When alleged mafia money launderer Antonio Righi wanted to do shady deals out of sight, it was to London, not just Naples, that he turned to hide his trail, according to Italian prosecutors.
Righi — aka Tonino the Blond — is standing trial over claims that he laundered ill-gotten cash for the feared Camorra crime group.
But although his alleged wrongdoing was for paymasters in southern Italy, Britain’s super-light company laws may have provided the opportunity to cover up any murky deals.
Why? Because Britain is one of the easiest countries in the world in which to set up a business, no questions asked, through which to move money and apply a veneer of respectability to the most unsavoury of transactions.
An examination of Righi firms by the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) found what looks to be one of the most blatant examples of outfits being set up in the UK without any pretence at making bona fide official filings.
One company which had Righi as a director was Magnolia Fundaction UK, registered to an address in Soho’s Broadwick Street. Its documents cite as a director a man with the surname “Il Ladro di Galline”, which translates as “The Chicken Thief”. He declares his occupation as “fraudster”, using the Italian word “truffatore”.
Among Magnolia’s directors is a nominee company called Banda Bassotti — the Italian name for the Beagle Boys gang of crooks in the Donald Duck cartoons. Banda Bassotti’s address, also in Italian, translates as “0, Street of the 40 Thieves” in the fictional Italian city of “Ali Babba”.
Magnolia claimed to have £60 million of share capital despite being registered as a “dormant” business carrying out “social work without accommodation”.
Righi, charged with various counts of mafia-type association and conspiracy to launder money on behalf of the Contini and Mazzarella Camorra clans, is an unlikely social worker.
Although Magnolia uses the Italian language for its cheeky names and addresses, perhaps understandably evading the linguistic skills of Companies House officials, the Righi case highlights the absence of checks in Britain’s company formation system. After all, even if UK officials do not speak Italian, it seems surprising that nobody checked what “truffatore” meant in the occupation section the document.
All but one of the Righi-linked UK companies is now dormant. The sole remaining one calls itself Business Bank Italy, registered to a house in Essex. Righi resigned as a director in 2011. BBI’s website claims to offer venture capital, wealth management and a prepay MasterCard.
Despite some of these being Financial Conduct Authority-regulated activities, Business Bank Italy has no registration with the regulator.
The Evening Standard has passed on the details to the FCA, which is expected to investigate. Another former director of some Righi-linked companies is Alessandro Della Chiesa, sentenced in 2013 for six years in prison over the bankruptcy of the football club Ravenna Calcio, according to the IRPI report.
He resigned as a director of BBI in 2015.
The bank did not respond to emailed requests for comment to the address listed on its website.
Clearly, Righi’s guilt or otherwise is up to the courts to decide, but the IRPI’s investigation into his case highlights major problems in how Britain’s company formation rules are monitored.
Investigators tracing the proceeds of crime around the world regularly follow the money back to companies listed in the UK. Experts say this is because of the ease with which businesses can be set up here and the lack of any substantial checks.
Robert Barrington, director of Transparency International, said: “For too long, the UK has had a combination of secrecy, a dog’s breakfast of regulators and complicity by professional enablers. As this case highlights, the system has been too lax for too long.”
While praising the recent improvement of creating a public register of beneficial ownership of UK-registered firms, Barrington added: “The UK still has a lot to do to stop itself being a safe haven for the world’s corrupt elite. The concern is if Brexit leads to an economic downturn the money-laundering situation will get worse not better, as the UK attracts so-called ‘investment’ at any cost.”
When asked how such blatant filings as The Chicken Thief can be possible in London, the world’s most prestigious financial capital, Companies House said it receives 10 million documents a year, the “vast majority” of which are accurate.
It added: “We carry out a number of checks on information received, ensuring it’s complete and compliant with our filing requirements.” It was up to the companies themselves to make sure their documentation was accurate, the organisation added.
Tonino the Blond has been in jail for two years on remand and still awaits the judge’s verdict. His web of companies, which reportedly once controlled £200 million of pizzerias, bars and restaurants has been confiscated by the Italian authorities.
But his alleged actions leave a trail in London which, if he is found guilty, are another stain on London’s reputation as a clean place to do business.
Click here to view the full investigation report