This is the latest report by our colleague Ján Kuciak. The very last topic he worked on. He could not finish the article and publish it himself because he and his partner Martina Kušnírová had been murdered.
Aktuality.sk in cooperation with the Czech investigative journalism research center Investigace.cz, the journalist organization Investigative project of Italy and the international consortium of investigative centers Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project have mapped how people close to ‘Ndrangheta have settled in Slovakia.
Fourteen years ago an Italian named Carmine Cinnante arrived in the town of Michalovce. One morning he started in his Fiat from a village of Novosad, about 40 kilometers far from Michalovce, where he was staying with his girlfriend Lýdia.
Cinnante was heading for Italy. He was joined by a Slovak man called Ján whom he had promised to find work there. In the Michalovce district, every fourth person of working age was unemployed at that time.
Driving on a field road, approaching the main road between the villages of Porostov and Ostrov in the Sobrance district, they noticed a police patrol. Their white Fiat Punto with Italian registration plates began to reverse suddenly.
The police officers became suspicious of the men’s behaviour, they stopped the car and checked in. On the back seat, they found a black wooden briefcase with a gun, 50 bullets and a magazine.
It was a functional Czechoslovak machine gun model 26 with a laser pointer but with a destroyed production number.
According to experts, the briefcase was made especially for storing the machine gun. Cinnante was accused of criminal possession of a weapon, and the judge of the district court in Michalovce has sentenced him to two years on probation.
At that time the prosecutor addressed the Italian as an "entrepreneur with business in Slovakia in the field of agriculture".
Tentacles reach out to Government Office
A few months later the Italian police came to arrest Cinnante for smuggling weapons to Italy for the Mafia boss Guirin Iona.
Iona was the head of Belvedere Spinello, one of the clans of the economically strongest Italian mafia of the present time – ‘Ndrangheta.
As the documents from the investigation show, Carmine Cinnante is also its member. A man, known by the Slovak authorities only as an entrepreneur in agriculture.
But Cinnante is not the only Italian with links to the mafia who found his second home in Slovakia.
They started doing business, receiving subsidies, drawing EU funds and especially building relationships with influential people in politics – as high as the Government Office.
In the meantime, in their homeland, Italy, they also faced many problems with the law.
With the confidence of the mafia
At a farm co-op between the villages of Dvorianka and Parchovany in the Trebišov district, the business of Carmine Cinnante meets Antonino Vadala. He had also had problems with the police at home in Italy.
On February 3, 2003 the court in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy ruled on nine defendants in a case involving another Mafia clan - Libri. The Libri clan is one of the most powerful within the ‘Ndrangheta.
Among the accused were Antonino Vadala, originally from the village of Bova Marina in the south of Calabria.
According to the Italian investigators, it was Vadala who, at the request of the clan, helped hide mafioso Domenic Ventura - convicted of the brutal murder of a member of competing gang - and helped him escape.
Italian police captured telephone conversations between Antonino Vadala and Francesco Zindato, the boss of the clan, in which the couple argued about the details of the action. In 2003, however, Vadala was released for lack of evidence.
In another case, the court describes in its ruling how Antonino Vadala and two other men travelled to Rome to physically "punish" an unknown person who "caused damage to the clan".
"He entrusted the task to the people whom (the boss of the clan, Francesco Zindato) most trusted, among them to Antonino Vadala," the judge explained.
When Vadala faced charges in Italy, he did not go to court to hear the verdict. He found a refuge and new home in eastern Slovakia.
Vadala started a successful business in agriculture, then in real estate and in energy. He has become one of the most distinguished figures of the Italian community in Slovakia.
Entrepreneur in the energy business
In 2009, information came out that an unknown Italian businessman Antonino Vadala plans to build two factories in the Lučenec industrial park for almost €70 million.
Although the project has been cancelled eventually, Vadala became an "energy entrepreneur". That's what the former economy minister Pavol Rusko, who is now accused of ordering a murder, called him.
Paradoxically, he remembered Vadala through the state advisor Mária Trošková, a close collaborator of Prime Minister Robert Fico.
"She used to work for us for about three months. It's been a long time, about four years ago. But then, she met one entrepreneur with Italian roots, who, among other things, was involved in solar power plants, and went to work him," said Rusko at that time.
The fact that her career continued with Fico at the Government Office did not surprise him very much: "Well, I thought it wouldn’t be so quick, but basically it did not surprise me because she understood very quickly how to get things done in life."
Trošková and Jasaň
In August 2011 Vadala and Trošková founded Gia Management. Trošková left the company after a year and later became assistant to then MP Viliam Jasaň.
Jasaň did not want to tell the media where he found this woman known as a model and a finalist of the Miss Universe 2007. He said only that a friend recommended her to him.
"An assistant I used to have left me and a friend recommended this woman to me," told Jasaň Nový Čas daily. Whether the friend in question was Antonino Vadala he refused to confirm.
However, in less than a year – in March 2015 – Maria Trošková left Jasaň’s office and started working for none other than PM Fico at the Government Office. A year later, Jasaň joined her there as well. The prime minister named him director of the office and secretary of the State Security Council.
In addition, Jasaň also received a top level security clearance. As the security council secretary, he is directly reporting to Fico.
Jasaň attends the Security Council meetings, elaborates summary statements for Fico and is responsible for documenting the council's activities.
He therefore has access to all documents and information of the council, whose task is to ensure functionality of the country's security system and, at the time of war, assumes the power of government.
However, Jasaň has proven to have ties to a man who has worked directly with the Italian Mafia.
The relationship between Jasaň and Vadala can be demonstrated especially in business activities. The politician of the ruling party Smer used to own a private security company Prodest.
Vadala and his colleagues have recently taken over this company. Besides that, Jasaň's son Slavomír still has a joint venture with the Italians called AVJ Real.
In addition to that, when one of Vadala's companies went bankrupt recently, it was revealed that Vadala had claims to a private security service in which Jasaň and his son Slavomír were involved in the past.
This means that two people close to the man who came to Slovakia as a person accused of being involved with the Mafia in Italy have daily access to the Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico, who choose them personally.
Vadala votes for Smer
In addition to Jasaň and Trošková, other ties to politics and the party Smer in particular, can be traced around Antonino Vadala.
For example, Vadala's long-time accountant Monika Čorejová ran for the regional parliament in the past.
Vadala himself massively supports Smer, mainly campaigning on social networks. He praises Fico in front of his Italian friends, defends minister Kaliňák from the allegations of the opposition and vehemently supported Smer's Richard Raši in his campaign for the Košice regional governor post.
On election day, Vadala was trumpeting that "today we are all voting No. 16 Smer and we can be sure tomorrow Slovakia is in good hands."
During the campaign he was openly declaring, he planned to visit the Smer conference in Košice. He wrote to Raši publicly saying they would "see each other" there. He called Smer "our party".
When the current ruling coalition was created, it was a reason for Vadala to celebrate.
Bullets and a funeral bouquet
Vadala and his Italian friends had problems with the law in Slovakia as well. In spite of a number of criminal proceedings, however, they are still successfully avoiding justice.
Here are just a few examples of cases involving suspected extortion and tax fraud.
Aktuality.sk together with their partners reconstructed the cases from the police and judicial documents which were obtained according to the Act of Free Access to Information.
Case number one took place in the east of Slovakia in 2013. One autumn morning employees of a company in the town of Trebišov found a strange delivery at the entrance gate.
There was a bag hanging on the fence containing matches, ten functional bullets and a funeral bouquet. It was wrapped in a piece of paper with „Jerad“ written on it. It was a misspelt version of their boss Gerhard's name.
It was supposed to be a warning from a competitor that followed the threats of killing. The mocked name Jerad was often used by an Italian who claimed from the company nearly 40 hectares of arable land.
Jerad ignored the warning at first. He reported it to the police when his employee, a tractor driver, was threatened as well.
After two years of investigation Antonino’s relative Sebastiano Vadala, finally faced the prosecution by the Trebišov district court for the crime of extortion.
According to Prosecutor Peter Prokopovič, Vadala threatened to shoot dead the company's manager and mimicked with his hands the act of cutting the man’s throat.
He threatened the tractor driver by saying "he will shoot dead with his gun anyone who will work on his field and set the tractor on fire."
That's all because the company farmed on a field that the Italians wanted for their business. It never interested the authorities who were the legal owners of the land.
In addition to the testimony, the company also submitted the abovementioned special delivery for Jerad. Expertise has proven that all 10 bullets were fit for shooting and could only be in possession of a licensed arm holder
A video from the company’s security camera was supposed to show Vadala's visit, during which he verbally threatened Gerhard. Vadala denied the accusations.
He and his lawyer Marek Švingál claimed at the court that at the time of the alleged threats he had not been in Trebišov, but in Michalovce. This was confirmed by Švingál, Vadala's accountant and another Italian.
However, the District Court in Trebišov and later also the Regional Court in Košice found the evidence was insufficient. Last year Sebastiano Vadala was cleared of all the charges.
Milan Petričko, District Court judge at Trebišov, wrote that "it has not been proved that the act for which the accused has been prosecuted actually happened".
According to the judge, the prosecution was based solely on testimonies of the witnesses which is allegedly not enough for convicting Vadala.
Neither the bag and the funeral bouquet nor the video footage is mentioned in the court's ruling. The prosecutor has appealed against the court’s decision.
He argued that the judge "wrongly assessed the evidential situation and the clear evidence of crime was being neglected, and his decision was based on biased and unilateral subjective conclusions."
The representative of the company's CEO, who had been the victim of extortion, was objecting that the court was considering Marek Švingál's testimony, although he was acting as a defendant's lawyer in the preparatory proceedings. That means he knew from the criminal proceedings about the evidence gathered by the police.
Even Švingál's interrogation was supposed to be conducted in a way that was against the law. Vadala told the investigator that he did not speak nor understood the Slovak language and therefore he could not threaten the victim. But this was denied by several witnesses.
In addition, Sebastiano Vadala in another case two years later stated that "as a citizen of the Italian Republic who lives in the Slovak Republic for a long time understands the Slovak language".
The Senate of the Regional Court in Košice, led by Marek Dudík, however, dismissed the appeal and confirmed that Vadala was to be cleared of all charges.
The Italian Bašternák
In the second case, which concerned tax fraud, Antonino Vadala was directly involved. The case involved alleged speculative transactions in connection with three apartments in Bratislava city part of Petržalka.
The whole case started in 2011 and ended only last year. The original owner of the three flats was Italian Antonio Palombi, more precisely his company ALTO.
In 2011, however, the apartment’s ownership started to change - in the course of several months they were first transferred to the company GENNA and then to another company AV-REAL. Vadala used to work for the first, and managed the latter even at the time of the transfers.
Three years after this deal, Palombi turned to the police saying that Vadala had not paid him a purchase price for his flats.
According to the police resolution we obtained on the basis of the Act of Free Access to Information, Palombi first claimed that Vadala had deceived him.
This was how the weekly Plus 7 Dni informed about the case in 2015. But the reality was a bit different.
In fact, Palombi and Vadala agreed that the transfer of apartments would take place without actual payments and that the apartments would eventually end up in the company Kannone which the two of them owned.
The purpose of the deals was that Vadala's AV-REAL, which was the third one in the chain, would be entitled for exemption with the right to deduct VAT in the amount of approximately €80,000.
Palombi admitted this to the police himself as a witness and victim at the same time.
"He said Antonino Vadala advised him to transfer the apartments to AV - Real via Genna Ltd. because this company was engaged in the real estate business and Alto, s.r.o. was not a VAT payer. Genna then was supposed to transfer the apartments for a much higher price. In this way, as AV-Real is a VAT payer, the difference would be deducted at purchase," noted Palombi's interrogator.
Palombi repeated several times that the price of €360 000 was just imaginary. In fact, apartments should be returned to him.
"The suspect said that if he gets 80,000 Euros of VAT, he will transfer those apartments to their joint company Kannone, s.r.o. By doing so, they would go back to the company owned by the damaged.”
In his complaint, Palombi wrote that he should also receive a share of the VAT return.
"The suspect told him that the flats would be sold to company Genna. He explained that Genna will claim a deduction of VAT, half of which is given to the notifier," the resolution says.
Vadala denied everything to the investigator, he did not know about any deal, and he allegedly bought the flats in a regular way.
Criminal prosecution was stopped, prosecutor declared that there was no fraud done on Palombi, although both could have cooperated on the fraud.
He stressed that if a crime was committed, it is a VAT refund scam and that the case is being treated as a crime of tax and insurance cuts.
He literally wrote: "The real intention of individual persons involved in gradual transfers makes it impossible to objectively determine their possible willful or unwilful co-operation towards the alleged evasion of the tax advantage when it is possible to expect from them to give purposeful testimonies to defend themselves from suspicion from other criminal activity.”
Palombi initially demanded return of the apartments in court - in a trade dispute that was underway since December 2014. However, as it emerges from court rulings, he decided not to pursue his claim in last February.
The District Court Bratislava V stopped the proceedings in March. It did not mention why Palombi changed his mind after two years.
He turned to the state authorities after some years - when it turned out that Vadala would not even give him money from VAT refunds, nor did he return flats.
In this case, the investigation has not yet led to the prosecution of Antonino Vadala. Two companies in its portfolio have just recently gone bankrupt with tax debts of over €100,000.
Big Italian family
Antonino Vadala and Carmine Cinnante do not act individually in Slovakia.
In the eastern part of the country – after mutual co-ordination and co-operation – four representatives from the Italian Calabria family, birthplace of ‘Ndrangheta, operate there.
Apart from the Vadalas and the Cinnantes, there are also families of the Rods and the Catropoves. Agriculture became their main business in Slovakia.
They owned or still own dozens of companies. Their estate ranges in tens of millions of euros.
They manage hundreds to thousands of hectares of land, for which they receive millions of subsidies.
Just between 2015 and 2016, the companies around these families managed to get more than eight million Euros from direct payments from the Agricultural Payments Agency (PPA). And other hundreds of thousand euros from project subsidies.
The eligibility of these payments is also questionable. Aktuality.sk together with partners documented several cases of violation of rules.
In one case, the company asked for payments of up to eight times the area they actually worked on. In another case, they again asked for payments on areas for which they did not pay rent and did not have the right to use it.
In addition, the statutory of one of these Italian companies falsified the decision of the PPA to persuade the bank that it would soon receive the money.
More public money was collected under the influence of the Italians for biogas power plants. Three companies of the Diego Roda family, for example, received € 8.3 million in these payments from 2012 to 2017.
And there was no doubt about it. The Office for Network Regulators (URSO) fined them in 2015 because in mandatory reporting they overestimated the amount of energy their biogas power plant produced.
The subsidy amount depends on the amount of subsidies produced.
Where the money comes from
Money laundering is the main business of ‘Ndrangheta abroad as well. The goal is to clean money and do business in a way that it looks legitimate.
It may involve the use of third parties as fictitious owners of companies, foreign trade in goods that are artificially overpriced, or putting pressure on competitors.
The Libri clan, with whom Vadala has collaborated, is one of the most influential in the district of Reggio Calabria and has a substantial part of its activities outside of Italy.
The forms of their business are many because this clan is particularly engaged in a financial international business.
Nevertheless, there is no evidence that any of the aforementioned subjects in Slovakia has been laundering money. However, there are doubts about the origin of the money used by the Italian families mentioned here.
From the documents we have collected it is clear that a substantial part of the money came from their native Italy.
For example, Antonino Vadala appears in several rulings of Slovakian courts, which show that he has received money from people from Italy. They stated that money was given to Vadala in cash because he wanted it in that way.
For example, they should be used to buy an agricultural co-op in Slovakia. Since they had no benefits from the trade, they were claiming their money back from Vadala.
He claimed in the court that he owed nothing to the Italians, and the statement in which he claimed the opposite, was signed under coercion.
The companies of the Rod brothers established in Slovakia in the 1990s, received a substantial share of the equity capital from the homonymous companies in their hometown of Condofuri in Italy.
These are the companies CO.BE.R. (Diego Roda) and TRA.CE.R. (Antonio Roda), which have their sister companies of the same name in Italy.
In their annual reports from the turn of the millennium, the Slovak companies report commitments and financial assistance to the companies in Italy, as well as that their entire production is going back to their home country.
CO.BE.R even states in the financial statements that it was created as a foreign investment with a 100 percent capital stake in Italy.
In Italy Pietro Roda, the brother of Antonino and Diego, acts as a representative of the family company TRA.CE.R. He is also involved in money laundering for 'Ndrangheta section called El Dorado.
The police arrested him in 2013 during an operation against the Mafia clan Gallicianò.
He faced allegations of belonging to the Mafia association (a specific offense under Italian law) and money laundering. In 2014, however, the Supreme Court has cleared him for lack of evidence.
On the contrary, in 2017 the names of Antonino Vadala's family members appeared in an arrest warrant for 18 gang members who were supposed to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into Europe for 'Ndrangheta.
The Vadalas are only mentioned in the arrest warrant. Details of the case are not yet known.
Note: The conclusion of the article is missing as the author was not able to finish it.
In the memory of Ján Kuciak, our colleague and great journalist.
Intro to situation in Slovakia
Robert Fico (Prime Minister) has been in power since 2006, with the exception of a two-year period between 2010 and 2012, when the county was ruled by a right-wing coalition. His time in office has been characterized not only by numerous corruption scandals, but also a wide-spread feeling that even cases well documented by the media remain unpunished.
The Prime Minister (PM) has rarely been personally linked to any suspicions, with several notable exceptions. In the year 2010 the daily Sme released a recording, in which “a voice similar to Prime Minister Fico’s” (a phrase used by the local media to protect themselves against law-suits, which politicians often use against journalists) brags to politcal party Smer donors about “using my own head” to obtain 75 million Slovak crowns (€2.5 million) for the party coffers to finance the campaign of Smer. The finances never appeared on official accounts, Fico denied making the claim and the investigation of possible wrongdoing was stopped. In a second instance, an alleged secret-service file describes meetings between Fico and his right-hand-man František Határ and local oligarch Jaroslav Haščák, where they discuss black funding for the Smer campaign, as well as policy and personnel nominations.
For the last two years Smer has faced charges of covering up for VAT frauds of Ladislav Bašternák, a businessman close to Smer, who has done business with interior minister Robert Kaliňák and who owns the luxury apartment complex Bonaparte, where PM Fico lives with his family. Interestingly, the PM refuses to move out even as Bašternák is subject to criminal prosecution.
Bašternák has applied the active repentance principle and paid back €1.7 million which he received as VAT refunds in order to avoid criminal prosecution. But some lawyers disapprove of this method, according to a supreme court ruling, the active repentance principle cannot be applied to VAT refund frauds. At this moment, it is up to the special prosecutor, if the repentance principle is accepted in this case.
Eurofunds have been a constant source of concern in Slovakia – the country has repeatedly failed to draw the allocated funds, mainly due to an overcomplicated domestic application procedure, which critics claim was designed to keep the money in the hands of cronies. Allegations of fraud, abuse, and corruption in the distribution of eurofunds are also widespread. On the other hand, in areas such as public infrastructure they remain nearly the sole source of public investment.