New revelations blow lid on Interblue puzzle

“I HAVE nothing to hide,” declared Rastislav Bilas at a surprise press conference on March 24. Bilas, a self-described former ‘project manager’ for the amorphous firm Interblue Group, which bought Slovakia’s excess carbon dioxide emissions quotas at well below market price, is the latest in a growing cast of characters to emerge during the past two months from the murk surrounding the deal. He surfaced unexpectedly after Interblue Group was named in connection with a Swiss investigation into suspected money laundering.

“I HAVE nothing to hide,” declared Rastislav Bilas at a surprise press conference on March 24. Bilas, a self-described former ‘project manager’ for the amorphous firm Interblue Group, which bought Slovakia’s excess carbon dioxide emissions quotas at well below market price, is the latest in a growing cast of characters to emerge during the past two months from the murk surrounding the deal. He surfaced unexpectedly after Interblue Group was named in connection with a Swiss investigation into suspected money laundering.

If his words turn out to be true then Bilas has shed light on some of the missing pieces from the Interblue puzzle, one that has almost certainly cost Slovakia tens of million of euros. He confirmed that former environment ministers Jaroslav Izák and Ján Chrbet, both nominees of the Slovak National Party (SNS), negotiated the quotas deal with Bilas and Norbert Havalec, who represented Interblue as its project managers. Havalec also worked as an advisor to the Environment Ministry under Izák, from which he wrote an analysis of the market in emissions quotas. Havalec and Bilas were, Bilas said, each paid €500,000 by Interblue Group for their services.

In a highly disadvantageous deal in late 2008, Slovakia sold Interblue quotas to emit 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide at €5.05 per tonne. Bilas, who worked for the firm between September 2008 and January 2010, has confirmed that Interblue then sold the quotas on for €8 or more per tonne, netting a profit of at least €45 million. Meanwhile, the US-based Interblue Group, whose registered address was a lock-up garage in Washington State, ceased to exist and morphed into Interblue Group Europe, registered in Switzerland.

Earlier this month, Czech hotelier Milan Ružička emerged to claim that he is the new owner of the company, which he said he had bought from another Czech businessman, Marek Pleyer, as a private investment. However, Ružička has not been able to provide documentation proving that Interblue Group Europe is the legal successor of the US-based firm. The current environment minister, Jozef Medveď, had declared the original deal dead, but Ružička insisted that it was alive and even suggested he had €15 million with which to pay a bonus to Slovakia under the terms of the original contract.

A clause in that contract stipulated that if Slovakia spent the funds from the original sale of quotas within the ‘Green Investment Scheme’ (GIS) for environmental projects, the country would be eligible for a bonus payment of €1 per tonne.

However, the contract also included an option for Interblue to buy further Slovak quotas, to emit 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, at the original price of €5.05 per tonne.

Bilas confirmed that Pleyer, a Czech living in the United States, was the sole owner of Interblue Group. He described Pleyer as “a wealthy man who handles the money of rich people”.

Swiss authorities have meanwhile confirmed to the Sme daily that they are investigating a suspicious transaction between Interblue and Crataegus Development, a firm based in the tax haven of Belize. The news emerged after a translation of a letter from the Swiss police requesting Slovakia’s assistance in the investigation was obtained by Sme. The Swiss Federal Reporting Office for Money Laundering is currently pursuing the case. Sme reported that the office had informed Slovakia’s anti-corruption authority, but also pointed out that enquiries in Slovakia remain confined to a potential abuse of power, while the Swiss are looking into the Interblue case as potential attempt to legalise income gained through illegal activities, for example corruption.

Media has long speculated about whether Prime Minister Robert Fico knew more about the figures behind Interblue. However, Fico has consistently denied having any more information than he has already provided.

“Everything must be investigated,” said Fico. “I believe that the general prosecutor is taking action over this affair. I think there was some criminal prosecution started…”

In response to Bilas’ Interblue story, Fico released a statement on March 25 saying that neither the media, nor press conferences of different experts, but only regular investigation by criminal prosecution bodies could provide answers to questions linked to the sale of the emission quotas. The statement notes that the sale was negotiated by the environment minister, who was nominated by the SNS.

“As is known, a criminal prosecution was started at the end of 2009 and Prime Minister Robert Fico supports criminal prosecution bodies as well as their international cooperation with the Swiss partners,” the statement reads.

Bilas denied having any links to Slovak politicians but did admit to having known Ján Slota since 1992, through a common interest in motorbikes. Bilas said that he spoke about the emissions deal with Slota only after the contract was signed.

“He had some exact questions such as who, what, why and for what,” Bilas said, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “He knew that I had something to do with it, because Chrbet had told him.”

Bilas claimed that Interblue had last year offered to cancel the deal without penalty and return the emissions quotas to Slovakia providing the state returned the money to Interblue without sanction. Bilas claimed to have met Chrbet and visited the ministry about 40 times.

“We discussed it [the cancellation] in the morning, and in the afternoon he was no longer a minister,” Bilas said, adding that not once was he asked by ministry officials about the ownership of Interblue.

According to Sme, Bilas described the government as completely unprepared before selling the emissions quotas and compared the Fico government to an unprepared schoolgirl.

Bilas said that he had wanted to speak out about the deal last year, when the media started reporting about the case but said that Pleyer, Interblue’s owner, was against him doing so. He claims that he was freed from this obligation of secrecy on January 14.

On Friday, March 19, General Prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka confirmed that the special prosecutor's office and the special police investigation unit are working intensively on the case of the controversial sale.

Ružička, who in early March appeared alongside Natalie Gough, who he said was the new authorised representative of Interblue Group Europe, and František Jakoubek, introduced as its project manager, is active in the hotel business, running hotels belonging to the Rentier joint stock company. Jakoubek previously worked at a Czech gas utility, Ružička confirmed in a brief March 16 interview with the Sme daily. Another name linked with Interblue was Jana Lütken, who was previously named as an authorised representative of the group. She resigned earlier this year because of what she claimed was a “serious brain concussion” sustained during an alleged encounter with a Slovak TV crew on January 20.

Bilas described Lütken as a professional who was representing offshore companies and said that the Interblue case had ruined her career, according to SITA.

Meanwhile, deputy chairman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) Ivan Mikloš said that Bilas is only a “white horse”, a figure to hide the real organisers of the whole business. Mikloš said he believes the truth will emerge in the end.

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