestigious boarding schools.

Since those days at The King’s School in Canterbury, Kirils Pestuns, James Dickins and Daniel O’Donoghue have unwittingly found themselves at the centre of a global network of companies suspected of facilitating money laundering worth millions of pounds.

Mr Pestuns, originally from Latvia, recruited Mr Dickins and Mr O’Donoghue, all 36, to help to run ComForm Solutions, a “formation agent” business that has created 380 UK companies later subject to “suspicious activity reports” filed with US bank investigators.

A cache of leaked suspicious activity reports sent by banks to the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, dubbed the “Fincen files”, reveal that Intergold LP, one of the companies set up by the former schoolmates, received a $1.6 million payment for “confectionery” from Turkmenistan’s trade ministry.

The payment left the ministry’s bank account in the capital, Ashgabat, passed through Deutsche Bank in New York and arrived in a Latvian bank account held by Intergold. The transaction was flagged as suspicious by Deutsche Bank. It is not known whether the US authorities then investigated.

Separately, Companies House documents show ComForm helped to set up companies including a Belarusian-owned pyramid scheme accused last year of duping 900 people out of their savings and another firm subject to a warning from the Financial Conduct Authority for operating without a licence.

There is no suggestion that ComForm is involved in or has any knowledge of any of the suspicious activity allegedly perpetrated by its clients or the companies it helps to set up.

Banks use suspicious activity reports to highlight suspicious behaviour but they are not proof of wrongdoing or crime.

The companies, which are either limited partnerships (LPs) or limited liability partnerships (LLPs), are the subject of criticism by campaigners who say their structures, which allow for an owner’s identity not to be publicly disclosed, are open to abuse by money launderers.

Mr O’Donoghue, who signed Intergold’s registration paperwork, provided a statement on behalf of the company, which said: “We are supervised by HMRC in regards to our anti-money-laundering responsibilities. At ComForm, we understand high level of due diligence that is required [sic] from UK company formation agents when meeting their regulatory obligations.”

This week separate suspicious activity reports unconnected to ComForm revealed that the Russian husband of a socialite who is the Conservative Party’s biggest female donor was secretly funded by an oligarch closely linked to Vladimir Putin.

Lubov Chernukhin has given £1.7 million to the Tories and paid for personal time with three prime ministers, including a dinner with Theresa May and a game of tennis with Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

Her husband, Vladimir, was sent $8 million in 2016 from a British Virgin Islands company linked to Suleyman Kerimov, a billionaire gold-mining oligarch and member of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. Mrs Chernukhin said that none of the donations was “tainted by Kremlin or any other influence”.

The Fincen files cast a spotlight over the murky world of near-anonymous UK LPs and LLPs, which have become popular since the early 2000s after rules on certain kinds of shell companies in jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands and the Seychelles were tightened.

By Ben Ellery, The Times, 26 September 2020

Read more at The Times

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