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Paradise Papers: Yachts and gambling linked to typical Finnish-owned Malta businesses

Yle asked some of the 350 Finns with registered businesses in the tax haven country of Malta to explain their business dealings there. Many respondents had difficulties remembering or explaining what their company is up to, but yachts and gambling are often involved.

Pokeri pelipöytä -piirros
Image: Stina Tuominen / Yle

Paradise Papers is the latest international leak of data on tax haven improprieties, this time in the small European island country of Malta. Among other things, the documents reveal that some 350 Finns are shareholders in or directors of Maltese companies.

Among the Finns with money in Malta, there are several familiar names. The wealthy families of von Rettig and Berner have companies there, as do the actor Jasper Pääkkönen and major investors in Finland's lucrative gaming company Supercell.

The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle asked several Malta business owners to explain their investments in the island country, but many had troubles remembering why or with whom they had entered into the ventures.

Owning a business in a tax haven like Malta is not illegal, as long as any profits from businesses there are duly reported to the tax authorities. Corporate tax on businesses in Malta is 35 percent, compared to 20 percent in Finland, but there are several deductions available to business owners there. Figures show that most shareholders in Malta take advantage of the numerous loopholes, making the average corporate tax on firms just five percent in reality. 

Former NHL star

Jussi Markkanen, former NHL Edmonton Oilers player and current co-owner of SaiPa, a Finnish Liiga ice hockey team from the eastern city of Lappeenranta, is a shareholder in a company named Inspiration Group, registered in Malta.

"I am a small shareholder in a firm there that has no business activities at this time. It was founded there, but I can't say anything about its future," Markkanen told Yle.

His co-shareholders are banker Björn Wahlroos' son Thomas, and four other Finns. The men share a background in poker competitions, and Malta is famous as an online gambling business hub.

Malta's online gambling community has attracted other Finns as well. Actor Jasper Pääkkönen and movie producer Markus Selin owned shares in iGameGroup, a company in Malta that was sold to the Swedish firm Unibet for 59 million euros a few years ago. Dozens of other Finns also held shares in iGameGroup, including several poker tournament professionals and the investor Kai Mäkelä.

Berner family owns holding firm

Several wealthy families in Finland have also invested in Malta's professional poker and casino firms.

Robert and Klaus Berner of the eponymous consumer goods company in Finland hold shares in a Malta firm called Fortuity Holdings Ltd. Robert Berner would not comment on his ownership by phone, and asked for Yle's questions to be sent to him via e-mail.

"Fortuity Holdings is a holding company that provides business ownership opportunities in firms that specialize in B2B services for gaming companies. It was founded in 2015," says the company's CEO Martin Prantner, who eventually responded to the questions. The message did not explain the nature of the business-to-business services that are provided by the company.

The National Police Board in Finland has carried out investigations into Maltese online gambling companies that illegally advertise their games in Finland. The state-owned company Veikkaus has a monopoly on these activities within Finland's borders.

Fingerroos and the von Rettigs have luxury yachts

Due to its tax haven status and its location on the Mediterranean, Malta also maintains the world's largest register of ships and boats. In addition to massive tankers, there are over 500 'super yachts' registered there of at least 24 meters in size. 

Oulu resident and Hill Climb Racing game developer Toni Fingerroos rents a luxury yacht through his Katariina Yacht Leasing company in Malta for between 45,000 and 55,000 euros per week. The yacht's home port is in Croatia. The firm's website says the crew speaks Finnish and a Finnish flag flies at the boat's stern.

Maltese laws give boat and ship owners value added tax breaks for vessels that are intended to be rented out for third-party use. The exemption can shave tens of thousands of euros off the sticker price of a luxury ship.

Fingerroos did not answer Yle's request for comments.

Another wealthy family in Finland, the von Rettigs of late nineteenth-century tobacco industry fame, also owns a yacht via a Malta company.

"The Mediterranean has many boat rental opportunities. The owners can use the boat at market price," Tomas von Rettig explained in an email to Yle.

Why is the company registered in Malta?

"The yacht had already been registered in Malta, so it was a natural choice to found the company there.  Registering the vessel under the Malta flag is expedient for this kind of activity, and this is why so many boats on the Mediterranean are registered there. It has nothing to do with taxes," von Rettig says. 

Supercell investors redistribute dividends

Investors in Finland's phenomenally successful gaming firm Supercell, the company behind smash hit mobile games like Hay Day and Clash of Clans, also have connections to Malta, according to the Paradise Papers.

But Jari Ovaskainen and Erkki Heilakka aren't investing in ships or gambling. They are shareholders in a holding company that compiles Heilakka's dividends and reinvests them.

Heilakka explains in an English-language email to Yle that the company was founded in Malta because the country has created an "efficient and economically attractive environment for firms" in the same way that Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Ireland have. 

He says he has every intention of reporting his dividends from the Malta company to the Finnish tax authorities.

"The company has only been running two years, so I haven't received any dividends yet," he writes.

Malta hardly the worst tax haven

The Paradise Papers reveal information about some 75,000 Maltese companies.

"Malta is one of Europe's small financial centres. It doesn't compete with countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which help big companies dodge taxes. Malta's system is based more on secrecy," says Alex Cobham, a Tax Justice Network investigator into tax havens.

Thousand of Malta company owners also have businesses in known tax havens, like Panama, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Access to ownership information in these countries is virtually impossible, which means that the truth about the scale and identity of tax evaders with business dealing there often remains a mystery.

Journalists from Yle’s MOT and A-Studio investigative journalism programmes are the only Finnish media involved in reviewing the data haul, which was first obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and is being co-ordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The Finnish language stories stemming from the Paradise Papers are available here.

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