Latvia braced for Panama leak info

Latvia on Monday was preparing for the next batch of information to be released by investigative journalists as part of the major "Panama papers" expose with the expectation that local names could appear on the list of wealthy clients of a legal firm specializing in tax-dodging offshore companies.

The company in question, Panama-based Mossack Fonseca operated a Riga branch from 2009 until December 2015, providing offshore services to wealthy clients.

As entries in Latvia's official business register show, Mossack Fonseca subsequently wound up its operations, just six years after it teamed up with British offshore specialists RM Group after sensing the potential for big opportunities in the Baltic region.

As this press release from the time shows, hopes were high that Riga would provide a lucrative base for "RM Group Mossack Fonseca" at a champagne-drenched launch of a new joint office.

Despite the use of a joint name, the two companies appear to have been registered separately since 2009 though both have UK citizen Emmanuel 'Manny' Cohen listed as owner.

Cohen, who attended the launch of the joint office in 2010 and praised Riga's strategic location, is a colorful character with numerous interests including acting as marketing director and (via RM Group) corporate sponsor of the British bobsled team.

The glitzy Riga event was "attended by members of the Latvian business community plus TV presenter and dance champion Valdis Skutens, Olympian Zintis Ekmanis, racing driver Karline Stala and Panamanian ambassador at large Mr Chris Zollinger, Partner in Mossack Fonseca Panama," said the release.

Cohen's hopes that the Riga office would be profitable appear to have been overly optimistic with a 34,000 Lati loss (around €50,000) recorded for RM Group (Baltics) in 2010, the last year for which records are currently available.

It is of course possible the offshoring experts had found a way of minimizing their own tax payments to Latvian state coffers.

During those years high-ranking local employees of the RM Group Mossack Fonseca Riga office Sandis Bertins and Vladislavs Boroviks were regular attendees at functions of the British Chamber of Commerce in Latvia.

Bertins, who also held shares in both Mossack Fonseca and RM Group as well as acting as business development officer is still operating in the offshore industry via Linked Offshore, which claims it has permanent offices in London, Riga and Hong Kong.

"Spend less money on taxes and keep your identity anonymous. Preserve your wealth in a jourisdiction (sic) where judgements (sic) of world wide courts are not recognised," says Linked Offshore's website, which even includes a link to Latvia's State Revenue Service, VID, at the bottom of its webpage.

Meanwhile RM Group Mossack Fonseca's Riga manager Boroviks has turned in a new direction with international transfer payment companies Wallet One and QR Pay (formerly known as "Family socks").

In December 2015 Boroviks was listed as an authorized e-payment user by Latvia's Financial Regulator, FKTK, and QR Pay is part of a network of similar companies in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Belarus and elsewhere.

Following a change of address, RM Group's legal address is no longer on fashionable Elizabetes iela in the center of Riga but in the decidedly less glamorous suburb of Ziepniekalns where its neighbors include a selection of truck repair shops. 

Though RM Group is still technically in operation, company records show the State Revenue Service took a decision to suspend its economic activity as recently February this year. 

There is no suggestion that RM Group (Baltics) or Mossack Fonseca have carried out any illegal activities. Use of offshore entities is perfectly legal, but the Latvian public will certainly be interested to see if any locally-known names appear on the data leaked from Mossack Fonseca's Panamanian headquarters which has been linked to politicians around the world, with more promised.

LSM was not able to immediately contact Mr Bertins or Mr Boroviks Monday morning for comment on how Mossack Fonseca went about its business in Latvia and why it had shut up shop just five years after its glitzy launch party.

LSM visited Linked Offshore's listed address at a central Riga office block Monday afternoon, however, there was no sign of a company bearing that name.

Latvia has a reputation as a serious player in the world of corporate offshoring with repeated accusations that its boutique banks in particular have in the past helped launder money from one jurisdiction to another.

So far, no Latvian names have emerged from the Panama Papers, but if they were to do so it would not be a major surprise. 

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