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FRAUD

Julius Meinl V faces breach-of-trust charges

In a long-awaited move, the British scion of the Meinl family -- once called the most hated man in Austria -- now faces charges for breach-of-trust in connection with the illicit distribution of a €212 million dividend from the private bank he ran in 2009.

Julius Meinl V faces breach-of-trust charges
Julius Meinl V. Photo: APA

On Wednesday, Thomas Vecsey of the Vienna public prosecutor's office confirmed that billionaire Julius Meinl V, along with fellow Meinl Bank board members Peter Weinzierl and Günter Weiss, as well as former supervisory board members Robert K. and Karl H., had been charged in relation to 'dishonest' bank transactions.

Meinl, 55, and four other people were charged with breach of trust and attempted fraudulent insolvency because the dividend paid for the 2008 business year illegally diminished the bank’s capital, according to Christina Salzborn, a spokeswoman for the Vienna criminal court. If convicted, the defendants could each face up to ten years in prison.

The specific focus of the current indictment relates to the distribution of a bank dividend amounting to nearly €212 million in early 2009.  According to prosecutors, the bank, which has been led by Meinl since he was 24 years old, was 'impoverished' by the payment of this dividend.

According to the prosecution, this dividend should not have been paid, because the bank's involvement in the troubles of the real-estate investment company Meinl European Land (MEL) threatened claims in the range of hundreds of millions of euros.

The private bank would therefore be obligated to make provisions in its balance sheet for potential losses in 2008.

The prosecutors’ allegations are “absurd,” contradict the facts and won’t hold up in court, Thomas Huemer, a spokesman for Meinl Bank, said in an e-mail.

MEL was involved in some alleged shady dealings, which saw 60,000 investors – both small and large – lose an estimated €5 billion (£4.55 billion).

In 2008, an investigation was commenced in Austria into the collapse in value of shares in MEL. The same year, a parallel investigation was commenced in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, Meinl European Land being a Jersey-registered company.

On 1 April 2009, a judge ordered the Austrian-born Meinl to be arrested following an interrogation by Vienna prosecutors. Meinl, who was at that time suspected of involvement in yet-to-be defined wrongdoing, was required to post bail of €100 million, because the judge considered him a flight risk due to his holding a British passport. 

Speaking shortly after his release from two days in prison, he said: "I am the most hated man in Austria. I have come to terms with the fact that I am public property."

According to the news daily Kurier, the indictment will be officially delivered to the suspects and their lawyers after the holidays.  From then on, the accused have fourteen days to file an appeal against the indictment.

Meinl insists that descriptions of him as an Anglophile are incorrect – he regards himself as thoroughly British after his family fled Nazi persecution in Austria for England, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, because of its Jewish background.

In January, Meinl was elected as president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC), a sub-organization of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Jerusalem.  Meinl says his main priority is to fight anti-semitism.

Meanwhile, Meinl may still be haunted by a popular humourous song in Austria, which compares him to other alleged corrupt politicians and bankers, including disgraced politician Karl-Heinz Grasser, who is facing possible charges in connection with alleged tax avoidance, some €9 million of which is allegedly linked to the Meinl property deal.

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FRAUD

Suspected Austria bitcoin fraud sparks Europe-wide probe

Authorities investigating a suspected bitcoin-related scam centred in Austria have asked Interpol to help determine whether there might be perpetrators - and victims - of the scheme across Europe.

Suspected Austria bitcoin fraud sparks Europe-wide probe
PHOTO: JACK GUEZ / AFP
“Hundreds” of people across Austria have complained of being defrauded by the “Optioment” scheme dealing in the digital currency, Christina Ratz, spokeswoman for the Vienna public prosecutor's office, told AFP on Thursday. Die Presse, a daily, put the number of possible victims as high as 10,000.
 
Two Austrians have been identified as being accused of fraud in the case, with more suspects possible as the case progresses, Ratz said.
 
Investors were promised returns of up to four percent per week for investing bitcoins into the opaque scheme, which initially did offer dividends before suddenly collapsing in November.
 
In January Austria's financial market watchdog brought Optioment to the attention of prosecutors, saying it suspected fraud, a pyramid scheme or violations of capital markets regulations.
 
The scheme appears to have used “multi-level marketing” in order to grow, with investors encouraged to find new clients themselves.
 
“I got my whole family involved. We put around 50 bitcoins in. The money's gone. I'm sure of it,” one young woman told a joint investigation by Die Presse and the public ORF TV station.
 
Another investor recalled an event promoting the scheme at the Pyramide hotel in Voesendorf, just south of Vienna: “They ran on stage and started running around, they were playing air guitar. It felt like a cult”.
 
Reports of the number of bitcoins invested in the scheme go as high as 12,000, worth around €95 million at current value, or more than double that at the peak of the boom in the currency.
 
Lawyers acting for the Austrians identified as the frontmen for the scheme issued a statement saying their clients did not handle any cash or bitcoins themselves, Die Presse reports.
 
The paper reported the men as saying that they were themselves defrauded by two mysterious figures behind the scheme, a Danish man, Lucas M., and a Latvian, Alex P.