Real Estate

‘Starkly fraudulent’ Scottish scheme revealed in crypto laundering case

The only sign of life at a boggy field 45 minutes outside Edinburgh is a faded black and white poster dating from September 2007, illustrating a nearly two-decades-old planning application for houses that were never built.

Now under new ownership, the 83-acre plot of barren land in West Lothian is, on the surface, one of three Scottish housebuilding opportunities being advertised by Alba Group, led by Dubai-based estate agent Michael James Burke.

But revelations in a London trial of a woman convicted of laundering bitcoin from a £5bn fraud in China suggest Burke has had other uses for the land.

“I have a project that I use to help people create source of wealth,” Burke wrote in October 2018, referring to “three parcels” of Scottish land, to a British-Chinese woman Jian Wen who was convicted of one count of money laundering last week.

“As we have played with the valuation and the purchase price. It allows us to give our clients a 100 per cent return on paper,” Burke added, according to messages heard by the jury at Southwark Crown Court.

Gillian Jones KC, acting on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service, told the jury that the Scottish land investment Burke offered to Wen “stands out starkly as being something that’s fraudulent”.

She called it “another money laundering scheme, plain and simple”.

A graffitied sign on land at Edmonstone in south-east Edinburgh owned by Michael James Burke
Land at Edmonstone in south-east Edinburgh owned by Michael James Burke © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Wen was accused of laundering bitcoin for her then-boss, Zhimin Qian, also known as Yadi Zhang, who is a fugitive from the Chinese authorities after she allegedly defrauded more than 120,000 people, the court heard. Qian’s whereabouts are unknown.

Between 2017 and 2020, Wen turned to a series of middlemen to convert Qian’s bitcoin into other assets: property, jewellery, cash and prepaid cards.

Among them was Burke, who touted his connections after he and Wen were introduced in September 2018, including that his brother-in-law is renowned jockey Sir AP McCoy and his sister was a business partner of Queen Camilla’s daughter, the court heard. Burke’s sister, Chanelle McCoy, founded a fashion boutique with Queen Camilla’s daughter Laura Lopes.

He also told Wen his family’s background was in horseracing and pharmaceuticals, the jury heard. Burke’s father, also called Michael, co-founded Ireland’s largest domestic drug manufacturer, Chanelle Group.

There is no suggestion any of Burke’s relatives or their associates had any knowledge of or involvement in any of the events described at Wen’s trial.

Wen was introduced to Burke as she struggled to buy a £12.5mn London property because of issues proving the source of Qian’s bitcoin. The seller of the property pitched Burke to her as a problem-solver.

Zhimin Qian aka Yadi Zhang  and Jian Wen
Zhimin Qian aka Yadi Zhang, left, and Jian Wen

“I know how to help you and make this work. Not just this property. But globally. Bank accounts. Funds. Trusts. Art. Property etc . . . this is my main business,” Burke told Wen in October 2018 after an initial meeting in Zurich.

When Wen hesitated over how to describe her source of wealth on a registration form for Burke, he made clear it mattered little. “Between you and me. What is the real source and I will think of something,” Burke wrote.

The messages disclosed in court did not reveal what if anything Wen told Burke at that time. In other messages 11 months later, she assured Burke the bitcoin was not connected to crime. Wen in court consistently denied knowing anything about Qian’s alleged fraud in China.

Between 2019 and 2020, Burke helped Wen to sell 92 bitcoins worth more than £2mn through his companies MJB Holdings in the Seychelles and Outsourced Serviced Solutions in Switzerland, the jury heard.

Much of the proceeds were deposited into top-up cards that Wen sent to Qian. Burke also helped Wen purchase two Dubai properties for a combined £518,000 in 2019 through his estate agency Arabian Escapes.

Grab of incoming and outgoing messages between Jo Wen and Michael James Burke
Grab of incoming and outgoing messages between Jo Wen and Michael James Burke

Both properties were subsequently sold. In civil forfeiture proceedings at the High Court in London against Wen and Qian, the CPS said that by October 2023 Burke held £370,000 from the sales.

But what Jones, the prosecutor, called the “Scottish scheme” in court was most striking for what appeared to be bare statements of artifice.

As Jones put it: “You might think it puts on notice the sort of character Mr Burke is [and the] sort of services he provides.” No legitimate investment opportunities provide a guaranteed 100 per cent return, she said.

Alba Group was not named in court, but Companies House and Land Registry filings show that three plots of land advertised on Alba Group’s website are all owned by Burke. He was also listed as chief executive on the Alba Group website until recently.

The website also refers to an “Alba Developments” as the trading name for S Developments Limited, a company discussed by Burke and Wen in their WhatsApp messages as being the entity controlling Burke’s Scottish land.

Faded sign showing planning application from September 2007 in Westfield, West Lothian
Faded sign showing planning application from September 2007 in Westfield, West Lothian © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

The court did not hear any evidence that Wen ultimately invested in any of the three Scottish land developments. Alba Group and S Developments did not respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Burke did not provide any comment for publication.

Burke owns Edmonstone in south-east Edinburgh, a former golf course in Gretna now used for grazing, and the field in rural West Lothian, all through entities registered in Guernsey.

Land Registry filings show that the three pieces of land were acquired for a combined £29.6mn and were transferred in 2019 to the Guernsey entities, which are all solely owned by Burke.

Alba Group’s website said it has secured planning permission for the sites and is now in the process of selling it off in patches to housebuilders.

Five years after offering the projects to Wen, with a handful of completed houses and another few halfway done, Edmonstone is the only development with any sign of construction.

When Burke pitched his “Scottish project” to Wen in 2018, he cast himself less as property developer, and more as a worker of investment miracles.

“We get people to give us money in cash or bitcoin then we give them loan of their own money which they use to make 100 per cent profit over two years,” he said. “This is really what I do for a living.”


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