Tax Scandal's Mystery Man
From all appearances it's business as usual for financial consultant Mario Staggl. The 43-year-old married father of two continues to report for work at a modest three-story building in his native Liechtenstein, the tiny principality of 35,000 between the Austrian and Swiss Alps. He answers calls and e-mails as before. When friends stop by his office, they're greeted by an affable assistant.
Half a world away, however, Staggl is in deep trouble. Last month he failed to appear in U.S. federal court in Fort Lauderdale to answer charges that he helped a billionaire hide $200 million from the IRS. After that, prosecutors branded him a fugitive. Staggl's partner in the alleged scheme, former UBS private banker Bradley Birkenfeld, was expected to plead guilty on June 19—and to implicate colleagues and wealthy U.S. clients. It would be another black eye for UBS, already battered by subprime—related losses.
Yet the Staggl scandal barely merits notice in Liechtenstein, which rivals Switzerland as one of the world's most prominent tax havens. Tax evasion isn't considered a major offense here, so Staggl may not be extradited; local newspaper editor Tino Quaderer call the charges "no big deal." So far Staggl doesn't seem inclined to fly to the States to dispute allegations that he set up secret accounts and offshore companies for Birkenfeld's client. Staggl declined to comment. "It's all too much," says Staggl's attorney, Andreas Schurti, declining BusinessWeek's interview request.
A Savvy Operator, but Dour
Despite Staggl's silence, a portrait of this mystery man emerges from court documents, regulatory filings, and company reports, as well as interviews with associates and authorities in the U.S. and Europe. It shows Staggl to be a savvy, if dour, operator for a roster of notorious clients, including an heir to Britain's Tesco grocery store fortune, a penny stock promoter, and an alleged smuggler of atomic bomb secrets.
For decades, some wealthy people have called on Liechtenstein bankers to hide their cash—honestly earned or ill—gotten—from the prying eyes of tax collectors and regulators. Some are uneasy about the perceptions. "The banking community in Liechtenstein stands for privacy and confidentiality," says Michael Lauber, director of the Liechtenstein Bankers Assn., "but not tolerance for financing terrorism, money laundering, organized crime, or corruption."
Staggl, who attended the Liechtenstein Trustee School in the early 1990s, has been on the banking scene since at least 1995. That year he and Klaus Biedermann, a former member of the Liechtenstein Banking Commission, co-founded a firm called New Haven Trust. Bypassing Vaduz, the principality's financial center, they set up shop in nearby Schaan, a town in a picturesque valley known for denture making.
Soon Staggl was helping a host of wealthy clients, some of them quite colorful. His services proved valuable to Dame Shirley Porter, an heir to the Tesco grocery fortune and a supporter of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During the late 1990s, Porter was fighting charges in Britain that she rigged elections by evicting low-income residents from public housing and replacing them with well-to-do Conservative Party voters. Facing penalties of more than 20 million pounds, the Porters moved the majority of their wealth to offshore accounts, according to British authorities. Staggl, a stocky man who favors expensive suits, acted as a director for at least one entity, Zollikon Investments, which was registered in the British Virgin Islands, another popular place to hide money.
Coming Up with the Cash
In 2002, Porter wrote to her son, John R.C. Porter, explaining that she needed cash. Shortly thereafter Staggl authorized changes in a loan made by Zollikon to Telos, a U.S. defense contractor owned primarily by Porter's son. The deal allowed Telos to get a new loan and funnel nearly $3 million to the Porters, according to regulatory filings. John Porter didn't respond to requests for comment.
Around that time, Staggl was also working with Claude Greaves, a penny stock promoter and tax cheat convicted in an unrelated matter. New Haven was the Liechtenstein affiliate of ICM International, a consortium of tax consultants and offshore incorporators organized by Greaves, a native of Grenada. People familiar with the company say Greaves and his crew turned to Staggl when they needed to squirrel away proceeds from Grenada's defunct Salisbury Merchant Bank and three small British brokerages that sold dubious stocks. Court-appointed liquidators traced the money to three accounts Staggl set up at Liechtenstein's Neue Bank. British authorities investigated, but no charges were filed after Neue agreed to return the money. Neue declined to comment. "I've known Mr. Staggl a long time," says Greaves, who is awaiting trial in London for an unrelated alleged stock scam. "I don't believe what's written about him."
It wasn't the only time Staggl got mixed up in penny stocks. In 2006, he worked with Toronto financier Morrie Tobin to drum up investors for Calibre Energy and Standard Drilling, whose shares soared and crashed within 12 months. Working both sides of the Atlantic, the pair arranged meetings between bankers and prospective investors. Tobin says his "projects [with Staggl] are not related to the indictment."
Perhaps Staggl's most infamous client is Gotthard Lerch, a German engineer on trial in Stuttgart for allegedly supplying sensitive nuclear technology to Libya and the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered by many to be the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb. Staggl managed money for Lerch—but gave up information to German investigators after two rounds of interrogation. In a June 1 article in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Staggl said he "never noticed anything suspicious" about Lerch's transactions and that they "didn't involve enormous sums." Even so, authorities have asked Staggl to testify in July. It isn't clear whether he'll comply, but the German court could offer Staggl immunity from extradition to the U.S. while traveling to and from Stuttgart to testify.
Staggl has gotten creative in the wake of the Patriot Act and other laws that empower governments to probe bank accounts more aggressively. In 2002, for example, Staggl established a New Haven office in Denmark. Unlike Liechtenstein, Denmark doesn't have a reputation as a tax haven, giving the accounts an extra layer of respectability. "They were looking for a jurisdiction that was kosher," says a person familiar with Staggl.
Staggl showed some fancy financial footwork in moving money around for Igor Olenicoff, the Russian émigré and California developer at the center of the Florida indictment. As part of his services, Staggl used a shell company known as Landmark Settlement. The entity had a complicated—and therefore difficult to trace—parentage. Headquartered in Denmark, Landmark was owned by a company in the Bahamas but controlled by a Liechtenstein trust, according to incorporation records. Adding to a veneer of propriety, Landmark was audited by BDO ScanRevision, the Danish affiliate of accounting firm BDO International. Among Olenicoff's other repositories: an account at Neue, the same bank used by Greaves. Olenicoff pled guilty to tax evasion in December, agreeing to pay $52 million in back taxes and perform community service.
Now U.S. and European authorities are focusing more intensely on Liechtenstein. As part of a probe into tax cheats, the U.S. Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations is focusing on Americans with accounts at LGT Group, a bank controlled by Liechtenstein's royal family. Earlier this year, German authorities arrested Deutsche Post Chief Executive Klaus Zumwinkel on tax evasion charges after an LGT insider sold secret records to spies enlisted by the German government. Zumwinkel denies the accusations. "LGT does not encourage or aid in tax evasion. It is in contact with the relevant authorities to cooperate," says an LGT spokesman.
With Staggl's fate unclear, a few of his associates are distancing themselves from him. When news of his indictment broke in May, Principle Capital persuaded him to resign his directorships at a number of the European money manager's subsidiaries. Partners at New Haven's Denmark branch say he's no longer involved. BDO, meanwhile, says it quit auditing the Landmark vehicle Staggl set up for Olenicoff. At this rate, Staggl may soon find his bunker in Liechtenstein lonely.