Spies, oil and the billionaire mogul trying his luck with the National Lottery
06 Oct 2020

Sir Malcolm Rifkind had been more used to summoning ambassadors than visiting them. His spell as Foreign Secretary had been cut short, however, by a Conservative electoral collapse.

Having lost his Commons seat too, in the first summer of the new millennium Rifkind approached the Czech embassy, a prize-winning concrete oblong overlooking Notting Hill Gate, on unofficial business.

He arrived with a plea for assistance on behalf of corporate Britain. Rifkind had accepted a seat on the board of Ramco Energy, an Aberdeen-based oil explorer listed on Aim with designs on potentially lucrative but definitely risky projects in the former Soviet bloc.

It was already encountering local difficulty in relation to its 1998 discovery of reserves near the Czech city of Brno. According to High Court documents, Ramco believed its partner in the joint venture, the former state oil company, MND, had become unreliable after acquiring new shareholders.

MND and Ramco had been in business for years but after Karel Komarek Jr and his father – who had run state trading interests under communism – invested, the Czech company terminated the partnership.

Ramco, arguing it was still entitled to a share of oil revenues as well as recovery of its $15m investment, launched legal action in Prague that was later settled by arbitration and a $2m payment by MND.

Rifkind also encouraged Ramco to call on Hakluyt, a firm of spooks-for-hire founded by former MI6 spymasters, to investigate the Komarek family. It produced a report in 2000 detailing rumours of corruption and even alleged links to the murder of Jan Ducky, a Slovak politician involved in energy privatisation. Word of the unsubstantiated claims and Rifkind’s visit to Notting Hill Gate reached pages of Czech newspapers and Komarek Jr. He flatly denied Hakluyt’s findings and sued for libel in London.

When the dispute came to trial in 2002 at the High Court the allegations were presumed to be false because Ramco and Hakluyt did not try to prove them. Komarek’s libel claim nevertheless failed after the judge ruled there was no dishonesty or improper motive by the defendants. Disappointed, the 33-year-old could only complain “they have never been willing to apologise or to stop making the allegations”. He continues to deny them completely.

Rifkind, who was reelected as an MP, and Komarek both returned to their careers. Now 51, he still controls MND, via his Swiss holding company KKCG, but his interests have grown broader to reach far beyond Czech borders and the energy market. He has a home in Palm Beach, Florida, in the neighbourhood known as Billionaires Row, to match a personal fortune estimated at $3.3bn. He supports the Kennedy Center in Washington DC with his wife Stepanka, who also helps run their philanthropic foundation.

“The question is whether I would be able to do the same now,” Komarek said in an interview last year. “I would probably be less aggressive, much more scared and I’d be thinking twice before doing something. We were at the right place, at the right time and at the right age.”

After 18 years his clash with the British establishment might have remained a footnote, but Komarek is back. KKCG’s fast-growing lottery operator, Sazka Group, is making a determined attempt to win the National Lottery licence away from Camelot for the first time since the debut draw in 1994. The Gambling Commission is preparing to issue the formal invitation to bidders this month following a registration deadline on Friday.

As the operator of lotteries in the Czech Republic, Austria, Greece and Italy, Sazka represents a serious challenge to Camelot. Yet the National Lottery regulator is also on standby to conduct assessments of whether contenders would be “fit and proper” holders of the licence. Though he has never failed such an assessment and has passed similar tests in several countries, the condition may once again put Komarek’s business in the spotlight.

The entrepreneur’s work in post-Soviet energy markets has brought him into the orbit of the Kremlin. Under Komarek, MND has built ties to a Russia-controlled natural gas trader and retailer called Vemex, and today holds a 17pc shareholding in the company alongside the German arm of Gazprom, on just over 50pc. Komarek views working with Gazprom as unavoidable.

The remaining third is owned by Centrex, headquartered in Vienna. Centrex is owned by Gazprombank and acts as an intermediary for Russia, supplying gas to central Europe.

Gazprombank is linked to controversial figures such as the oligarch Dmytro Firtash, via joint ownership of a Ukranian importer of Russian gas comparable to Centrex. Firtash, a former donor to the Conservative party, is wanted by the FBI on corruption charges, but has successfully fought extradition to the United States since his arrest in Austria in 2014. Firtash denies wrongdoing.

There is no suggestion of any ties between the Ukrainian and Komarek, who says he cannot avoid Russian partners. Yet both have separately sought the same counsel as they have sought to influence British politicians.

Sazka has discussed its bid for the National Lottery licence by the public relations and lobbying firm New Century Media, which a year prior to his arrest worked for Firtash and his foundation as they courted figures including the culture minister John Whittingdale.

Sazka’s advisers are massed as it awaits the formal invitation to bid. It has engaged Trafalgar Strategy a communications agency co-founded by a former Number 10 spokesman to handle media relations. It has also signed up Flint Global, a consultancy led by the former Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards and ex-Foreign Office permanent secretary Simon Fraser. McKinsey is working on the business plan Saska is preparing for its pitch. Sazka declined to comment on its advisers. It is not now working with New Century Media.

Komarek has built the company into a leading European lottery operator with a turnover of €1.9bn in quick time and in partnership with controversial figures. He first took a minority stake in Sazka, then merely the Czech national operator, in 2011. The following year KKCG acquired the company outright and began empire building. In 2013 the financially crippled Greek government sold its 33pc stake in the listed gambling operator OPAP to a Cyprus-registered entity called Emma Delta for €650m.

Emma Delta represented a trio of wealthy businessmen, who as well as Komarek and a fellow Czech included George Melissanidis, son of Dimitris “The Tiger” Melissanidis, a Greek oil tycoon with a criminal history.

Komarek says the activities of Dimitris Melissanidis have nothing whatsoever to do with him.

The Tiger helped win the OPAP deal for Emma Delta. According to US regulatory filings, in 1982, as manager of the football team Ionikos FC, he was convicted of bribing two opposing players. In 1988, when he ran a network of driving schools, Dimitris Melissanidis was convicted of bribing a public official to obtain a licence for a pupil. In the following decades the legal troubles piled up, including a conviction operating a warehouse illegally and two for tax evasion that were later overturned. In 2003, union officials dropped a complaint against him for making threats of violence when the case came to trial, according to SEC documents.

Since his original investment in OPAP, Komarek has gained control by mounting a takeover bid via Sazka last year. He remains in business with George Melissanidis, however, via the stake held by Emma Delta. The government official responsible for the stake sale was sacked amid ethical concerns over a trip he took on Dimitris Melissanidis’s private jet.

The Greek billionaire is currently battling allegations from creditors of the bankrupt marine fuel supplier he founded, Aegean Marine Petroleum Network, that he defrauded the business of $300m. Dimitris Melissanidis denies the claims.

By Christopher Williams, The Telegraph, 3 October 2020

Read more at The Telegraph

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