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Mystery company ties accused temple raiders to art world elite

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They pulled ancient Buddha heads out of the ground in war-torn Afghanistan and stole idols from temples in India. They cracked open shrines in Nepal, and in Cambodia bought an 11th-century statue of the Hindu god Shiva on the black market.

According to indictments filed in New York last year, a network of art thieves and traffickers extracted thousands of precious relics from archaeological sites across Asia and sold them to museums, elite galleries and wealthy private buyers.

Prosecutors say the group includes suppliers, restorers and New York art dealers who fabricated documents describing the origin of the antiquities to camouflage the looting.

A confidential banking document obtained in the FinCEN Files investigation offers a rare view into the murky supply chain that delivers valuable antiquities to auction houses and major Western museums. It reveals a shadowy shell company called Pantheon Worldwide Limited that exchanged millions of dollars in cash and relics with the alleged traffickers, according to the document, while baffling compliance officers at its own bank, London-based Standard Chartered Bank.

Standard Chartered maintained three accounts for Pantheon in its Hong Kong branch. But bank compliance officers knew next to nothing about their own client, the document shows. They were uncertain about the purpose of the company and didn’t even seem to know where it was registered — the most basic information needed to assess whether it might be a front for money laundering or other financial crime.

A report filed by Standard Chartered.

ICIJ also tried, and failed, to track down Pantheon. Hong Kong and London addresses listed by Standard Chartered for the company proved to be dead ends, and Hong Kong authorities said no company by that name had ever been incorporated there.

The file — a suspicious activity report leaked to BuzzFeed News and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — also suggests that top New York auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s conducted transactions involving Pantheon, although the exact nature of those dealings remains unclear. Neither auction house would comment on Pantheon.

The mystery enveloping Pantheon extends well beyond the one company. Operators who move suspect cash and antiquities across borders often use firms set up in offshore jurisdictions to cover their tracks. In the United States, the art market has become the largest legal-yet-unregulated industry, meaning that money launderers and tax evaders can “buy pieces without any record of the transactions,” according to a recent U.S. Senate report.

‘Losing chapters of history’

This secrecy, experts say, also emboldens art thieves, who are looting the developing world’s cultural heritage for the benefit of elite collectors and museums. “Archaeological sites around the world are being destroyed on an industrial scale,” said Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, which advocates the return of stolen relics to their home countries. “We are losing chapters of history.”

The world’s most prestigious museums regularly display relics obtained long ago through murky means. But murky does not necessarily mean illegal.

Many antiquities laws meant to prevent the looting of national treasures are relatively new and do not cover some works that were exported from countries before the laws were enacted. India, for example, didn’t enact a robust law limiting the export of certain antiquities such as paintings until 1972.

Strict export laws and increased pressure on sellers of antiquities to provide a detailed provenance — records of the origin and ownership of a piece — were supposed to quash the illegal trading of sculptures, paintings and other historical objects.

Over the past decade, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has filed criminal charges against several prominent art dealers, in cases that have involved some of the biggest auction houses and museums.

One of the accused is Subhash Kapoor, the former owner of a Manhattan gallery called Art of the Past. A 200-page criminal complaint details hundreds of items allegedly smuggled by Kapoor, whom U.S. authorities described as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”

In raids on Kapoor’s warehouses in Manhattan and Queens, authorities discovered thousands of relics stolen from temples and other vulnerable archaeological sites and then smuggled into the U.S., according to the complaint.

The criminal complaint says that an intermediary for Kapoor entered Afghanistan during the country’s brutal civil war in the 1990s and bribed a Mujahideen commander for access to an archaeological site. The deal allegedly yielded two stucco Buddha heads dating to the ancient Gandhara civilization, which spanned parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan hundreds of years before the rise of Islam.

A separate complaint accuses Kapoor of smuggling an ancient statue of a Hindu deity from India to New York in a container filled with legal handicrafts. Nancy Wiener, a prominent art dealer, appraised it at $3.5 million, the complaint states..

Wiener was indicted in New York in 2016 after allegedly selling millions of dollars in looted antiquities — from Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, India and other countries — through her Manhattan gallery.

Her ultimate buyers included Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the latter of which sold one batch of works for more than $12 million, according to the indictment. Authorities did not charge Christie’s or Sotheby’s with wrongdoing.

Archeologists and others in the art world have accused Christie’s and Sotheby’s of turning a blind eye to inadequate or suspicious origin records.

Last year, in a separate case, a renowned Greek archaeologist called on Christie’s to cancel an auction of a first-century Roman statue because of the work’s alleged links to “notorious dealers connected with numerous cases of illicit antiquities.” In 2011, Sotheby’s canceled an auction of a Khmer statue after the Cambodian government lodged a formal complaint against the auction house arguing that the piece had been obviously looted.

Kapoor and Wiener have denied the charges against them, which remain pending. Georges Lederman, an attorney for Kapoor, told ICIJ that prosecutors have begun holding antiquities dealers to new, more rigorous “standards of due diligence” for works they purchased decades ago. Kapoor is jailed in India and awaiting extradition to face charges in the United States.

Wiener is free on bond. Her attorney, Evan T. Barr, declined to comment.

The 2017 Standard Chartered suspicious activity report was reviewed by ICIJ as part of the FinCEN files, an investigation based on more than 2,100 leaked suspicious activity reports filed by banks with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. SARs reflect concerns by compliance officers within banks and are not necessarily evidence of any criminal conduct or other wrongdoing.

The Standard Chartered report summarizes 413 financial transactions over a seven-year period, totaling $27.8 million. Seventeen people and companies with links to the United States, Hong Kong and India are named in the report, including several of those named in criminal complaints.

Pantheon worked with Kapoor and Wiener for the apparent purpose of facilitating the “illegal transfer of artwork,” according to the report. A Nepalese painted tapestry known as a thangka, an Indian painting and a 15-inch seated bodhisattva moved through Pantheon, the report said.

The report said that Wiener received more than $1.6 million from both Pantheon and another company.

According to the report, Pantheon also paid more than $3.6 million to Nayef Homsi, a Brooklyn art dealer. Homsi was charged in 2015 and subsequently convicted in New York of importing a stolen 13th-century Nepalese gilt bronze statue of a Buddhist deity. The statue was valued at $484,500, according to a New York State indictment. This work was not referenced in Standard Chartered’s suspicious activity report.

The bank’s report did not include exact dollar amounts of transactions involving Kapoor. It also does not specify the nature or dollar value of the transactions tying Pantheon to Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s declined to comment on Pantheon Worldwide Limited. Cat Manson, a spokesperson for Christie’s, said the auction house had nothing relevant to share and that it was unable to disclose information, even if Pantheon had been a client. The auction house conducts “initial and ongoing due diligence on our clients for AML purposes,” Manson said in an email.

Pantheon’s role — if any — in the criminal cases that embroiled Kapoor, Wiener, Homsi and others is not clear.

Searching for Pantheon Worldwide

Standard Chartered’s suspicious activity report provides a street address for two Pantheon offices in a building in Hong Kong’s central district. Yet the Hong Kong corporate registry contains no trace of the company.

The report included a secondary address for Pantheon in the United Kingdom. But this address belongs to a U.K.-based Pantheon Worldwide Limited that was registered in 2016, four years after Kapoor was jailed in India. The accounting firm that established the company said that the U.K.-based Pantheon had never dealt in antiquities — or anything else for that matter. “To the best of my knowledge, the company never traded at all,” a spokesperson for PRB Accountants told ICIJ.

ICIJ also found a Pantheon Worldwide registered in the Bahamas, but the company ceased operating in 2007, years before the millions of dollars flowed through Standard Chartered’s bank accounts.

It is crucial for banks to know their customers’ true names and addresses. “Knowing the jurisdiction in which a company is registered is really crucial to determining the risk of the customer,” said Ross Delston, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in anti-money-laundering systems and regulations.

In 2014, financial regulators in New York state fined Standard Chartered $300 million and negotiated a consent order requiring it to gather better information from its Hong Kong and Dubai branches about customer transactions. The order emphasized the importance of bank branches sharing accurate addresses, including the country of individuals originating and benefitting from all transactions.

Standard Chartered did not directly respond to questions about Pantheon Worldwide, but defended its compliance efforts in broad terms. “We take our responsibility to fight financial crime extremely seriously and have invested substantially in our compliance programmes,” the bank said in a statement. “Standard Chartered has nearly 2,000 staff worldwide dedicated to preventing, detecting and reporting suspicious transactions, and all staff are trained in sanctions and anti-money-laundering compliance.”

Financial secrecy has factored into all of the largest antiquities looting scandals.
Leila Amineddoleh

Among the only mentions of Pantheon that ICIJ could find in a public record emerged in descriptions of four antiquities listed for sale online by the high-end auction house Bonhams. Each listing describes Pantheon as a recent owner of the works.

The auction listings, all posted in 2018, describe a colorful Tibetan painted tapestry, a copper figurine of a seated 16th-century Tibetan king and two paintings from Mughal-era India, including one called “A Lord and His Harem Enjoying a Fireworks Display on Shab E Barat.” Each of these works date back at least 400 years.

The Bonhams listings state that Pantheon is based in Hong Kong. In a statement, Bonhams said that it did not receive the four works from Pantheon. “Bonhams undertakes only to sell items that have been entered for sale via the correct procedure,” the auction house said.

Unlike big banks, none of the auction houses linked to Pantheon were required to file suspicious activity reports with the U.S. Treasury Department. Legislation supported by law enforcement authorities would require antiquities dealers to file such reports. It passed easily in the U.S. House of Representatives last year but stalled in the Senate.

Precious metal dealers, stock brokerages and casinos are examples of businesses other than banks that are required to file suspicious activity reports.

Leila Amineddoleh, a New York-based lawyer specializing in antiquities-smuggling cases, said that galleries often lack information about the true buyers.

“Financial secrecy has factored into all of the largest antiquities looting scandals,” Amineddoleh said. “Anonymity in this market runs very deep and it remains a serious problem.”

The post Mystery company ties accused temple raiders to art world elite appeared first on ICIJ.

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Election Integrity

Analyzing the Case for Election Fraud

Despite the overwhelming pressure, if you can’t help but feel that tingling sense of knowing that is telling you there’s more to the story, you are not alone. In fact, according to a new Rassmussen poll, nearly 50% of voters believe the election had issues. A quick look at the data blatantly shows that indeed, shenanigans abound (how can a state have 1+ million more mail-in ballots tallied than they sent out?). But was it fraud or masterful gamesmanship?

Adryenn Ashley

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The world, or at least the global media, has spoken: Biden won the 2020 Election.

UPDATED FREQUENTLY WITH NEW INFORMATION – Last update 12/21/2020

A quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of reports of why the Trump team’s assertions of vote fraud and election fraud and vote flipping are flat out fallacies. YouTube has announced a ban on any videos questioning the election results. And now on Monday all 538 electors have voted, formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win. And while there is still Congress to get through, and the inauguration, based on social media and television news and practically every other point of information bombarding society today, Biden is now the President-elect.

But why now, after Government officials confirmed during Senate testimony that a foreign adversary, Russia, attempted to interfere in the 2016 United States Presidential Election via “a multi-faceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” According to U.S. intelligence official reports, Russia targeted voter registration databases in at least 21 states and sought to infiltrate the networks of voting equipment vendors, political parties, and at least one local election board. And if their purpose was not so much to “hack” the election but create chaos and sow seeds of uncertainty around our election process, I would say they have won. But what if this cycle, it was Russia who somehow manipulated extra ballots and placed the blame on the Democrats? What if…?

Russian Experience With Voter Fraud

The 2004 presidential election in Ukraine saw suspiciously high turnout rates that “even Stalinist North Korea would envy,” the State Department declared!

Back then, the U.S. government decried as corrupt an earlier election where special voting boxes were created to help citizens vote from home, election observers were expelled from vote counts, pre-election polls were wildly off, and voter turnout in certain communities exceeded 90%.

But the story of that Ukrainian election as recounted by then-Ambassador John Tefft to a Senate committee in December 2004 raises a tantalizing question for voters distrustful of the Nov. 3 elections results in our own 2020 Presidential Election: If tactics and outcomes in the Ukrainian election back then were enough to cry foul, why can’t Americans debate similar concerns here?

Tefft’s testimony raises an important question: Should America, the greatest democracy in the world, share any of the fraudulent attributes of a Ukrainian election? The answer for most Americans is hopefully resounding “No.”

And despite continued and repeated headlines that there was no fraud, according to the Harvard Kenney School report on Election Integrity this cycle, expert assessments indicate that compared with 2016, the performance of this contest displays several warning flags, namely worsening confidence in the integrity of American elections and falling public trust, challenges to legitimacy arising from threats of campaign violence,legal disputes about the process and results, and public protests about the outcome, as well as growing attempts at voter suppression. 

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Investigations

Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

Landmark laws to thwart the use of U.S. shell companies by terrorists, human traffickers, arms dealers and kleptocrats are set to be enacted after more than a decade of lobbying and politicking with rare bipartisan support.

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Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

The sweeping anti-money laundering reforms hitched a lift in the annual defense spending bill that passed the Senate 84-13 today, and was approved by the House 355-78 earlier this week.

The Corporate Transparency Act requires U.S. companies to report their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN — largely ending anonymous shell companies in the country.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has repeatedly documented how the rich, the powerful and the criminal have used anonymous entities to hide their wealth, including in the 2016 Panama Papers and the 2020 FinCEN Files investigations.

Welcoming the clampdown, Transparency International’s U.S. director Gary Kalman said, “It is rare for such a simple measure to promise such an enormous impact.” Kalman added that the long sought anti-corruption reforms would “move us into a new era of enforcement.”

The new legislation will allow law enforcement agencies and financial institutions to request company ownership information from FinCEN. The data will not be publicly available.

FinCEN Files was based on a trove of suspicious activity reports filed by banks and other financial institutions to FinCEN. BuzzFeed News obtained the secret documents and shared them with ICIJ and more than 100 other media organizations.

The global investigation exposed how a broken U.S.-led enforcement system allows banks to continue to profit from moving dirty money tied to drug cartels, trafficking rings fueling the opioid crisis, fraud, organized crime, sanctions evasion, ruinous real estate schemes, and terrorism.

“Too many times, people … think money laundering is a federal, victimless crime. It is certainly not that,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate banking committee, told reporters on a call organized by the advocacy group the FACT Coalition. “Sinaloa cartel actors, fentanyl traffickers have been destroying thousands of families in my state and across the country.”

Earlier this year, Brown credited FinCEN Files for revealing the lack of forceful enforcement against banks that repeatedly violate the law. Advocates said a number of proposed bipartisan bills, including one co-sponsored by Brown, were instrumental in generating the support needed to attach the reforms to the spending bill.

“This is a really big deal to get this passed,” Brown said Thursday. “No more hiding these abuses in anonymous shell companies. It also cracks down on bank officials who look the other way or actively aid money laundering.”

A long time coming

ICIJ has shown how offshore shell companies have been used for dubious financial dealings and tax avoidance through a series of global exposés, including the Secrecy for Sale investigation, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. U.S. lawmakers have repeatedly cited the investigations in proposing reforms over the years.

Countries like the United Kingdom, Indonesia and members of the European Union also took steps toward ending anonymous shell companies in response to ICIJ reporting.

“When the Panama Papers leaked, there was a huge flurry of interest because there’s all of a sudden this recognition that it was kleptocrats, money launderers, corrupt officials the world over, as well as criminals, were all using a very common structure to help evade law enforcement, which was setting up an anonymous company,” Lakshmi Kumar, policy director of Global Financial Integrity, said.

The phenomenon is not limited to the exotic offshore tax havens of popular imagination. U.S. jurisdictions like Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada are among the world’s top locations to set up anonymous companies. Legislation to require corporations to disclose their true owners was first proposed in the U.S. over a decade ago, co-sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama, and similar bills have been introduced over the years.

Advocates credit years of lobbying a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had previously been a leading opponent, in getting the reforms across the finish line this year.

“What’s changed now is a growing understanding among various constituencies about the harms that anonymous companies pose, and the threats that they pose for our financial system, to our businesses,” Clark Gascoigne, senior policy advisor at FACT Coalition, said.

But it’s not a done deal quite yet.

Although the anti-money laundering proposals have had the support of the administration, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act over provisions unrelated to financial secrecy.

Both the House and the Senate votes surpassed the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a veto, although some Republicans have indicated that they would not support what would be the first veto override of the Trump presidency.

But the NDAA has been reliably passed by Congress every year for six decades and advocates are confident that the time has come for the landmark financial transparency measure that’s included in the omnibus bill.

“It’s one of the few areas where the outgoing Trump administration agrees with the incoming Biden administration,” Gascoigne said. “It may be the first bill in the history of Congress that has the support of both Dow Chemical and Friends of the Earth. Heck, the state of Delaware even supports reform.”

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Investigations

Muslim Brotherhood suspect and Saudi billionaire linked to same offshore companies, Austrian report says

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One of 30 people in Austria suspected to be members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Muslim Brotherhood was the director of offshore companies linked to a Saudi billionaire, according to an investigation by Austrian media outlets profil and Ö1.

The man, described as a 37-year-old Viennese entrepreneur with Iraqi roots, is suspected of “participating in a terrorist, subversive and criminal organization” and was a target of the police investigation into the group and the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas, the report said

The inquiry, which led 930 officers to raid 60 apartments, shops and clubs in four federal states last month, had no connection to the Vienna terror attack that killed four and injured 23 on November 2, according to officials cited by Deutsche Welle.

The Austrian report ー based on police records ー does not name the suspect, nor the Saudi businessman, for fear of hampering the ongoing probe into possible terror financing.

The pair’s link to shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore financial centers was revealed for the first time after the reporters’ examination of Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017.

The 13.4 million files include incorporation documents, emails, contracts and other records from two offshore service providers and the company registries of some of the world’s most secretive countries.

The Austrian man was listed as the director of several companies in the BVI, Malta and the Bahamas, the media report said. His address on the documents referred to an apartment in Vienna that belongs to the wife of one of the main suspects in the police investigation, according to a review of Austria’s land registry records.

By cross-checking the confidential files with property records, the reporters also found that the shell companies owned properties in the U.K., including two office buildings, a commercial property and a retail park, worth about $73 million in total.

The documents show that a Liechtenstein trust owned by the Saudi businessman was behind those companies. The man is also known as a philanthropist who has financed Islamic studies at various European universities in recent years, including in Austria, the report added.

The complex offshore structure identified by the journalists is legal, the report said, but “can be used to disguise the flow of money and the identity of the true economic beneficiaries.”

Profil and Ö1, two ICIJ media partners in Austria, asked the Viennese suspect about the purpose of the offshore company network and his link with the Saudi billionaire. A lawyer representing him declined to comment.

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