Monday 16 July 2018

Latvia’s top banker detained amid bribery and money-laundering claims

Ilmars Rimsevics, a key member of the European Central Bank, has been urged to step down pending the investigation.

The governor of the Bank of Latvia Ilmars Rimsevics was detained (Roman Koksarov/AP)
The governor of the Bank of Latvia Ilmars Rimsevics was detained (Roman Koksarov/AP)

By Carlo Piovano

Latvia’s top banking official, a key member of the European Central Bank, has been detained after being questioned for hours by anti-corruption authorities amid accusations of bribery and money laundering in the European nation’s financial system.

Latvian state TV showed Ilmars Rimsevics arriving at the offices of the country’s anti-corruption agency on Saturday night and leaving early on Sunday, following what the broadcaster said was a raid on his office and property.

The country’s prime minister Maris Kucinskis confirmed Mr Rimsevics, 52, was being detained, but did not provide details. Neither Mr Rimsevics nor his lawyer could be immediately reached for comment.

During a news conference on Sunday, Latvia’s finance minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola said Mr Rimsevics “should resign from his post at least for the time of the investigation”.

The finance minister noted the Latvian parliament cannot force Mr Rimsevics out unless there is evidence of a crime, as the central bank is independent by law.

Ms Reizniece-Ozola did not specify why Mr Rimsevics was detained. However, she cited a US Treasury report Tuesday that singled out a Latvian bank, ABLV, as a haven for money laundering that allegedly bribed local officials. She made no connection between the bank and Mr Rimsevics.

Latvia’s president called for a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the situation in the banking sector.

(Ilmars Rimsevics )should resign from his post at least for the time of the investigation Latvia's finance minister, Dana Reizniece-Ozola

The anti-corruption agency, the Bank of Latvia and the European Central Bank all declined to comment.

Mr Rimsevics’ arrest is particularly sensitive because he sits on the top policy-making council of the ECB, Europe’s most powerful financial institution, and is privy to the state secrets of Latvia as well as those of Nato and the European Union.

Any connections to money laundering, experts said, will raise concerns of the risk of blackmail from Russia, where the secret services and organised crime largely control the flow of illegal cross-border money transfers.

Latvia, one of the three Baltic nations that became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, has a well-documented history of acting as a money-laundering funnel for Russian capital.

Its own banking system has been plagued by corruption and money-laundering scandals in recent years. Among the most high profile was the 230 million US dollars in Russian taxpayers’ money that was siphoned off by Russian officials, largely through Latvian banks, according to US and European authorities.

Whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky was imprisoned in Russia in 2008 and allegedly beaten and denied medical care, leading to his death. The US and EU sanctioned Russian individuals over the case in December 2010.

In 2014, a trove of leaked documents, the so-called Laundromat reports, detailed how billions were sent from Russia through Latvia in the years 2011-2014. Latvian banks then went through an independent audit last year, but regulators levied fines on only three banks of 640,000 euros.

Barely one week later, France fined Latvian bank Rietumu 80 million euros for money laundering and encouraging tax evasion among French citizens. France gave the bank’s chairman a four-year sentence, though he remains in his job.

Press Association

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