Real Estate

Liechtenstein prosecutor probes Signa founder Benko’s hidden wealth

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Liechtenstein’s chief public prosecutor has opened an investigation into the financial affairs of the Austrian property mogul René Benko for possible money laundering and fraud in the tiny, secretive alpine principality. 

Four months on from the collapse of his sprawling luxury real estate empire, the Signa Group, Benko — once one of Europe’s youngest billionaires, feted by politicians in Austria and Germany — has come under increasing legal pressure to account for the role he played at the group and its entanglement with his own financial affairs.

“Preliminary investigations have been initiated against a person and a legal entity . . . on suspicion of fraudulent bankruptcy and money laundering,” a spokesperson for the Liechtenstein prosecutor said.

On Thursday, Signa Holding, the central company in the Signa group, reported that it expected to recoup zero value from its shareholdings in Signa’s two main holding companies, which owned the majority of the network’s luxury property portfolio — a catalogue of high-end addresses and shops around Europe, including London’s Selfridges and Berlin’s KaDeWe.

Benko’s two Austrian family foundations — the controlling shareholders of Signa Holding, and investors themselves at multiple levels in Signa’s bewilderingly complicated corporate structure — filed for insolvency in March.

Benko is also the beneficiary of at least two trusts in Liechtenstein — the Ingbe foundation, and the Arual foundation, investigations by the Austrian magazine News have concluded.

The two Austrian organisations — the Benko Family Foundation, controlled by his mother, and the Laura Foundation, named after his daughter — had been assumed to look after most of Benko’s personal wealth, including his yacht, luxury homes and art collection.

For many of Signa’s investors, who are still owed billions, the foundations’ penury raises questions about where the fortune formerly attributed to the 46 year old Tirolean has now gone — and whether they have a claim on any of it. 

Ingbe is a contraction of his mother’s name, Ingeborg, and the Arual foundation is his daughter’s name backwards. Lichtenstein’s complicated legal and privacy rules mean little is known about how much money may have flowed through them or what they own, however.

A lawyer for Benko did not respond to a request for comment on the Liechtenstein investigation, which was first reported by the Swiss financial blog, Inside Paradeplatz. 

Some Signa investors have already themselves made accusations of criminal activity at Signa.

Austria’s state prosecutor for economic crime and corruption has received “several” criminal complaints against Benko, it told the Financial Times in February, but has yet to declare whether it has opened any formal investigation against Signa or persons at the company.

Munich’s public prosecutor has opened a preliminary probe into one Signa entity under suspicion of money laundering last month.

In January the FT reported on huge unexplained flows of money between Signa-group entities and Benko’s Austrian foundations, which had raised alarm bells for creditors as they gained information of the group’s financial affairs following its collapse.


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