LONDON — Joseph Mifsud’s lawyer is enmeshed in one of the world’s biggest fraud cases, adding yet more intrigue to the saga of the man who allegedly delivered word of Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Previously unreported documents and court papers reviewed by BuzzFeed News reveal that Mifsud’s 53-year-old Swiss lawyer, Stephan Roh, controlled dozens of offshore companies that are alleged to have ultimately belonged to Mukhtar Ablyazov. Ablyazov is accused of embezzling billions of dollars from BTA, a Kazakh bank, and laundering the proceeds via a sprawling network of companies through properties and business ventures across the world.
Mifsud is the elusive Maltese professor who emerged as an improbable central figure in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Former FBI director James Comey referred to him as a “Russian agent,” an allegation that Mifsud and Roh have denied — Mifsud has often described himself as just a “networker” who likes to bring people together. Since that firestorm ignited, Mifsud has seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet — he has not been seen in public since 2017, although he has been leaving a trail of breadcrumbs around Europe as to his whereabouts.
With Mifsud nowhere to be found, Roh has pushed debunked conspiracy theories that his client was set up by Western intelligence to entrap Donald Trump. Reported here for the first time, the apparent link to Ablyazov — a business tycoon who has often been likened to Bernie Madoff, the former financier who ran a massive Ponzi scheme — is a further twist, showing Roh entangled in a massive and complex money laundering case.
The material seen by BuzzFeed News shows that over several years, Roh and his legal and business partners were used to move assets and funds that, according to BTA Bank, ultimately belonged to Ablyazov and his close associates. During that same time, legal proceedings against Ablyazov were ongoing in the US and UK. He was also under multiple freezing orders and had been found guilty of contempt for concealing the scale of his assets.
In a back-and-forth email exchange with BuzzFeed News, Roh denied any connection to Ablyazov, saying that he did not know the oligarch or his associates, and that neither he nor his law firm had ever acted for Ablyazov or his companies. He threatened legal action against BuzzFeed News and implied that this reporter was a British spy before suggesting a meeting over “a glass of wine.”
The lawsuits against Ablyazov allege that he hid some of the billions of stolen dollars behind a flamboyant range of investments, spanning from a concert hall in Serbia and Trump condos to a hotel redevelopment project in New York and a mall in Cincinnati.
Ablyazov is wanted in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, and a warrant for his arrest first issued in the UK in 2012 was renewed last year. He is also the subject of ongoing court proceedings in the US.
Ablyazov has always denied any wrongdoing and insists that all allegations against him are politically motivated. His supporters claim that he is a dissident who is being pursued for crossing former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is accused of presiding over widespread human rights abuses and leading an authoritarian regime during his decadeslong reign.
Like Mifsud, Ablyazov’s current whereabouts are unknown, although he is believed to be in Paris.
Roh has known Mifsud for at least 10 years. Mifsud served as a consultant at Roh’s law firm — RoH Attorneys at Law — and Roh was an investor at a university in Italy where Mifsud worked as a professor. Roh was with Mifsud in Moscow during the academic’s last known trip to the Russian capital, where the two men attended a seminar about the war in Yemen. Roh is one of the few people to have seen Mifsud since he went missing at the end of October 2017.
A year later, Roh emailed a photograph of Mifsud apparently taken in May 2018 to several media organizations, including BuzzFeed News. According to Roh, Mifsud had been in Zurich obtaining legal representation from Roh’s law firm. A power of attorney document dated May 21 can clearly be seen in the photograph.
Roh had mostly kept a low public profile until Mifsud was catapulted onto the world stage. But since then he has been interviewed by the FBI as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the election, and has even self-published a book — The Faking of Russia-Gate — about the now-discredited conspiracy theory that Mifsud was mired in a Western intelligence setup.
Roh is the director of dozens of firms, company records in an array of countries show. BuzzFeed News reported last year that he renamed one of his UK companies “The No Vichok Ltd” a month after the nerve agent attack in Salisbury against a former Russian spy turned double agent for MI6.
Land registry data shows that Roh and his wife — Olga, the creative director of fashion label Rohmir and a glamorous Instagram user once described by the Daily Mail as the descendant of Russian aristocrats after she bought a crumbling Scottish castle — own at least £6 million worth of properties in the UK.
According to the BBC, Roh bought a small British nuclear firm called Severnvale Nuclear Services Ltd. in 2005. Under its previous owners, the company's turnover had been £42,000 a year. Within three years, Severnvale Nuclear was turning over more than £24 million a year, despite having only two employees.
In response to questions about the BBC article, Roh suggested that the BBC “took corrective action” and added that “legal measures for defamation are well received.” Asked if he could provide any documentary evidence to back up the claim, Roh replied that the "case is further developing and will not be commented at this stage."
The BBC has not corrected the story, which is still online and appears unchanged. A BBC source said no legal action has been taken.
Ablyazov has spent the decade in which Mifsud and Roh have known each other trying to stay one step ahead of BTA Bank. In 2009, Ablyazov, then the bank’s chair, fled Kazakhstan for the UK, where he was granted political asylum.
After Ablyazov fled, an audit allegedly found a multibillion-dollar “massive hole” in the bank’s books, and BTA, one of Kazakhstan’s largest lenders at the time, was nationalized and declared insolvent. BTA subsequently commenced legal proceedings against Ablyazov, accusing him of “fraud on an epic scale.” Ablyazov, BTA claimed, had used a web of shell companies and associates to siphon some $10 billion from the lender before fleeing to the UK, where the bank successfully applied for an injunction to freeze his assets.
In 2012 Ablyazov was found guilty of contempt for lying about the scale of his fortune and concealing assets that he should have declared under the freezing order. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison — but fled to France, via coach from a bus station in central London.
In 2013, Ablyazov was arrested near Cannes in southeast France on the back of an extradition request from Russia, where he was accused of embezzlement related to BTA’s activities in the country. The extravagant operation to arrest him involved following a close friend from London to villas in the French Riviera and deploying a SWAT team, a helicopter, and armored vehicles once there. The Russian extradition request was initially approved but it was overturned by France’s highest administrative court in December 2016 on the grounds that it had been made for political reasons.
Meanwhile, proceedings against Ablyazov continued in the UK. In all, BTA has brought 11 civil cases against its former chair, securing about $4.5 billion in judgments, and is in the process of seeking to enforce them.
The presiding judge, Nigel Teare, ruled in 2013 that the fugitive oligarch had defrauded BTA, saying that the evidence showed he had participated in a "dishonest scheme" to "misappropriate monies."
Ablyazov did not directly respond to a request for comment. A family member told BuzzFeed News that he “was not allowed to participate in his defense and had no possibility to prove his innocence.” A former adviser to Ablyazov described him as one of a number of "victims of the persecution of the [Kazakhstan] regime."
Among the assets Ablyazov concealed was his ownership of an entity registered in the Marshall Islands called FM Company, Justice Teare stated in his 2012 contempt judgment.
Documents later attached to the freezing order reveal that in 2006 FM Company transferred $15 million to a Dubai-based entity belonging to a Hong Kong–based company, R&B Investment Group. The identity of the sole shareholder of R&B Investment Group is Stephan Roh.
Roh did not deny being the owner of R&B but said the entity had no relation with FM Company or Ablyazov. "15M were never received," he said in an email.
Back in October 2010, investigators hired by BTA tailed Ablyazov’s brother-in-law to a storage facility in north London. Four months later the bank won a court order to search a specific storage unit at the facility.
In it, investigators found 25 boxes of documents and hard drives that according to BTA raised the curtain on the scale of Ablyazov’s vast offshore network, including evidence listing hundreds of interconnected offshore shell companies, which were later added to the freezing order.
A separate cache of documents, including legal agreements, correspondence, and organizational structures, reviewed by BuzzFeed News, link Roh to at least 25 of those firms, which were mostly registered in the well-known offshore financial havens of the British Virgin Islands and the Marshall Islands.
Roh’s law firm is also one of dozens of companies warned in the freezing order that it would be contempt of court to knowingly assist in breaching the injunction. There is no suggestion that Roh or his law firm have done so.
The 25 firms Roh controlled were added to the freezing order on July 31, 2013, while his law firm was added in January 2014.
Roh told BuzzFeed News in a written statement that the entities were inactive shelf companies without assets or clients and had never been used. He said that they had been accidentally added to the freezing order and had been "unfrozen quickly.” "None [are] related to Ablyazov," he said. Roh claimed that RoH Attorneys at Law had been removed from the freezing order too.
But BuzzFeed News confirmed as of last week that 24 of the 25 companies, as well as Roh’s law firm, were still listed on the freezing order. Roh was presented with this fact and asked whether he was conflating a separate receivership order, from which all the 25 companies were removed in 2017, four years after being added to the order. Roh responded by repeatedly insisting that all of the companies had been “completely removed” and were “out” of the freezing order. Since 2010, the judge has added, in stages, some 659 companies to the receivership order, "on the basis that there is good reason to believe that they are all in Mr Ablyazov's ultimate beneficial ownership.”
The documents seen by BuzzFeed News, which include correspondence involving Roh, link the 25 firms to a Kazakh lawyer and human rights activist named Bota Jardemalie, a former senior manager at BTA. Jardemalie has advised Ablyazov and she told BuzzFeed News that as a member of the Kazakh opposition, she considers him a political ally. Jardemalie fled Kazakhstan around the same time as he did, later moving to Belgium, where she was granted asylum in 2013.
In a written statement, Jardemalie said she has no financial dealings with Ablyazov nor has she been named in any lawsuits involving the oligarch. "I have been considered an opponent of the current regime in Kazakhstan and therefore, I have been victim of politically motivated persecution for years as a reprisal for my work," she said.
Jardemalie declined to answer specific questions about Roh, his law firm, or the 25 companies.
Though Roh seems to be a peripheral figure in a much larger scheme involving billions of dollars and hundreds of companies, the 25 companies are not the only link between the Swiss lawyer and Ablyazov’s activities.
In 2016, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) claimed that a decade earlier Ablyazov had used a series of offshore entities to invest in an entertainment complex and hotel in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia, using BTA funds. Not reported at the time was that Daniel Schroeder, a senior lawyer at Roh’s law firm, was involved in the operation.
According to the BIRN, the Belgrade complex, which was valued at 45 million euros (around $50 million) was developed by a Serbian company controlled by an entity registered in the BVI called Gainsford Investments. Seventy percent of Gainsford was in turn held by another BVI entity called Glintmill Investments, which BTA lawyers allege Ablyazov had an interest in. Court papers describe a “Daniel Schroeder” as Glintmill's appointed director. Ablyazov told BIRN at the time that he had no involvement in the Belgrade complex.
Responding on Schroeder’s behalf, Roh said: “We do not know this Company” and “Mr Schroeder did not act for it,” when sent a link to the publicly available court papers that suggest otherwise.
Roh’s involvement in the Ablyazov saga also appears to cross over with a character now central to legal proceedings brought against Ablyazov and his associates in the US, a Dubai-based British accountant named Eesh Aggarwal. "If you’re looking for a typical accountant, try the Yellow Pages,” Aggarwal’s website says.
Aggarwal is described in a court declaration as "a financial advisor loyal to Ablyazov." The document, which was filed in the US in May 2016, alleges that a company Aggarwal controlled was "an Ablyazov investment entity used to conceal and move his funds." Other documents and reports attached to US proceedings make the same claim about Aggarwal’s relationship to Ablyazov.
Court documents in the US and the UK allege that Aggarwal handled about half a billion dollars of Ablyazov’s money through his son-in-law, Ilyas Khrapunov. Aggarwal did not respond to a request for comment and multiple calls to his office went straight to voicemail.
In 2018, the High Court of England and Wales ordered Khrapunov to pay over $500 million in damages for conspiring with Ablyazov to breach the freezing order. The judgment found that starting in 2011 Khrapunov hired Aggarwal to manage $500 million of Ablyazov’s assets.
Khrapunov denies that he is the ultimate beneficial owner of the companies allegedly administered by Aggarwal. In a written statement he said that he had been unable to defend himself in the UK, explaining that he hadn't traveled to Britain for fear of being extradited. "The court deemed that the importance of being cross examined in person in the UK is more important than my personal safety," he added. To make his case, Khrapunov told BuzzFeed News that he had filed proceedings against BTA in Switzerland and a hearing is due later this year.
The High Court has said that Khrapunov’s extradition fears had “no merit whatsoever.”
Separate evidence reviewed by BuzzFeed News shows that in summer 2013 an entity controlled by Aggarwal called Beron agreed to transfer $2 million to a company controlled by Georgy Gomshiashvili, a senior lawyer at Roh’s firm, for “consultancy.” Beron is one of the companies Aggarwal is alleged to have used to administer the $500 million.
In a written response, Roh said: “We and Mr Gomshiashvili do not know Mr Aggarwal and his business Beron as well [as] the transaction you refer to.”
However, one of the documents seen by BuzzFeed News shows that in August 2013 Gomshiashvili, who is 38 and was born in Russia, was introduced to Aggarwal by Peter Sztyk — the then-husband of Ablyazov’s close confidante Jardemalie. Sztyk did not respond to a request for comment. The same cache of documents also suggests that funds from Beron made their way to a company owned by Jardemalie.
Some of the $500 million is also the subject of ongoing court proceedings in the US, where Khrapunov and others are accused of laundering tens of millions of dollars between 2012 and 2014 through investments in real estate and businesses, including a former center for people with disabilities in Syracuse, a health kiosk company, a hotel redevelopment project, a mall in Ohio, and three Trump Soho apartments.
Khrapunov told BuzzFeed News in an email that the accusations of money laundering were baseless. He claimed BTA witnesses were not credible and that he had made a countersuit. He pointed to cases brought against his family in the US and Switzerland that had been dismissed.
Matthew L. Schwartz, partner at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP and lawyer for BTA Bank and the City of Almaty, said: “BTA Bank and the City of Almaty are committed to holding accountable those responsible for laundering the billions of dollars stolen from them – first and foremost, BTA’s former chairman, Mukhtar Ablyazov.” He added that the case against Ablyazov and Khrapunov was fast approaching trial in the US. "We look forward to presenting our evidence to a jury of New Yorkers,” said Schwartz.
Roh said that neither he nor his law firm had been involved in any of Khrapunov's US dealings and investments.
Mifsud, who turns 60 this year, remains one of the most mysterious characters in former special counsel Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the US election.
Last November, nearly two years to the day since he was last seen in public, three Italian news outlets received an audio recording out of the blue from someone claiming to be Mifsud. The voice in the recording categorically denied any wrongdoing or links with intelligence services. "I have been a networker all my life. This is what I am good at. I try to bring one group in contact with another,” the man said, adding that none of his contacts were with any “secret service” or “intelligence service.” Analysis by the investigative journalism website Bellingcat suggests that the voice in the recording belongs to Mifsud. Roh has said that it doesn’t and the tape is fabricated. There is no suggestion that Mifsud's disappearance is linked to any of the parties in this story, or that anyone has done him any harm.
There is nothing to suggest that Mifsud had any involvement in or knowledge of Ablyazov’s dealings, with or without Roh. He does have his own connection to Kazakhstan, though.
In 2015, he was one of 858 international observers accredited to monitor the Central Asian nation’s presidential election. A spokesperson at the Kazakh embassy in London told BuzzFeed News, "Mifsud was invited as an electoral observer owing to his high-profile academic qualifications, which complemented our intention to have observers from a wide variety of academic and professional fields." Mifsud was not paid, the spokesperson added.