(rferl.org) Few have ever questioned the generosity of Russian-Armenian businessman Ruben Vardanyan, who has given away hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations and social investments since emerging as a leading post-Soviet entrepreneur in the 1990s.
But open-source journalists allege in a new investigative report that “employees” at the multibillion-dollar investment bank co-founded and led by Vardanyan used “bogus” trades and a complex network of offshore companies starting in 2006 to help launder billions of dollars originating in Russia, evade taxes, hide assets, and fool international oversight bodies.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) says in the March 4 report that Vardanyan’s Troika Dialog was at the heart of an $8.89 billion global money-laundering system that it dubbed the “Troika Laundromat.”
The OCCRP pointed out that Vardanyan “was Troika’s president, chief executive officer, and principal partner” at the time and “enjoyed a reputation as a Western-friendly representative of Russian capitalism.”
The OCCRP says there is no “definitive evidence” Vardanyan knew of the scheme, but that his signature was on one document in which he purportedly gave a loan to a company that was part of a network of the operation.
“Whether [Vardanyan] knew of the scheme being run by his bank is not clear,” the OCCRP said in statements accompanying the report. “There is no direct evidence that he did.”
WATCH: OCCRP co-founder and coordinator Paul Radu says that the scheme is just the “tip of the iceberg.”
Vardanyan received more than $3.2 million from so-called Laundromat companies to pay his credit card and tuition for his children’s school, the OCCRP report says.
Vardanyan was quoted by the OCCRP as denying any wrongdoing by his bank and noting that it operated much as other investment banks did at the time. But he also said he “couldn’t possibly know” about every transaction undertaken by his bank on behalf of clients.
“We always acted according to the rules of the world financial market of that time,” Vardanyan added.
Vardanyan and his partners sold Troika for more than $1 billion in 2012, after it had become Russia’s largest private investment bank, to state-owned Sberbank.
“Understand, I’m no angel,” he told the OCCRP in an interview. “In Russia, you have three paths: Be a revolutionary, leave the country, or be a conformist. So I’m a conformist. But I have my own internal restraints: I never participated in tax auctions, I never worked with criminals, I’m not a member of any political party. That’s why, even in the ’90s, I went around with no security guards…. I’m trying to preserve myself and my principles.”
With an international education spanning from Moscow to Harvard Business School in the United States, Vardanyan ran Troika for more than a decade after its founding.
He then helped found the investment boutique Vardanyan, Broitman, and Partners, but has become known as much for his philanthropy as for his business acumen.
In an October 2018 interview with the Financial Times, he said he and his wife, Veronika Zonabend, had agreed to give away more than 80 percent of their wealth.
He has co-founded several educational and humanitarian initiatives, including the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, which annually awards a $1.1 million prize to honor individuals or organizations for humanitarian work.
He has also brushed elbows with British royalty through the launch of a collaborative program with the Dunfries House Estate educational center in Scotland, which is under the patronage of Prince Charles.
Vardanyan also helped finance the rejuvenation of the Tatev Monastery in the country of his birth, Armenia.
His foundation helped finance a nearly 6-kilometer-long cable car to reach the monastery as part of a plan to spur local economic development around the ninth-century Armenian Apostolic monastery, located in the southeast of the country.