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Sunny Car saga: Boss hires gumshoe to look into email fraud claims

Residents of Hämeenlinna in southern Finland have been enthralled by the convoluted saga of an ambitious real-estate development project that has taken on an international dimension. The story so far involves everything from big bucks to charges of money laundering, suspicions of international fraudsters and accusations of confidential leaks. In the latest twist the businessman at the centre of the storm, Markku Ritaluoma, says he has hired an international human rights NGO to investigate possible breaches of confidence and suspected financial crimes in Zambia.

Image: Markku Ritaluoma

The Sunny Car Centre project is essentially a car lover’s dream. It envisions a mega car showroom bringing together many dealers and brands under one massive roof in Hämeenlinna, about 100 kilometres from Helsinki.

The city of Hämeenlinna pledged the property required to develop the 150-million-euro project to business impresario Markku Ritaluoma. Ritaluoma in turn had to come up with 8.4 million euros to seal the deal – that was last autumn. Since then the tycoon has repeatedly sought extensions to the payment deadline, claiming that talks with major international investors would soon bear fruit. The latest deadline set for the payment is the end of September.

In August, however the Zambian news service Watchdog reported that an investment of 35 million euros intended for the car centre had been frozen on suspicions of money laundering. Finnish financial supervisory authorities and police intervened in the case when Ritaluoma transferred some 336,000 euros to Mark Wilson, an intermediary of the major league investor – claimed to be Regina Chiluba, the widow of former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba – to secure the release of the 35 million euros.

Other European investors on standby

The money laundering probe originated from charges that the Chilubas had embezzled a massive fortune from the country during Frederick Chiluba’s time in office. A spokesman for the Chiluba family has since been reported (siirryt toiseen palveluun) as saying the family has no plans to invest in Finland.

Ritaluoma hastened to calm concerns over the money laundering claims, pointing out that the proposed Zambian investment was intended to bankroll the construction phase of the project, while the eight million euros needed to secure the Hämeenlinna lot would come from other investors – completely European he added.

In another twist to the tale however, earlier this week Ritaluoma charged that someone from the Hämeenlinna city council had leaked confidential information about the Sunny Car Centre deal to the Zambian press. He pointed the finger at Finns Party councillors and called for a probe into the matter.

On the heels of those comments Ritaluoma announced that he had himself engaged the services of an international human rights organisation to independently investigate whether there was a leak and also to look into the money laundering claims in Zambia.

Ritaluoma hires private investigator in Africa

Ritaluoma later presented an email allegedly from Fagus Yaw Berko, a representative of the organisation, International Commission for the Defence of Human Rights (CIPDH).  Berko leads the NGO’s Africa unit and is the individual reportedly investigating on Ritaluoma’s behalf.

In broken English, the letter names Finns Party city representatives suspected of disclosing sensitive information about the Sunny Car Centre project. Contacted by Yle Häme, Berko said that he was only just beginning his investigations. Yle Häme also confirmed that Berko was an employee with the CIPDH.

In the phone interview with Yle Häme Berko said that he had taken on the assignment from Ritaluoma in a private capacity, although the letter in broken English appears to come from the international organisation.

Like Finnish police, Berko said he suspects that Ritaluoma may have fallen victim to a so-called "email scam", a common feature of which is to ask individuals to deposit funds in exchange for massive returns. He said that he would have more information for Ritaluoma in the next few days.