Malta Leaks Playing the Shell Game in the Mediterranean
Part 2: A Workaholic with a Trio of Management Positions
A report compiled by the Green Party caucus in the European Parliament and completed last November reached the conclusion that the German chemical giant had saved some 923 million euros in taxes between 2010 and 2014 by way of intricate structures. Those structures also included Malta and the company based in the Mayfair building. The Malta subsidiary lent money to other BASF subsidiaries and when politicians sought to limit or prevent such activity, BASF allegedly lobbied heavily against such measures. When the report came out, BASF said it was "not completly accurate," but it didn't provide any details.
And what about the car rental company Sixt? Nobody from the company was there at the moment, said the man in the denim shirt (though he later denied having said it). When will they be back? He professed not to know. But, he says, nobody from Sixt will speak to the press, so it would be best to call the press office in Germany.
It's the same story one floor below. Next to the door is a sign listing two Limiteds belong to Puma, the German sportswear company, and a third, Puma Ltd., is marked on the mailbox in the stairwell. There are also two Limiteds belonging to K+S, the commodities company Kali und Salz, which was listed on Germany's DAX blue-chip stock index until last year. There are also two firms listed for KSPG Automotiv, the automotive supplier belonging to Rheinmetall. Again, there is but a single buzzer for all of them, but it is actually labelled Jacobs -- the company belonging to Mr. Braun on the top floor. In addition, there is a sticker reading: "Please deliver registered mail and parcels to the 6th floor." In other words, Mr. Braun also apparently receives mail on behalf of the German companies.
We ring and a woman opens the door. She says that she is with K+S, but requests that all further questions be referred to the press office. The office floor has two external doors with windows, though which three rooms are visible. The inside doors are open and behind them are glass windows, tiled floors and nothing else. They are completely empty. A fourth office, which is visible through the other door, is also empty. There is, though, a printer in one room and a desk in another, though it looks unused. Such are the offices of K+S, Rheinmetall and Puma in Malta -- not much going on for such prestigious names.
So we head back upstairs to BASF and Sixt, but this time, nobody answers the door. Later, though, we find Mr. Casual Wear, the man in the denim shirt, in the internet. His name is Pall Arnason, attended university in Iceland and must be a true workaholic. On LinkedIn, he reports having three employers and three jobs concurrently. He claims to be "executive manager" of BASF Finance Malta GmbH, a position he has held "since May 2014." He has also been "finance manager" of K+S Finance Limited "since November 2015" and, most interestingly, he lists himself as "senior manager" of Jacobs Management Limited, Peter Braun's company on the sixth floor. In other words, a Jacobs man is holding down the fort for BASF and K+S.
'No Further Details'
The German companies that have offices in the Mayfair building, not surprisingly, have a different story to tell. The K+S press office later writes that the company does not share employees with other companies in the building. The Malta subsidiary, the press office insists, has four employees of its own in an office of 65 square meters (700 square feet), fully furnished, everything on the up-and-up, also when it comes to taxes. But the press office does say that K+S Finance Ltd. is in Malta due to tax considerations. "Taxes are a significant cost factor considered in business decisions. In the interest of our shareholders, K+S takes steps to reduce this cost factor."
Puma says that it founded two companies on Malta so that it could take part in a regatta there, which is a plausible, if far-fetched, explanation. Only after a follow-up question does Puma confirm the existence of a third company, Puma Blue Sea Ltd., which has more to do with finances than with a regatta. The company claims that all three companies were closed down at the end of 2014, but two of them still haven't been annulled.
Rheinmetall sent a terse statement saying that the German tax authorities were aware of the two finance subsidiaries on Malta and that the companies also had their "own employees." The BASF statement was even shorter, just seven lines long, though it did little to provide clarity. The Malta-based company was required to pay taxes in Germany, the statement said, though it also mentioned the Maltese tax refund. "No further details" would be provided, the statement said.
Sixt, by contrast, was a bit more forthcoming. The Sixt subsidiary employs six people in an office measuring 130 square meters (1,400 square feet), the statement claimed, and the office is occupied every day. On the day of SPIEGEL's visit, the statement said, employees were in the office "continuously," and the company later submitted three sworn declarations to back up the claim. Apparently, then, it isn't necessary to have a listed telephone number for tasks such as recruiting "international executives," supervising franchise partners or providing funds to company branches -- which are three out of a list of several tasks undertaken by the Malta subsidiary, at least according to the commercial register.
A Malta-based subsidiary belonging to the poultry firm Wesjohann even has a listed telephone number. A man answers, clearly annoyed that a caller would have the gumption to try three times in a single afternoon to reach such a minor Ltd., with its negligible assets of 145 million euros. The man says he is currently overseas and prefers not to be bothered with additional phone calls -- making it sound as though the Malta office was rather sparsely occupied. Later, company headquarters in Germany provided a four-line statement in answer to 13 questions. The German tax authorities are aware of the Malta subsidiary, the statement said, and the it was completely legal.
Which leaves Peter Braun, the specialist for German companies in Malta in his sixth-floor office. He admits to accepting larger letters or packages for K+S, but says it is more of an exception than the rule -- to ensure that nothing clutters up the hallways. And the empty offices? He says that there are indeed a couple of unused offices on the floor where K+S is located and that the building owner is seeking to rent them out to a different tenant. But Braun claims to have nothing to do with K+S and says he doesn't know anything about who works for whom, like Arnason, who claims to work for both Braun and K+S.
Business life in Malta is apparently rather colorful, but it is only on special occasions that politicians in Northern Europe pay much attention. During election campaigns, for example. On Wednesday, May 10, just a few days before the important vote in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state's finance minister, Norbert Walter-Borjans of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), went after Malta during a press conference. The campaign wasn't going well for the SPD and Walter-Borjans used the press appearance to gloat about a list of 70,000 Malta-based companies that had been passed on to him -- apparently the same list that the EIC network and SPIEGEL had obtained. The SPD politician referred to Malta as the "Panama of Europe" and said that around 2,000 of the companies were of interest from the perspective of German taxpayers. Previously, only 260 such companies had been known, he said. It sounded like Walter-Borjans was taking a tough stance on tax fairness and the politician received the headlines he had been hoping for.
A tax investigator from North Rhine-Westphalia who is familiar with the list of companies has been complaining about Malta for years. "When I read Malta, the alarm bells go off," he says. But even the new list might not make the fight any easier. "According to Maltese law, most of it is legal. Malta lives off the system. The fact that it hurts other countries is something the Maltese take in stride."
One question, in particular, must be addressed in each specific case: Do the companies based in Malta have a physical presence? Do they have offices, employees, board meetings or business operations? Or are they just hiding a tax structure behind a fake address -- as could be the case in the Mayfair building? Should the latter be the case, German tax authorities are then allowed to attribute Maltese income to the Germany-based parent company and tax it accordingly.
"The system in Malta is of course precisely designed to attract companies without a physical presence," says Matthew Vella, a journalist with Malta Today who has made plenty of enemies on the island with such sentences. But Kenneth Farrugia, the chief lobbyist for the Maltese financial branch, is immovable. "If Germany were to think that the physical presence of Malta-based companies was insufficient, German tax authorities would turn off the lights. But this doesn't happen," he says.
'We're Not Talking'
That is also the case when it comes to Lindsell Finance Ltd., a company that has belonged to Deutsche Bank since 2008 and which has its offices in Level 2 West of the Mercury Tower in St. Julian's. When we went to the building and asked about Lindsell, however, we were told that the company is registered at the site but doesn't have an office. Later, Deutsche Bank was vague in response to questions about the company. The firm, Deutsche Bank claimed, had only been established for a client and had since, along with two additional Maltese subsidiaries, been liquidated.
Automaker BMW, with its 200-square-meter office, appears to be playing by the rules. Around a half-dozen employees, who actually have the appearance of business people, are sitting in the office beneath a handful of BMW posters on the walls. One of them, who introduces himself as James, leads us into the conference room. He begins by telling us that there are three BMW subsidiaries in Malta and is just about to tell us what they are called and what they do -- and again, there is one with the word "finance" in its name.
But then he stops and asks again why we are interested and "um, where are you from again? Hmm. One moment." He leaves the room, presumably to make a phone call -- and the odds are that the first word out of his mouth when he returns will be "unfortunately," "I'm afraid," or "sorry." In the event, "unfortunately" wins. James stammers something about "confidentiality reasons" and then leads us out.
The press office in Munich later provides five reasons for why the finance subsidiary BMW Malta Finance is located on the island: good personnel, political stability, etc. The list doesn't include the country's low rate of taxation. The statement insists that the company of course obeys the law and lives up to its "societal responsibilities."
It is possible to spend one's entire day in Malta in this way: ring the buzzer, "we're not talking," press office, everything is just fine. Or one can just talk to the man from Osiris Corporate Services Limited. He doesn't want to tell us his name: "Look in the register," he suggests in an impeccable Oxford accent. "It's all there." And it is. The man is named Stuart Peter Blackburn, a 70-year-old from England. But apart from his name, there aren't many questions he won't answer.
Behind his door, several Maltese subsidiaries belonging to European corporations are headquartered. The more one asks how things are generally done, the more distinct becomes the tone in his voice that can best be translated as: "How naïve can you be?" Of course nobody from these companies work here, Blackburn says. "This is just the address. A company has to have an address in Malta, that is the law and I obey it." Whether he thinks it appropriate? "I'm not here to comment on the rules, it's all legal."
Lower Taxes for Superyachts
He is there to deliver the address, as do hundreds of others working in the same industry in Malta. Like the young woman working for a different law firm who was visited recently by a reporter from frontal21, a show broadcast by German public television channel ZDF. The reporter acted as though he was interested in founding a company and the woman assured him that she could offer the complete Malta package, including an address, personnel and everything needed to make it look as though it were a real company. "There are many like me here, a great many," says Blackburn, the Englishman. He suggests that we "look in the corporate register" for answers to further questions, adding that none of it is a secret in Malta.
The register can be found next to the Malta Financial Services Authority, located on an inland bypass road, and for 20 euros per company, it is indeed possible to get information. We went there looking for information about Cloverleaf Yachting Ltd., a company registered on April 11, 2016, to Johannes B. Kerner, the German television star. The corporate objective is listed as the purchase, sale, leasing and construction of "ships of any kind."
According to the register, Kerner is still the company's chief partner. At the beginning, he was also its director, but he gave up the post on Jan. 1, 2017, handing it over to a woman who has the same Maltese address as the German lawyer Jörg Werner, who established the company on Kerner's behalf.
Why? "We don't give any interviews," we are told. But on his homepage, Werner is much more forthcoming. "We focus on consulting international clients to reduce their tax burden, especially by benfiting from the location's advantages (Maltese tax law)," the website reads. When Kerner was asked about Cloverleaf Yachting a couple of months ago, he declined to comment, saying it was a private matter. One assumes that most Germans with companies in Malta would say the same.
There are, though, a few obvious reasons to locate in Malta if a company has the word "yachting" in its name. Malta has Europe's largest maritime register and the EU member state also actively tries to attract yacht owners with special VAT offers. The standard VAT level is 18 percent, but the longer the vessel, the cheaper it becomes. The justification: Larger yachts spend much of their time in international waters and are not subject to taxation during those periods. A 23-meter (75-foot) yacht, for example, is only taxed at a rate of 7.2 percent. But the taxes on an 11-meter sailboat is also just half of the base rate. As such, it's no wonder that the number of superyachts -- vessels 24 meters and longer -- has climbed by 11 percent in Malta since 2015.
Did Kerner found his company to save taxes on a yacht, though he's not known to be a seaman? His lawyer says that Kerner hasn't leased a yacht, claiming that tax advantages in Malta only apply to those who lease. So why Malta? Kerner insists that it is a private matter and completely legal -- and is unwilling to say more.
Others can't hide quite so easily -- because their yachts are simply too big. Tchibo heir Günter Herz, the Würth family -- which owns an immense industrial fastener company -- and the artificial limb producer Hans Georg Näder (whose company is called Otto Bock) are all registered in the Maltese corporate register with their megayachts. The Würth family declined to respond to SPIEGEL inquiries. Näder spoke of "normal financial leasing" and claimed it was all legal and transparent and that the German tax authorities had been informed. Herz said that he paid the appropriate VAT in Malta and echoed Näder's claims regarding legality.
Deception, Cover-Ups and Denials
But the situation makes it look as though the richest Germans with the biggest megayachts -- the vessel belonging to the Würth family, for example, is 85 meters long and cost 141 million euros at the time of purchase -- are rather parsimonious when it comes to paying their fair share to the German state. As distasteful as it might seem, most of the Malta subsidiaries belonging to German companies and corporations are legal. Not just because Malta designed its laws to accommodate them. But also because Brussels and Berlin tolerate such laws and allow Malta to continue. As such, laying blame with Malta also necessitates pointing fingers at the political shortcomings of others and noting the fact that German politicians are fully aware of the issue. They may voice frustration, but they have done nothing.
Politically, after all, Malta is uninterested in budging. No matter whether the center-left or the center-right are in control, they agree on one thing: Both parties want Malta to remain a tax haven. To do so, they aren't above deception, cover-ups and denials. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, for example, recently told the European Parliament's committee of inquiry into the Panama Papers, which was visiting from Brussels, that Malta isn't a tax haven. It wasn't as easy as just pointing to Malta's 5 percent tax rate, he said.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is fond of insisting that tax rates are purely national affairs and Malta will continue to maintain control of its own. Including that of the extremely low ones. Luckily for the country, tax issues in the EU must be decided unanimously, a principle that Malta defends vigorously -- with the consequence that Maltese Economics Minister Christian Cardona hails his country's booming finance sector and the "attractive tax environment" for companies.
The country wants to ensure that nothing changes. On the contrary: "Malta would like to attract additional foreign companies that are interested in centralizing their regional or global financial arrangements," reads a German-language image brochure. The flier also includes Malta's eternal mantra -- that the EU and the OECD have "approved" the country's tax system. Malta, in short, is eager to present itself as a model member of Europe and happy to be in the EU - while at the same time aggressively defending its national privileges.
One example is provided by an investment handbook produced by FinanceMalta, the partially state-owned financial sector lobbying group, even before Malta proudly took over the rotating presidency of the European Council in January. The handbook clearly laid out why holding the Council presidency was beneficial: It would provide the country with an opportunity to influence key EU decisions, including on the "fiscal front," where Malta would "stand its ground."
Testing the Limits of Legality
In April, Malta took the next step and presented a discussion paper at a meeting of EU finance ministers. After the shock of the Panama Papers revelations, the country recommended that care be taken with legal changes. Rapid shifts, the discussion paper noted, would unsettle corporations and would hamstring Europe in the competition with other regions of the world that aren't quite as serious about combatting tax evasion.
The European Parliament's Panama Papers inquiry committee has had a particularly difficult time with Malta. Prime Minister Muscat is scheduled to testify in front of the committee in mid-June, but it is unclear whether he will show up. Finance Minister Scicluna already skipped his own appointment in January. When the committee sent a delegation to Malta in February, the minster was quick to show annoyance when asked why so many Maltese consultants were mentioned in the Panama Papers. Providing advice isn't illegal, he snapped testily.
The limits of legality, however, were perhaps tested a bit more directly by his colleagues in government, two of whom were revealed by the Panama Papers to be in possession of shell companies -- including then-Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and the prime minister's right-hand man, Keith Schembri. Mizzi had a foundation in New Zealand, which he claimed, in testimony to the EU committee, was completely legal. Schembri, for his part, cancelled his appointment with the Brussels delegation just minutes before he was scheduled to appear, claiming that the MEPs didn't have the right to question him.
"Malta is blocking the committee," complains Fabio De Masi, who is a member of the committee of inquiry on behalf of the German Left Party. Fellow committee member Sven Giegold, of the Green Party, says that Malta's obstruction is an "impertinence." Malta still hasn't answered a list of questions the committee sent out to all 28 EU member states.
All of that, though, could be but a foretaste of what might become the biggest political scandal in Malta's history. Three weeks ago, Prime Minister Muscat made a surprising call for snap elections, scheduled for June 3. The decision was triggered by reports that his wife Michelle allegedly maintained a shell company in Panama, into which more than a million dollars has reportedly flowed. The sender is thought to be Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of the president of Azerbaijan.
Back to Mr. Braun
Should the allegations prove true, it would be a truly bizarre episode. One of Malta's main focuses during its stint as European Council president is the push for stricter money laundering regulations. Some say that Malta is pushing hard against money laundering so that, in return, its tax system will remain untouched. Now, however, Muscat's wife is facing allegations of corruption and money laundering.
The couple has angrily rejected the allegations, saying they are an invention of dubious provenance. But opposition politicians believe that Muscat may have been bribed. They point to the fact that the prime minister, his chief aide Schembri and then-Energy Minister Mizzi flew to Azerbaijan without expert officials and came home with a deal requiring Malta to buy liquid natural gas from the country for 18 years. The price is considered a state secret -- which has fueled speculation.
The presumption of innocence applies, of course. But even if there is nothing behind the accusations, there are still plenty of reasons to approach Malta and its politicians with skepticism. Why, though, do leading EU economies, particularly Germany, refrain from exerting sufficient political pressure on the country to force it to change its tax laws? Because, De Masi believes, they're not interested in such changes either -- at least not at all costs. "It is like at a mafia dinner," he says. "They all have their weapons in their hands under the table, and if one begins shooting, they all will."
De Masi says that Malta isn't the only country that has something to lose. The larger countries are interested in protecting their companies, which are profiting from the tax structures -- and which exert pressure on politicians so that they can continue enjoying tax savings in the EU and not on some offshore island at the end of the world. Plus, he says, the EU already has enough stress with Brexit, and tiny little Malta also has to make a living somehow. That, at least, is De Masi's list of explanations for Europe's collective shoulder shrug when it comes to Malta's tax haven ways.
And that is why it remains unlikely that tax investigators will show up any time soon at the Mayfair building to test for signs of physical presence at companies such as BASF, Sixt or K+S. Instead, one has to make do with the mailman test at shortly after 10 a.m. on a morning in May. The postman jumps off his scooter, strides quickly to the collection of mailboxes at the entrance and begins distributing envelopes. Two or three go to K+S. But BASF gets nothing, and neither does Rheinmetall or the six employees of Sixt that are allegedly slaving away up on the fifth floor.
As it happens, the commercial register lists a director for Sixt International Services in Malta. His name is Mr. Braun. Peter Braun. On the sixth floor.
By Jürgen Dahlkamp, Christoph Henrichs, Gunther Latsch, Christoph Pauly and Jörg Schmitt
- Part 1: Playing the Shell Game in the Mediterranean
- Part 2: A Workaholic with a Trio of Management Positions