Hello, I’m Angie. I’m an entrepreneur, private assistant, millionaire heiress, celebration woman, something I should be. In fact, I’m an undercover reporter.
A 12 months in the past, I used to be sitting all the way down to a late lunch by the waters of the Mediterranean in Ayia Napa, on the southern coast of Cyprus. Dialog and drinks flowed freely, because the waiter served up morsels of contemporary lobster. Between bites, I did a fast tech verify. The overworked battery pack was burning towards my naked pores and skin, an oddly reassuring sensation that the undercover cameras had been nonetheless recording. It was hour 5 of day three.
My lunch companions had been basking within the heat sea breeze.
“Subsequent time we’re right here we must always all take a ship, it’ll be very good,” mentioned lawyer Andreas Pittadjis.
Andreas has a authorized pedigree. He’s a accomplice at his father’s regulation agency, the place he takes on excessive profile circumstances. We had simply met the day earlier than and shortly bonded over the prospect of profitable enterprise alternatives.
My colleague and I had been posing as representatives of a anonymous, fictional shopper we known as Mr X. An ultra-rich Chinese language businessman, he had fled China after he was charged with bribery and cash laundering. He obtained a seven-year jail sentence in absentia. And now he needed to purchase a Cypriot passport. We had been advised that Andreas was the person to assist us do this, although convicted criminals will not be allowed to be granted passports beneath the Cyprus Funding Programme (CIP).
“No passport case is clear and clear, crystal clear. None of them,” Andreas advised us. “All of them have their points, that’s why they need a passport. Everyone has points, everyone.”
He was a fascinating storyteller with a aptitude for the dramatic. With only a contact of fake modesty, he regaled us with tales about troublesome passport utility circumstances and the way he had succeeded in working the system every time.
The person who launched us was additionally on the desk. Together with his slicked-back hair, unfastened patterned shirts and beneficiant smiles, Tony Kay resembled a seasoned dealmaker from the Costa del Sol. He’s a Brit who runs a property company in Cyprus together with his spouse, Denise. They’ve carved out a worthwhile area of interest on the island, serving to actual property buyers acquire European passports by way of the CIP.
These “golden passports” permit foreigners who make investments a minimal of $2.5m to acquire a passport, and the best to dwell and work throughout the European Union. It has introduced greater than $8bn to Cyprus since 2013, and most of that has gone into the actual property sector.
The enterprise of promoting … passports
The Kays had been our first “mates” on the island. They didn’t draw back after we shared our mission. “I feel, I’m proper in saying that, frankly, it gained’t be a lot centered on the funding or actually something apart from ensuring we will get this passport for this shopper,” Tony mentioned after we first met them in our lodge room, and we agreed.
The tone was set from the beginning that we had been there with the only function of procuring an EU passport for our felony shopper, Mr X, and, fortunately, our new Cypriot contacts had been within the enterprise of promoting.
“The place there are issues, it prices extra money to realize this stuff. So, what we are going to do is locate out who needs to be spoken to and who needs to be paid, what investments should be made,” Tony advised us.
To incentivise them, we defined that there have been many extra purchasers in Asia who may be if this went nicely. If we had different potential candidates, Andreas thought it was greatest to strike shortly. It was October 2019 and the window of alternative was closing.
“The passport programme was modified in January this 12 months … they usually’re considering of adjusting it once more, make it much more troublesome. That’s why I’m saying in case you have folks that they want a passport even now, don’t wait,” he advised us.
The legal guidelines had been being tightened following criticisms of the CIP.
“As a result of they imagine that we’re promoting passports, it’s beneath assault by the European Union, it’s beneath assault by European Fee, it’s beneath assault by the (anti) cash laundering authorities,” Andreas defined.
Nonetheless, Cyprus provided the most suitable choice in the intervening time, Tony insisted.
“It’s a wonderful scheme for attaining the EU passports, proper now. However like every part, for a way lengthy?” he mentioned. “After 9 months to a 12 months they’ll change issues, they’ll say it’s important to make investments extra money or it’s important to depart the cash in for longer, or it’s important to reside perhaps in Cyprus for a time frame, or it’s important to study the language.”
‘In fact. That is Cyprus’
As we lastly bought as much as depart the lunch, I used to be saturated with info and fish. I used to be additionally on the final legs of my final battery. However there was one pivotal query remaining for the answer finders.
I attempted to look relaxed, however I used to be fearful that I may be about to push our luck too far. I puzzled if I ought to wait to ask it on one other day, once I might make certain I had sufficient battery left to seize the reply. However we’d had a calming afternoon and Andreas was in a chatty temper. There won’t be a greater time. So I requested it:
“Can my shopper change his title on the brand new passport, just a bit bit?”
Andreas didn’t skip a beat. “We are able to title him Andreas Jr,” he mentioned. “I’ve a shopper that his title now’s the title half of United States has. However when you verify his authentic title, he can’t even journey with that title. So, we made an affidavit in Cyprus, modified his title, modified his passport. He’s travelling now together with his new passport, no person is aware of.”
“Actually? You’ve carried out this earlier than?” we ask.
“In fact. That is Cyprus,” he shrugged his shoulders and chuckled as he sauntered off in direction of his shiny black automobile.
This meant that Mr X might acquire a brand new passport and utterly change his id, releasing him from any penalties of his felony previous. It was affirmation that the loopholes within the system permit criminals to primarily disappear, evade justice internationally and make sure that their wealth is untainted by their crimes. God, I hoped we’d bought that on digital camera.
‘When the angels, you don’t want God’
We spent the subsequent morning viewing high-end luxurious properties across the south-east of the island that Mr X might doubtlessly spend money on. They had been all initiatives by one in all Cyprus’s largest actual property builders, Giovani Group. Christakis Giovanis, additionally identified in Cyprus as Christakis Giovani, who heads the group, additionally occurs to be a member of parliament.
Tony and Andreas advised us that Christakis was an necessary man to know, a miracle employee. He is aware of all the best folks for what we had been doing.
“When the angels, you don’t want God,” Andreas defined.
They’re all a part of a specialised group of enablers. And Christakis’s connections had been key to overcoming our hurdles. We met him over dinner at his favorite Japanese restaurant. Christakis has a sort, grandfatherly face. He sat within the nook and didn’t say a lot. However when he did communicate, it was in low, mild tones. It was laborious to listen to him over the din of the restaurant, so I edged nearer for higher audio recording.
Christakis left the speaking to his right-hand man Antonis Antoniou, the manager director of Giovani Group; solely nodding sometimes as he quietly ate plates of tuna tartare and sea bream.
Antonis laid out the subsequent steps in our pursuit of a passport. He advised us the primary complication with our shopper’s conviction can be getting his profile previous the banks, and his funds into Cyprus.
“The primary half is how we full KYC for the cash to reach in Cyprus. Put the file collectively and thru the banks we will accommodate the cash right here in Cyprus.”
KYC, or Know Your Shopper, is a background verify that monetary professionals run to confirm dangers. It’s a part of measures to curb cash laundering. That is Andreas’ forte and he later defined the significance of placing collectively a “good” KYC to color the best image for the banks.
As he went into higher element, the chef introduced over seemingly limitless servings of salad and sashimi. It was getting more durable to movie as plates and glasses stuffed the desk.
Quickly, Antonis and Christakis left to catch a red-eye flight for a fast enterprise journey. However we had been requested to increase our keep on the island for an additional day till they returned. “You’ll discover it to be very worthwhile,” Tony promised.
‘The upper, the higher’
Throughout our 4 days in Cyprus, we had been proven the websites – from the undersea caves and rock constructions of Cape Greco to the celebration scenes of Nissi Seaside.
“If you happen to ship purchasers over, after they arrive we chaperone them, we glance after them. They’re handled very, very nicely,” Tony assured us. “After they depart right here they’ll be in love with Cyprus. And we are going to obtain no matter they should obtain.”
Over a collection of three lengthy lunches and two dinners, our Cypriot advisors guided us by way of the roadmap to securing a European passport for a felony applicant. Andreas and Christakis are each registered service suppliers of the CIP. As an alternative of telling us that Mr X was not eligible for a passport, we got step-by-step tutorials on the potential methods to realize our purpose. It was a blueprint for cash laundering – shifting Mr X’s funds into Cyprus, regardless of his felony convictions, by way of the banks and getting the federal government to look the opposite approach.
I used to be each amazed and nervous that we had gotten that far with out offering a reputation or ID for Mr X.
Andreas allow us to in on an business secret – there’s a two-track utility system. One is the official route.
“You may nonetheless get a passport for 2 million [euros]. No person will say no,” Andreas defined.
However the different path required extra money.
He elaborated: “A differential and preferential remedy is given to folks that the society and the federal government feels that they aren’t shopping for the passport. They’re buyers … These over the restrict are handled in a different way. No person would admit that. You can’t see this in any ebook, or any regulation. My humble opinion is that if this man is and you’ve got the problems that we’ve mentioned already he ought to decide to greater funding. If there are points and we would like a passport to be issued quick, go greater. How excessive? As much as you. The upper, the higher.”
When Antonis returned from his journey, he picked us up for a drive across the island in his silver Vary Rover. Even within the afternoon warmth, he was impeccably dressed; the sleeves of his navy blue shirt stylishly rolled up, his luxurious timepiece glinting within the afternoon solar.
“You will have many alternatives the place any individual could make very fast cash,” he advised us.
We drove previous Solar Metropolis, a Giovani growth within the making with a lodge and beachfront villas.
“Our buyers in Solar Metropolis, we gave them passports in a short time … as a result of they invested about 18 million euros, they bought the passport like this,” he mentioned, snapping his fingers. “The extra you make investments you’re in additional beneficial phrases. You may skip the ready listing, as we are saying.”
He already had a undertaking in thoughts for us – a tremendous funding alternative that our shopper might get in on early. It grew to become clear that the funding he was looking for went far past the $2.5m the CIP requires.
We stopped at an undeveloped plot of land by the water. A ten-minute drive from the Solar Metropolis web site, it was a picturesque sea canal in Liopetri. The water was calm and clear. It was quiet and peaceable; a far cry from different blue-flag seashores saturated by vacationers.
“If in case you have any wealthy individuals who need to have a five-star lodge proper on the seaside, that is primary on the chart. Twenty million euros. The remaining we will make from the sale of the flats,” Antonis advised us.
The proposal was to amass the land to construct a five-star lodge run by an internationally famend lodge chain.
‘No person would care’
Within the meantime, Andreas had some concepts about how we might usher in Mr X’s funds, regardless of his cash laundering conviction. One choice was utilizing a entrance firm that was untainted by the applicant’s felony conviction, he defined.
“Not all corporations are criminals,” he mentioned, seated at his workplace desk, a big mural of Gandhi on the Salt March behind him.
“I had a shopper who was convicted in relation to a felony offence. He might make an funding in Cyprus as a result of the origin of the cash was clear.”
One other approach for Mr X to spend money on Cyprus can be to do it in his partner’s title. His partner can be the primary investor and he would achieve entry as a dependent. Underneath the CIP, a partner or baby can apply for a passport as a dependent of the primary investor.
“Within the financial institution, they won’t verify the husband. They’ll simply verify the investor, who’s bringing the cash. So if the particular person bringing the cash is an organization that doesn’t must do with the shopper, no person would discover out. No person would care,” Andreas defined.
And when it bought previous the banks, Christakis’s connections would get the applying the remainder of the best way, he added.
“When it goes to the federal government you may have Christakis’s help. And Christakis will push in order that they perhaps overlook the husband as a result of he’s not the first investor.”
The benefit with which they shared all of the ways in which a convicted felony might turn out to be an EU citizen was stunning. The recommendation we obtained, together with the usage of entrance corporations, hiding behind nominee administrators, influencing civil servants to miss our shopper’s felony document, creating proof of funds and portray the best image for banks, was so matter-of-fact, it felt surreal – as if we had been bringing to life the Panama Papers. Whereas the Panama Papers uncovered that shell corporations had been used for fraud and to evade taxes and worldwide sanctions, right here we had been being handed the blueprint for a way that may very well be achieved.
We discovered it troublesome to sq. lots of the “options” they described with Cyprus’s cash laundering rules. To me, paying a money donation in return for assist of Mr X’s case sounded rather a lot like corruption and bribery. However our Cypriot community of enablers insisted that it was not unlawful.
“You can’t bypass the programs,” Andreas advised us. “It’s a must to dance to the rhythms of the music of the regulation.”
‘You’re in my kingdom’
In just a few days we had bonded with Tony the property agent who specialised in getting passports, Andreas the lawyer with the know-how to arrange a KYC that may get Mr X previous the banks, and Christakis the MP-slash-property magnate with the best connections to get the federal government to look the opposite approach.
Our hosts had spared no expense in hospitality. “You’re in my nation, you’re in my city, you’re in my kingdom. Can’t pay. It will likely be an excellent insult,” Andreas mentioned.
However with out offering a reputation, enterprise card or passport for our shopper, Mr X, they had been beginning to get impatient. Every day, they prodded us to share his enterprise card and a duplicate of his passport. And every day, we discovered methods to stall and delay. But it surely was getting more durable to bounce round their questions.
The night time earlier than we had been on account of fly out, my colleague and I had been having dinner with Andreas on the native tavern. He advised us he had obtained a name from a uncertain Christakis.
“Andreas, I’m bringing to this lunch the second-in-command of the entire Cyprus and we don’t even learn about who we’re speaking. Ought to I cancel lunch?” Andreas advised us Christakis had requested him, referring to a lunch we had been on account of attend at his home the next day.
I puzzled if we’d be capable of make a clear exit.
However, Andreas advised us, he had assuaged Christakis’s fears. “I advised Christakis. ‘See these folks, I’m taking the danger, I vouch for them’.”
My colleague promised that, sure, we’d ship the enterprise playing cards tomorrow. The stress handed, however we had been clearly on skinny ice.
The next day, our invitation to lunch at Christakis’s residence appeared too good to be true. Was it a lure? Had our covers been blown?
For security causes, I attempt to keep away from undercover conferences on the topic’s turf. It leaves me weak, unable to first recce the situation or to formulate an exit technique.
However this time, we went forward, staying in communication with the group ready close by, in case issues went awry.
As all the time, I provided a handshake to sidestep the awkwardness of hugs whereas sporting a recorder.
His residence was grand and his household gave us a heat welcome. Ready for us was a visitor of nice significance. It was a celebration in honour of Demetris Syllouris, president of the Cypriot Home of Representatives – the second highest workplace of state.
In attendance had been a few of the folks we had met throughout 4 days there, together with Tony and Antonis.
It’s a uncommon perception for a journalist to see elected officers – a member of parliament and the president of parliament – in a house setting surrounded by family members. We work laborious to shortly forge friendships with our topics, to win their belief and study their motivations. That pays off on a day like this one, after we achieve entry to their inside circle and the privilege of being invited to dine at their residence with their household. However the nearer you get, the higher the unease. It’s an incongruity that comes with being an undercover reporter.
It was the weekend they usually had ready a formidable unfold. Everybody was relaxed and laughter echoed by way of the home. Christakis opened a bottle from his prized wine assortment.
We toasted to good well being. However the glasses had been getting in the best way of the cameras.
Demetris was briefed on Mr X’s state of affairs. He understood our shopper’s want for privateness. He thought-about it and in a personal dialog, away from the celebration, provided ideas.
Demetris indicated that he would personally talk about our utility with these in cost. “I’ll name the minister to return into my workplace and the everlasting secretary of the minister. Okay? Are available in my workplace. And I inform him, ‘What do you concentrate on that?’”
“They usually could inform, ‘Okay, overlook it.’ ‘What about his spouse?’ If she’s okay, the spouse, we’ll go together with the spouse. After which she will deliver him in as a husband.”
However there’s a second choice. If issues don’t go nicely in Cyprus, he is aware of presidents of parliaments elsewhere and can put in phrase for us to use in these international locations.
“I can do one thing in lots of international locations. I do know all of the presidents of parliament,” he defined. “I’m not speaking about Sweden or Denmark. However I do know Malta, I do know Latvia, I do know Slovenia.”
He requested us to reassure the shopper that there can be an answer.
“You may inform him that he can have, with out mentioning my title or anyone else, full assist from Cyprus at any degree – political, financial, social, every part. Full assist.”
With that promise, Demetris revealed what he needed in return. The prospect of us bringing in lots of extra excessive web value passport consumers had been an excellent motivator. With the Brexit deadline looming and political instability in Hong Kong, he mentioned many would now be focused on mobility and entry to the EU.
“There are rather a lot they might need a European passport, so that you deliver them in Cyprus,” he advised us.
Between his connections, the property builders, and our purchasers, we might get enterprise going, he mentioned.
“And that is going to be superb enterprise for you and Antonis. Okay, with full assist for you.”
We had the president of parliament’s blessing. But it surely was a secret.
“Don’t say that to anyone. Even Tony. Don’t say I communicate to you. As a result of I’ve to guard my title as nicely,” Demetris advised us.
Did he trust that he might assist us get a passport for our felony applicant, Mr X?
“I can’t say 100%, however I say 99 %.”
Adequate. I had placed on weight from overeating, however in any other case, the investigation was successful.
A 12 months later, when confronted with the proof, all these concerned denied any wrongdoing and claimed to have been suspicious of us from the outset. Andreas Pittadjis mentioned he had reported us to Cyprus’s Unit for Combating Cash Laundering (MOKAS) two days after we left the island. Christakis Giovani, Tony Kay, Antonis Antoniou and the Giovani Group all mentioned that they had supported Andreas Pittadjis’s report.
After the investigation was launched, the Cypriot authorities introduced an finish to the Cyprus Funding Programme (CIP). Lawyer Basic George Savvidis launched a full investigation into the proof offered by the documentary. Demetris Syllouris, President of the Home of Representatives, is abstaining from duties till investigations are accomplished. Christakis Giovani resigned from his place as member of parliament and from all his positions inside the AKEL celebration.
For extra on our investigation into how a felony would possibly acquire a European passport, watch The Cyprus Papers Undercover. #CyprusPapers