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Yle examines Russian businessman behind Turku firm suspected of money laundering

An Yle report reveals complexities in the business dealings behind Airiston Helmi, a company at the centre of a major money laundering investigation in Finland.

Airiston Helmi -yrityksen Villa Ybbersnäs nähtynä ilmasta Paraisilla 23. syyskuuta.
Airiston Helmi's seaside property and boats in Pargas. Image: Veijo Lindgren / Lehtikuva

The Russian businessman connected to real estate firm Airiston Helmi, a company at the centre of a major money laundering investigation in Finland, also runs several firms in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Yle reported on Wednesday.

The Russian businessman is also a Maltese passport holder, which has made it easier for him to travel around Europe.

In 2009 a Russian national paid some 835,000 euros for a well-appointed property in Pargas, an island in the Finnish archipelago. That April, the man arrived at the property saying he wanted to inspect his new acquisition.

The couple who sold the property to the Russian said they took him on a tour of the location. They viewed the log house, the beachfront sauna, the outdoor covered grilling area, storage facilities and the garage.

The couple said they recall the man being particularly impressed by the pure tap water. He told them he bought the place for his private use.

The 54-year-old Russian behind firm

The buyer of the property is the man behind real estate firm Airiston Helmi, which is now under the heavy scrutiny by Finland's law enforcement agencies, as well as domestic and international media outlets.

According to information obtained by Yle, the 54-year-old Russian businessman runs several companies in Russia and Poland. Although he possesses a Maltese passport the Russian businessman claims residence in Hungary.

Last weekend Finland's National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) - along with the officials from the Border Guard, police and Defence Forces - conducted an extensive raid in Pargas and other properties owned by Airiston Helmi around the archipelago.

The 54-year-old businessman seems to have played a major role in Airiston Helmi's dealings but has not been arrested by Finnish authorities.

The man reportedly runs a small business in St. Petersburg, operates several firms around Moscow and has also arranged shareholder meetings in Italy, a country to which Airsiton Helmi has also been traced.

Days after the extensive police raid, the NBI confirmed on Wednesday that the company under investigation is Airiston Helmi. That same day police said about three million euros in cash had been found during the raids, a day earlier the total sum was about half a million euros.

Two held after raids

On Tuesday two men, an Estonian citizen and a Russian national, were remanded in custody by the Southwest Finland District Court on suspicion of aggravated money laundering and tax fraud offences. Both denied the allegations against them.

Story continues after photo.

Tutkintaviranomaisia ja poliiseja Turun saaristossa 22. syyskuuta.
Finnish authorities during an extensive raid of Airiston Helmi-owned properties in the Finnish archipelago on Saturday. Image: Kirsi Kanerva / Lehtikuva

Officials have not revealed the identity of the two men in custody, and there is surprisingly little information about them in Finnish government registries or in foreign business registries.

One of the men being held has previously served on Airiston Helmi's board but he left that post in 2016. Several of the company's mobile phone subscriptions were registered in his name.

His reported annual income in Finland over the past six years did not exceed 22,000 euros.

The other suspect being held, who previously served as an official representative of Airiston Helmi, had no reported taxable income in Finland.

Police said that there are several other suspects involved in the case but authorities have not yet been able to reach them.

Police suspect that the money laundering crimes took place in Finland, saying that the laundered funds entered the country from abroad.

Request for home-made bread

The couple who sold the Pargas property said the Russian buyer called them shortly after they showed him around. He asked if they could bake more of the bread he ate during his visit, saying he'd never tasted anything like it.

So, the couple said they agreed, baked and brought a loaf to the property he now owned.

The couple said the businessman wasn't in the main building, but there were two women whom they assumed worked for the company.

The couple also noticed that the main house had been furnished with large, leather sofas, a stone table and some Finnish wartime memorabilia.

Story continues after photo.

Airiston Helmen Villa Ybbersnäsin ranta-alue kuvattuna ilmasta Paraisilla 23. syyskuuta.
Airiston Helmi's seaside property in Pargas. Image: Veijo Lindgren / Lehtikuva

The Russian businessman was born in the former Soviet Union and received his Maltese passport in 2015. A copy of the EU passport was found among documents sent to the Finnish Patent and Registration Office, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has close ties to Malta.

The island nation is known to utilise a programme which, in practice, enables people to buy Maltese citizenship, at the cost of about 880,000 euros.

The Maltese state uses the programme to draw well-heeled individuals to the small country as investors. According to the BBC, Malta's paid citizenship scheme has also received criticism.

But why Malta?

Several media outlets have reported that rich Russian business moguls purchase Maltese citizenship. Malta is a member of the EU, and ownership of such a passport greatly eases movement around Europe.

Malta is also known as a tax haven. Both private individuals as well as companies use the island nation for tax planning purposes. There have been several reports of firms and individuals using Malta as a place to launder money, for example by members of the Italian mafia.

Airiston Helmi bought and sold properties across the Finnish archipelago for about 9.2 million euros during the period 2007-2014, according to documents from the National Land Survey department.

Yle interviewed four parties who sold properties to Airiston Helmi. All four said the firm contacted them via brokers who represented different firms.

The parties told Yle that when Airiston Helmi made offers on the properties the firm always paid the asking price or even significantly more than that. For example, the Pargas couple received 135,000 euros more from Airiston Helmi than the second-highest bidder.

All of the sellers said that Airiston Helmi paid their bills quickly and that the origins of the money never raised suspicions. They added that they thought the buyer was a firm in the travel industry.

Connections to Russian firm

The man behind Airiston Helmi told the Patent and Registration Office that his home address was in Hungary. He is also known to own - or have owned - at least five companies in the Moscow area. Among other products, the firms sell water pipes, heating equipment and hot water heaters. The man has also been active in Moscow's real estate market.

One of the man's firms reportedly earned some 3.7 million euros in 2016, while another firm claimed on its website that it took part in the construction of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. However that firm appears to have started in 2009. According to Russian business registry documentation, the company has since gone out of business but the defunct firm's website remains online.

The Russian businessman is also registered as the founder of SMEs in St. Petersburg. He operated several micro and small companies in the city, including consulting firms and IT development companies.

Registering trademarks for tax planning

The businessman has also apparently registered trademarks in several different countries including China, Georgia and Estonia. The trademarks belong to companies that are worthless, according to Russian business registry data.

Registration helps to legally prevent companies from using another company's trademark. For large corporations trademarks are very valuable, but they are also used for tax planning purposes. In such arrangements, corporations register trademarks in other countries in order to effectively pay themselves to use their own trademarks.

The Russian businessman had some registered trademarks in the Moscow firm which produced heating equipment. That company's capital value was listed at about 10,000 Russian roubles, or around 100 euros.

Carved wooden bears

The Pargas couple said they had no complaints about the transaction when they sold their property to Airiston Helmi and that they've not been in contact with the businessman since he requested the loaf of home-baked bread.

The couple said the company has since torn down old buildings on the property and has built new ones and they haven't visited the site in several years.

The couple did remember one final detail about the transaction, however.

During their negotiations on the deal, the businessman asked if he could keep the two wooden carved bears that adorn the gate to the property.

The couple said they went along with his request.

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