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Raided real estate firm boss hires lawyer and retired businessman

Through his new lawyer, the Russian businessman behind Airiston Helmi has made his first statement since the firm was raided by Finnish authorities last month.

Rantakiinteistön Prostvik Resortin paljut kallion laella Paraisten Nauvossa
File photo of one of Airiston Helmi's properties in the Finnish Archipelago. Image: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva

On a sunny September weekend in the archipelago, hundreds of Finnish authorities raided 17 properties owned by Airiston Helmi, a real estate and tourism company that suddenly found itself at the centre of a major police investigation.

Officials have since announced they seized some 3.5 million euros in cash during the raids and that people connected to the firm are suspected of aggravated money laundering, tax evasion and other crimes.

Two men connected to the company are suspected of tax evasion and continue to be detained by authorities.

Now, the firm's Russian owner has publicly spoken about the situation through a newly-hired lawyer and has denied accusations that the company was involved in criminal activity.

The firm also recently made another new hire - Dan Högström, a 63-year-old, retired IT executive.

According to the company's filings with Finnish business regulatory authorities, Högström appears to be the only member on the troubled firm's board of directors. However, a Latvian man is listed as a substitute board member as well.

All of the company's accounting documents were confiscated during the raid.

Högström said he was hired not to tidy up the company's reputation but rather to work toward getting the accounting paperwork back from authorities as well as to find a way to shut down the firm's numerous properties for the winter.

"The bigger the challenge, the better"

He said that until he was hired, he had no previous connection to the company or those who operated it.

Högström retired about ten years ago after a career in the IT industry at the firms Atea, HP and InstruData. He continues to serve on the boards of two Finnish IT companies and is the head of a construction firm, but has no experience in the tourism industry - the sector in which Airiston Helmi was involved with before the raids.

Story continues after photo.

Airiston Helmen Villa Ybbersnäs nähtynä vastarannalta Paraisilla 23. syyskuuta.
File photo of one of Airiston Helmi's properties in the Finnish Archipelago. Image: Ari Welling / Yle

He said that a passive, retired life didn't suit him, so he became active in new projects, including helping to establish a local water cooperative in the southern municipality of Loviisa. After that he helped build an activity centre in Kirkkonummi, also in southern Finland.

About two weeks after the raid, Högström received a telephone call from Airiston Helmi's Russian owner. He asked whether Högström would be interested in taking the helm at the firm. At first he gave a cautious positive response to the offer, then said that he would take the job.

"The bigger the challenge, the better" Högström said, saying the Airiston Helmi situation was the most interesting case in the country.

The newly-hired boss visited Airiston Helmi's properties for the first time last week. In particular he noticed well-built cottages and carefully-maintained boats as well as detailed notes of instructions left for vacationing renters at the properties.

He's set to return to these islands in the Finnish Archipelago near Turku, saying he plans to talk to locals and break the ice so that he can start to get the company's paperwork in order.

"Situation is a bit chaotic"

A number of local companies and individuals on the island municipality of Pargas had been hired to take care of the company's properties on various islands in the area, and now Högström is charged with convincing them to continue doing it.

He said next week likely won't be the last time he's in Pargas, because he expects it will take some time to build back their trust. Many people on the island are not keen on doing business with a company suspected of criminal activity, he said.

Story continues after photo.

Kiinteistön rakennuksia Ybbersnäsintiellä.
National Bureau of Investigation file photo of Airiston Helmi property. Image: Ari Welling / Yle

"The situation is a bit chaotic," Högström said, adding that he will be engaged in Airiston Helmi until further notice and that he has received authority to do what he thinks is best for the company.

Högström declines to take stance on allegations

Högström said that in his opinion the Russian owner of the company earned his money legally from a plumbing company and from various patent royalty payments.

He refused to take a position on the allegations made by authorities, saying he has only read about the investigation in the media.

He also said he is not interested in the company's past but rather in its future.

Högström also said he is not acquainted with the Latvian man listed as a substitute member of the company's board of directors.

Yle called the Latvian by telephone, and he confirmed his involvement in the company but did not want to comment further. The man, like Högström, also does not seem to have any previous experience in the tourism business.

The man is named in Latvian business regulatory filings as the owner of a wood processing company and has also been involved in two other firms. One of those was a vehicle rental company and the other was a bookkeeping- and IT-services firm. There is no information about the man in Finnish business regulatory registries, however.

New lawyer speaks

The Latvian man advised Yle to contact Airiston Helmi's lawyer - Kari Uoti - to answer any further questions about the firm. Uoti served years in prison for white-collar crimes committed in the 1990s.

Uoti told Yle that he had also been contacted by a lawyer representing the company a couple of weeks ago, a short time before the firm reached out to Högström. It was Uoti who had recommended that the company hire Högström in the first place, Uoti explained.

The lawyer said he plans to ask police to explain why the exceptionally large raid of the company's properties was carried out.

Authorities suspect the company was behind several serious financial crimes, including aggravated money laundering, aggravated tax evasion, two cases of aggravated accounting infractions and pension crimes.

Uoti said his client has denied all of the allegations made against him and the firm. Uoti said that according to information the firm provided show that Airiston Helmi - and the man behind it - acquired the property legally.

Lawyer wants answers

Uoti also said that the 3.5 million euros in cash seized in September was the owner's personal money. He did not provide details about the origins of the funds but said the owner is a very successful businessman in Russia.

The head of the Finnish authorities' probe, Tomi Taskila said that due to technical investigative reasons, international inquiries about the case have not been made.

Police report that they have interviewed several people of interest but have not yet reached everyone they want answers from.

Story continues after photo.

Airiston Helmi -yrityksen omistama Säkkiluoto kuvattuna ilmasta.
Airiston Helmi property. Image: Yle

Taskila said it is common to suspect the heads of companies that become the focus of financial crime investigations.

But neither Taskila nor Uoti wanted to confirm whether authorities had already interviewed the Russian businessman behind the business.

According to Uoti, the two men who are still being held on remand had been taking care of Airiston Helmi's and the Russian businessman's affairs in Finland.

After the pair were taken into custody, no one has been taking care of Airiston Helmi's affairs. But now, according to Uoti and Högström, that will change.

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