Swiss repay Norwegian creditors after huge fraud

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Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
15:25 CEST+02:00
Swiss authorities will repay creditors around 700,000 francs in embezzled funds stashed in a Swiss bank account, in one of Norway's biggest-ever bankruptcies, prosecutors said this week.

Geneva authorities seized the funds in 2011 from an account in the BSI bank linked to the former head of bankrupt Norwegian oil rig builder Thule Drilling, Hans Eirik Olav, who has since been convicted of embezzling $6m from the company and is serving a four-year prison term.


Geneva prosecutor Claudio Mascotto told AFP the conviction last month in the Swiss city of one of Olav's accomplices had made it possible to finally hand some 700,000 francs ($730,000, 650,000 euros) back to Thule’s creditors, who are owed around $300 million after the company's spectacular 2010 collapse.


The bankruptcy was one of the largest in Norwegian history, and Pierre Bydzovsky, a Geneva-based lawyer for the estate, said the $6 million siphoned off in early 2008 provided the "death blow" that sent Thule over the edge.


The Norwegian court documents in the case against Olav, who is appealing his January conviction, read like a thriller.


They detail how millions went up in smoke through dubious money transfers ping-ponging between a range of foreign banks and even trading hands with one of Norway's most renowned drug traffickers.


The BSI account had been controlled by US citizen Ronald Lekarz, who Olav brought in as a highly-paid consultant in 2007 to help Thule resolve a damaging conflict with a shipyard owner in the United Arab Emirates.


Lekarz was found guilty by a Geneva court last month of misappropriation and money laundering, ending his lengthy struggle to regain control of the BSI account.


"This is a battle that has lasted four long years," Bydzovsky told AFP, saying he was "relieved and happy" that the money would finally be returned to Thule creditors.


But he pointed out that the money set to be returned was only a fraction of the amount taken in 2008, with most vanishing through a web of bank transactions and front companies before Swiss authorities became suspicious.


"We regret that the financial intermediaries did not react faster when the money first arrived in Switzerland," he said, adding that "I would have liked to see a faster intervention which could have blocked all of the funds."


Norwegian prosecutor in the case against Olav, Elisabeth Harbo-Lervik, lauded Swiss authorities for their quick action.


"We are very pleased that Switzerland froze the assets that were in that account when this came to their attention. If they had not acted as quickly as they did, it is very likely there would be nothing left at all," she told AFP, speaking in Norwegian.


She said she was thrilled some $700,000 would now be returned to the Thule estate.


"Criminal acts should not pay, so it is very good that the profit from this crime will be handed over to the victims," she added.


Bydzovsky meanwhile has not given up hope of retrieving another slice of the missing cash.


He is looking into a suspicious $1.5-million transaction by Geneva financial management company Profilgest, which opened and managed a number of Swiss accounts for a company called Strategic Alliances Corporation (SAC).


The Oslo court determined SAC was entirely owned and controlled by Olav and Lekarz, finding no evidence supporting their claim that anonymous “Saudi interests", including members of the royal family, were the real owners.


Profilgest among other things helped transfer $5.5 million from Thule Drilling to a Julius Baer account held by SAC in January 2008.


Olav himself, who shortly after that transfer was able to buy a pricey boat and a lithograph by Norwegian master Edvard Munch in cash, insisted the transaction was legitimate.


Profilgest managed a number of other transactions for SAC, including investing $1.5 million under Profilgest's own name in shares in Norwegian company Dynapel.


"I think the rest of the money is probably gone, but for that $1.5 million, I have a trail to follow," Bydzovsky said.

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