When Gunvor and Vitol rub shoulders with the same straw man
Zurich/Lausanne, 19 October 2020
Resorting to dubious intermediaries is one of the modus operandi of some large Swiss trading companies. Through our research, we documented 11 payments totalling over 3.3 million euros (3.5 million Swiss francs) made from October 2014 to March 2015 by Vitol S.A. to an obscure company called Samariti Shipping Ltd (SSL), based in Hong Kong. The beneficial owner of this small firm, who banked with HSBC Hong Kong, was ‘E.E.’, a Franco-Israeli once active in the sale of textiles and furniture. Today, he is the owner of a modest restaurant in Paris, which Public Eye visited to ask him some questions.
The intermediary, a self-proclaimed straw man, is well known to the Swiss judiciary. In July 2014, several months before Vitol made the first payment to SSL, the Swiss General Attorney’s Office (MPC) had issued an arrest warrant for E.E. as part of the sprawling Gunvor case. According to the MPC’s charges presented on 13 May 2019, E.E. and his partner – French national David Jonathan Benouaich, who remains on the run – were suspected of being ‘part of a professional money laundering network’ which operated through multiple offshore companies.
Arrested in Serbia in March 2015, then extradited to Switzerland, E.E. was finally convicted of ‘document forgery’ by the Federal Criminal Court in September 2019. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison, five and a half of which would be spent in remand. He admitted to acting as a front man for a shell company called Zilan HK Ltd, which had received commissions transferred by Gunvor to obtain shipments of Congolese crude oil from Congolese leaders in 2012. According to the charges filed against Gunvor, these funds had subsequently been transferred “primarily to Chinese citizens and companies, by banking institutions, in particular in China, which appear to be related to compensation operations”. SSL’s banking documents also show that funds were received and transferred rapidly. More specifically, when payments were made by Vitol, on the same day or on subsequent days, at least 1.9 million euro was transferred to numerous Chinese citizens who banked with the Bank of China in Hong Kong.
Why did Vitol remunerate one of the Franco-Israeli’s shell companies? The trading giant refused to answer our questions, hiding behind commercial confidentiality. In the case of Gunvor, it has become apparent that E.E. and his French partner had high-level contacts in Congo-Brazzaville, and that they were making their companies available to receive and transfer commissions. Vitol confirms that it “conducted no business in Congo-Brazzaville (or any other jurisdiction) as a result of intermediation from SSL or Mr E.E.”.
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