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UK lawyers provide service to fugitive cryptoqueen Ruja Ignatova

FBI, Onecoin, Ruja Ignatova, UK, United Kingdom

International

UK lawyers provide service to fugitive cryptoqueen Ruja Ignatova

A number of front-ranking UK lawyers are reportedly extending legal services against huge service charge to Ruja Ignatova, one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives who went into hiding after defrauding investors out of US$4 billion in cryptocurrency scam named ‘OneCoin’. Although Ruja Ignatova is seen by Federal Investigation Agency (FBI) as “missing cryptoqueen or a fugitive, in reality she has been living in the United Kingdom under protection of several mighty politicians belonging to the Labour Party, while she is enjoying legal services from a number of front-ranking UK lawyers. Last week she came out of hiding to make a formal claim on a £13.5 million townhouse in London, while the UK authorities neither arrested her nor brought the matter to attention of Interpol or FBI.

According to information, a UK law firm named Locke Lord offered its services to Ruja Ignatova long after she went missing. A letter admitted in evidence at the US trial of ex-employee Mark Scott shows that on July 12, 2018 James Channo, a partner at the London branch of the firm, wrote to Ruja about her UK properties.

“We believe it is important that we revisit the manner in which you hold your real estate interests in the UK,” he wrote. The letter, addressed to Ruja at a Sofia address.

A statement provided by Locke Lord and James Channo said the letter was an offer of legal services “in a standard form”, that it was disclosed by Locke Lord to US prosecutors, and that no work was done for Ruja as a result.

One interesting line in the letter confirmed what BBC sources had been telling – that it wasn’t just the penthouse Ruja Ignatova had bought in the UK. On the fifth floor of Abbots House there’s a less fancy two-bedroom apartment that ex-porter James told BBC Ruja Ignatova’s bodyguards would stay in.

UK records show the owner of 11 Abbots House is also a Guernsey shell company, Abbots Property Limited, and that it too is registered at Aquitaine’s address.

The smaller flat was also bought in 2016 – for £1.9m. Her name was again kept off the paperwork, but our sources say she was the one behind the purchase.

Asked by the BBC about its dealings with Ruja Ignatova, Aquitaine said it had no comment to make.

BBC report said, after she disappeared, 11 Abbots House seems to have taken on a different function, serving as a secret storage facility, which its sources told at one point that house was containing two large safes.

It may be mentioned here that, Ruja Ignatova, who is on the FBI’s top 10 most-wanted list has been missing since 2017 when United States officials issued a warrant for her arrest. She founded OneCoin, a Bulgaria-based company that marketed a cryptocurrency. The company offered buyers a commission if they sold the currency to more people but the FBI said it was ultimately worthless. It has been described as a Ponzi scheme disguised as a cryptocurrency.

Since her disappearance in 2017, Blitz in a number of exclusive reports had had provided information about Ruja Ignatova owning properties in the United Kingdom, Dubai and several Caribbean island countries.

According to BBC and few other sources, Ruja Ignatova has been visiting Britain even before her “disappearance” from the US. A former porter at the exclusive Abbots House apartment block in Kensington remembers meeting Ruja Ignatova in 2016, as she returned from a shopping trip with her Bulgarian bodyguards.

“These two poor men came behind her like overloaded donkeys, struggling, and a bit out of breath – they must’ve had 20 bags each”, says James (not his real name).

Ruja Ignatova had been splashing out on designer-label goods – Jimmy Choo, Prada, and Calvin Klein – without regard for the expense. A little later, James got a look inside her four-bedroom penthouse flat, complete with swimming pool.

“She had an Andy Warhol painting stuffed in the cupboard, and that broke my heart because I went to art college”, says the ex-policeman.

That was a print of the actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Another Warhol, Red Lenin, hung above the fireplace. To the left of a sofa in another reception room was a print of Queen Bubblegum by Michael Moebius, showing Queen Elizabeth blowing a bubble.

James wondered whether Ruja Ignatova was deliberately spreading her suspect wealth into assets that could be easily moved, to avoid them being seized.

According to BBC, Ruja Ignatova’s flat contained works of art worth £500,000, bought from London’s Halcyon gallery.

In September 17, 2019, Ruja Ignatova’s German lawyer, Martin Breidenbach, went on trial in Münster, accused of money laundering for transferring 20 million euros to a London law firm to fund the purchase of the luxury property.

Two others are also in the dock, facing charges connected to the siphoning of millions of euros from Ruja’s €4bn scam – which consisted of selling something that didn’t exist, a fake cryptocurrency she called OneCoin.

When the lease was signed in August 2016, financial regulators in at least one European country had already issued a warning about OneCoin. A few months earlier, Ruja Ignatova had pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges in a German court, after bankrupting a metal factory she’d bought and leaving 150 people jobless in 2011.

Lawyers at Locke Lord, a US law firm with an office in London, did express concern about the source of the 20 million euros being transferred – this is apparent from internal emails revealed later in a US court case. But Dr Ruja’s companies passed the firm’s compliance checks, so they proceeded with the purchase of the property, along with Aquitaine Group, a Guernsey company offering tax haven services to wealthy clients.

The penthouse had been refurbished by luxury property developers Candy & Candy after a fire that broke out while it was the London home of the singer, Duffy. The estate agent was Knight Frank. But quite who had bought the flat remained unclear to the outside world, thanks to British tax haven secrecy.

According to the property deed its owner is Abbots House Penthouse Limited.

This is an anonymous Guernsey shell company – one of 12,000 such companies that own properties in England and Wales – meaning that Dr Ruja’s name would not have to appear on the UK deed, or in public records in the Channel Island.

Other Guernsey firms were appointed as directors (or “nominees”), and a couple of months after Ruja Ignatova’s offer was accepted, Aquitaine was listed as the company’s “resident agent” in Guernsey. The London address of Locke Lord, meanwhile, appeared on the penthouse’s Land Registry documents.

This appears to have been enough to conceal Ruja’s purchase of the property from the City of London Police, which told swindled OneCoin investors in September 2019 that they were “unable to identify any OneCoin assets in the UK”.

The existence of these London properties is interesting news for millions of victims of the OneCoin scam, who want Ruja Ignatova’s assets to be sold and the proceeds distributed among investors. However, complex ownership structures – the Guernsey shell companies may be just the start – could make it difficult to prove that Ruja is the legal owner.

According to a source, Ruja Ignatova is maintaining regular communication with at least two Labour Party MPs, one of whom is a British-Pakistani. We are further investigating the matter.

Tajul Islam

Tajul Islam is a Special Correspondent of Blitz.

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