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SEPARATE INVESTIGATIONS ARE UNDERWAY INTO MURKY VSŽ SHARE SALE AND DRÔTOVŇA TUNNELLING

Police probe corporate raiders

SLOVAKIA'S attorney general has reopened an investigation into alleged insider trading by a trio of financial speculators in the December 2001 sale of shares in steel-maker VSŽ. One of the firms involved in that sale, the J&T financial group, is also under a separate police investigation for allegedly stripping assets from wiremaker Drôtovňa Hlohovec in 1996.
The three financial houses - Penta Group, Istrokapitál, and J&T - acquired a 21 per cent stake in VSŽ through an anonymous trade on the Bratislava stock exchange less than two hours before the close of the last trading day of 2001.
Investigators say that the Sk160 (3.80 euro) per share price paid by the group was well below market value, as well as below competing offers for the stake made by VSŽ itself and by its strategic investor US Steel Košice.


AUTHORITIES are again looking into suspicious deals involving former steel giant VSŽ.
photo: TASR

SLOVAKIA'S attorney general has reopened an investigation into alleged insider trading by a trio of financial speculators in the December 2001 sale of shares in steel-maker VSŽ. One of the firms involved in that sale, the J&T financial group, is also under a separate police investigation for allegedly stripping assets from wiremaker Drôtovňa Hlohovec in 1996.

The three financial houses - Penta Group, Istrokapitál, and J&T - acquired a 21 per cent stake in VSŽ through an anonymous trade on the Bratislava stock exchange less than two hours before the close of the last trading day of 2001.

Investigators say that the Sk160 (3.80 euro) per share price paid by the group was well below market value, as well as below competing offers for the stake made by VSŽ itself and by its strategic investor US Steel Košice.

The owner of the shares, then state-owned oil pipeline operator Transpetrol, had originally bought them for Sk206 (4.93 euro) per share. As owner of Transpetrol, the Economy Ministry was required to sell the stake prior to the purchase of Transpetrol in early 2002 by Russian oil giant Yukos.

Although the deal drew angry reactions from foreign and domestic observers, who called the deal "non-transparent" and "scandalous", subsequent investigations were abandoned for what police said was a lack of evidence.

Now, however, investigators are hoping to fill gaps in their records to determine if information was leaked from state organs prior to the deal.

"The investigation should add the testimony of several witnesses who were not interrogated [in previous investigations] and who could possibly shed light on circumstances that are important in this matter," said Ján Bernát, from the attorney general's Special Prosecutor's Office.

The original investigator, however, has said it is too early to predict what the outcome of the new investigation will be.

"I told [the Attorney General] about certain things that were missing from the files. Now it is up to him to continue the investigation and try to fill in the things that I didn't find. Nobody has been accused yet, and I can't say if anyone will be," said prosecutor Jozef Takáč.

US Steel took over the production unit of VSŽ in 2000, but the rest of the company is controlled by a group of financial houses that includes Penta Group. Penta is reportedly interested in selling off VSŽ's 20 subsidiaries individually.

Before the December 2001 sale, US Steel had been interested in buying the remainder of VSŽ, but it later abandoned the idea due to what company officials called corruption and non-transparency.

The firms involved in the deal under investigation have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying instead that the sale was open and fair.

"We never discussed this topic with any politician, either before or after the deal," said Penta board member Jaroslav Haščák.

J&T co-owner Patrik Tkáč insisted that there was no funny business behind the December sale.

"The [December 2001 share] deal was not coordinated," he said. "Those shares could have been bought that day by anyone."

Tkáč and J&T are also in hot water with investigators over the alleged tunnelling of wire producer Drôtovňa Hlohovec in 1996, when a suspicious bond issue reportedly cost the firm Sk278 million (6.7 million euro).

The bond issue was handled by then state bank IRB, headed at the time by Jozef Tkáč, father of the J&T co-founder, along with a management team close to the late financier Alexander Rezeš, suspected of tunnelling VSŽ while serving as its president from 1994 to 1998.

In the last year of Rezeš's directorship of VSŽ, one of Europe's largest steel mills, the once-profitable company lost Sk11 billion (263 million euro). At the same time, Rezeš built a massive luxury villa on the Spanish coast.

After a management shake-up at IRB removed Tkáč Sr, new managers reported a suspicious transaction in which a portion of the funds from the Drôtovňa bond issue ended up in J&T's accounts.

Police suspect the revenues from the bond issue were not invested into Drôtovňa as intended, but were instead diverted to two J&T-controlled Drôtovňa subsidiaries, which eventually took over the parent company from shareholders.

At a March 2000 extraordinary shareholders' meeting, Drôtovňa was dissolved without liquidation and transformed into Drôtovňa Holding Hlohovec and DNF Hlohovec. Drôtovňa Holding took over a number of the former company's liabilities but was declared bankrupt in July 2001. The company is currently selling off real estate and other assets.

"I don't know yet if or when someone will be accused. Right now, I am gathering testimony and evidence," said Ivor Tomana, who is investigating the case.

J&T representatives have denied any wrongdoing in the Drôtovňa case, saying that everything was done legally and under contract, and that the investigation will clear their name.

"No damages were incurred during the integration of representatives of J&T into the organs of Drôtovňa," said J&T co-owner Ivan Jakabovič, who has already been questioned as a witness in the case.

"I hope that the result [of the investigation] once and for all ends the slander of J&T in connection with this situation from six years ago," he said.

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