Dirty Money: Did the Russian Mafia profit from a Cambridge college investment?

Zoah Hedges-Stocks 21 June 2012

In a story that reads like the plot of a Bond novel, Cambridge College, Trinity Hall has just bought a bank from of a suspected member of the Russian Mafia. Zoah Hedges-Stocks exposes the dirty past of businessman Vladimir Antonov.

The Cambridge Student can exclusively reveal the tangled web that links Trinity Hall to the Russian Mafia.

Trinity Hall has joined forces with Cambridge County Council to buy Leicestershire-based The Pensions Bank, and turn it into the Cambridge & Counties Bank. This new bank, which opened on Monday 11th June, will invest council workers’ pensions, and lend money to local businesses with a turnover of under £25 million.

On the face of it, this seems like a less than newsworthy activity on Trinity Hall’s part. Cambridge colleges regularly come under fire for investment in ethically dubious sectors such as the arms trade, but putting money into a small bank which will benefit smaller local businesses, and, hopefully, local council workers, seems an uncontroversial venture. It will create 17 new jobs, and aims to lend £100 million to small businesses over the next two years. It is a positively rosy endeavour.

However, the man who, as a major shareholder, sold the bank to Trinity Hall is none other than the rather infamous Vladimir Aleksandrovich Antonov.

He may be familiar to some readers as the former owner of Portsmouth Football Club. He is a Russian entrepreneur who was born in Uzbekistan in 1975, currently lives in England, is fighting extradition to Lithuania, has business interests across the globe and is surrounded by persistent rumours of criminal activity.

In a twist that seems to be taken straight from the plot of a Bond novel, Trinity Hall, seemingly without care for the reputation of the College or the University, have purchased a ‘tainted’ asset from a man widely accused of money-laundering and embezzlement, and whose own father was brutally gunned down by gang members. Students can rest easy, though, knowing that Antonov has not yet profited from the deal: all of his assets have been frozen because he is currently under arrest.

Antonov moved to London in 2008 after his father Alexander was shot seven times by Chechen gang-members in an assassination attempt. Initially, police suspected that Alexander’s business partner, German Gorbuntsov, was behind the attack – until Gorbuntsov was himself shot in London this March after implicating former business associates in Alexander’s shooting.

Although he managed to buy Pensions Bank in 2006, Antonov’s other attempts to get a foothold in UK banking have been less successful. In 2007, Antonov’s Bankas Snoras attempted to establish a branch in England. However, the Financial Services Authority intervened in 2008, refusing Bankas Snoras a licence to operate in the UK.

Unusually, Bankas Snoras challenged the FSA’s decision, and took them to a tribunal. The FSA restated their case that “Bankas Snoras was likely to fail to deal with the FSA in an open and co-operative way with respect to matters for which the FSA, as host state regulator, was responsible”. The case was due to be heard by the Financial Services and Markets Tribunal in early 2009, but Bankas Snoras backed down, and decided not to open a UK branch after all.

Where did the FSA’s suspicions about Antonov’s non-co-operation come from? Antonov says they stem from a meeting he had with the FSA on 15th June 2006, where he feels that his then poor command of English may have led to some genuine misunderstandings. TCS wonders why, then, Mr Antonov chose to attend this meeting without a translator or even a lawyer.

Antonov was investigated by the Swedish security police when his Dutch luxury car firm Spyker wanted to buy Swedish company Saab from General Motors in 2010. This wasn’t the only investigation that the Saab sale sparked. TCS has gained access to a “privileged and confidential” report prepared by the corporate investigations and forensic accounting company Kroll in 2009. Kroll were asked by Swedish law firm Vinge KB (representing General Motors) “to carry out a reputational due diligence investigation into the personal background and professional profiles of the shareholders of Spyker Cars NV, in order to ascertain whether there is any aspect of their reputation which would be cause for concern.”

General Motors refused to go ahead with the deal until Antonov had sold all of his shares in the company. He did so, and the sale went ahead, but the rumours of financial wrongdoing and links to organised crime refuse to go away. The loan that was given to Spyker to buy Saab came from Conversbank – owned by the Antonovs, and dogged by scandal.

Antonov had a high-profile spat with Andrei Kazlov, an official at the Russian Central Bank, in 2004, when Kazlov refused to allow Conversbank to enter a new insurance scheme for Russian banks. Antonov publicly threatened the anti-corruption official, who was then murdered by hit men in 2006. Antonov has not been linked to the murder, and another bank owner has been convicted of ordering the killing. However, this story does illustrate just how murky the environment in which Antonov conducts his business can be.

Vladimir Antonov has repeatedly stated that he has no criminal connections, and went as far as to write an opinion piece for the International Herald Tribune in 2010 where he blamed the collapse of the initial Saab deal on “a fear of Russia”. He also wrote that “it is obvious that European business has a (sic) strong prejudices against investors from Russia” and argued that prejudice against Russia was preventing Russians from conducting business abroad. At the time, his argument held some water: it would be foolish to continue to mistrust Russians based on an outdated Cold War stereotype.

However, it is hard to take Antonov’s protests of complete innocence seriously after a Europe-wide warrant was issued for his arrest on November 23rd. The crime he is accused of? Embezzling over 290 million Euros in assets from a Lithuanian bank that he owned.

The name of the Lithuanian bank that Antonov is accused of stealing from? Bankas Snoras – the same bank that was forbidden to operate in the UK in 2009.

With hindsight, the FSA’s doubts about Antonov’s honesty appear to be well-founded. At the time of his arrest, the Lithuanian general prosecutor said that Antonov and his business partner are being held on “allegations of fraudulent accounting, forgery of documents, abuse of authority, misappropriation of property, money laundering and other criminal offenses committed by the bank” – an accusation of dishonesty if ever one was heard.

Antonov is currently out on bail and fighting extradition to Lithuania. He told Westminster Magistrates Court that his life would be endangered if he was sent to the EU country, although the reason why he believes he would be at risk remains unclear.

Paul Ffolkes Davis, who is both Bursar at Trinity Hall, and Chairman of Cambridge & Counties Bank, was not available for comment, but said in a press release: “While the traditional high street banks are pre-occupied with their legacy problems by contrast Cambridge & Counties Bank has no past and is looking forward to a successful future.” Considering the reputation of CCB’s owner back when it was known as Pensions Bank, it is not surprising that Trinity Hall and all involved in CBB are anxious for a rebranding and a fresh start.

A spokesperson on behalf of CCB said: “The shareholders of CCB have no past, future or potential links in any capacity with Mr Antonov other than those that have been created as a direct result of CCB acquiring Pension Bank’s assets and liabilities.”

Hopefully Mr Antonov’s past will not deter customers from using the Cambridge & Counties Bank, which Mr Ffolkes Davis hopes will “strengthen the College’s endowment returns in order to secure our world-class teaching and research for coming generations of Cambridge students.”

Yesterday, TCS received the following statement from a spokesman at CCB’s PR company, Citigate: “Cambridge & Counties Bank is a 50/50 joint venture between Trinity Hall and Cambridgeshire Local Government Pension Fund. Ravi Tahkar is not involved in Cambridge & Counties Bank. The College and the Council have not bought Pensions Bank Ltd, merely the assets and liabilities.”

Zoah Hedges-Stocks