By Elizabeth Hearst
Investigative journalism website Bellingcat has reported that Chief Operations Officer of Wirecard Jan Marsalek has escaped to Belarus.
The 40-year-old Austrian is wanted by German and Austrian authorities on charges of fraud and embezzlement after the German financial payment provider collapsed amid revelations almost €2 Billion was missing from the company.
Following allegations of financial misconduct in the Financial Times, independent auditors KPMG were brought in and discovered that billions thought to be “sitting in third party trustee accounts in East Asia” did not exist.
On the 18th June 2020 Wirecard’s management team were informed of the scandal and fired, resulting in the arrest of the company’s CEO Dr. Markus Braun. Following on from this, Marsalek allegedly told colleagues that he was “going to the Philippines to chase and find the missing billions to prove his innocence”.
Shortly after Marsalek went missing with airline and immigration records indicating he made his way to Manila on the 23rd June and then onwards to China Philippine authorities have said that these records had been forged on his behalf and they are unaware of his whereabouts. As reported by the Financial Times, he is now a person of interest to three western Intelligence Agencies.
The investigation by Bellingcat in collaboration with its investigative partners Der Spiegel and the Insider reportedly uncovered the location where Marsalek fled to after his dismissal. They allege Marsalek fled via private jet to the capital of Belarus, Minsk and have uncovered information which links the Russian FSB (Federal Security Services) to Marsalek after Russian immigration records suggest the FSB had a “long standing interest in Marsalek”, after he visited the country dozens of times in 15 years.
The Austrian businessman reportedly had visited Libya many times and was involved in the plans for “humanitarian reconstruction in Libya” with Russian advisors.
In a further peculiarity to this bizarre case, it is alleged that in 2018, Marsalek disclosed four highly sensitive classified documents from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to business partners in London. This took place in the period following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. Marsalek apparently also claimed that he possessed the full formula of Novichok, the deadly nerve agent used in the Skripal poisoning.
Under Bellingcat’s investigation, immigration data reviewed showed that Marsalek was a regular visitor to Russia, with over 60 trips taken in 10 years. Marsalek’s first trip to Russia was in 2004 and he did not travel again until 2010 when he joined the management board of Wirecard. The frequency of his trips increased with 10 trips to Moscow scheduled in 2014, and seven trips organised in 2015. Usually lasting only 24 hours, Marsalek travelled to Moscow and Kazan where he made a one-week visit in 2015.
In 2016 Marsalek’s Russian escapades totalled 16 flights where he flew using chartered business jets instead of commercial flights he used previously. The destinations and length of time spent in Russia also shifted, with flights chartered from a number of European and Asian cities to St.Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan.
However his jet-setting behaviour dramatically changed after September 2017. Marsalek flew from Munich to Moscow on 9th September 2017 and spent more than six days in Russia. When he tried to leave the country on 15th September, he was denied departure approval by the FSB and was detained for a number of hours before his departure at 17.35pm. It is believed that this was the last time that Marsalek travelled to Russia.
Marsalek used six different Austrian passports to gain access into the country but interestingly he also used an additional 3 passports – issued by an unnamed country to visit Russia. Marsalek also used a diplomatic passport issued by an unnamed state in immigration records, which is referred to as a “diplomatic passport issued to a non-citizen”.
Reporters also uncovered that the FSB monitored and collated all of Marsalek’s international trips, bar intra-EU trips, into a searchable database. This database included monitoring of Marsalek’s trips to Singapore, Istanbul and Dubai. While the motive behind the Russian intelligence is unclear, the database was instigated in 2015 which coincided with an increased frequency of trips.
Bellingcat argued that this tracking “may suggest either a working relationship began then and he was monitored or that he was tracked as a potential recruit”. The investigation agency have also mooted that Marsalek may have been “blackmailed through compromising material or incentivized into collaboration” after his detention at Moscow airport in 2017, or suggested that there may have been a “pre existing collaboration between him and a competing security agency – such as the GRU – the international activities of which the FSB may have been interested in monitoring”.This monitoring of Marsalek seems to have ceased at the end of 2018, according to Bellingcat.
Following on from the announcement on the 18th June 2020 that Marsalek was “extraordinarily suspended from Wirecard’s management board on a revocable basis until 30th June 2020”, he fled before an announcement could be made that he was an official suspect with an arrest warrant issued by German federal police.
Now the false trail he left for investigators can be revealed. Marsalek purchased plane tickets and had someone in the Philippines falsify immigration documents that he had arrived there. His point of contact with friends and colleagues alluded to the fact he was chasing the Asian sun, yet a flyaway comment made by Marselak to a former colleague led Handelsblatt to further investigate.
When asked if he was in a “politically stable environment”, Marsalek was jovial in his reply and said, “do not worry, the same people have been in power for the last 25 years”. Russia was therefore ruled out as President Putin came to power in the year 2000. This led reporters to look into Belarus, a politically stable former USSR country with deep ties to Russia and a sitting president Aleksander Lukashenka of 25 years.
Having combed through border crossing records for Belarus, Bellingcat discovered one entry for Jan Marsalek who was registered as entering into the country via private jet on the 19th June 2020. However, the listing did not include the flight number or origin of this jet, and as such Bellingcat inspected several commercial airport arrival and departure databases in order to verify this information.
After inspecting listings of all planes that arrived at Minsk Airport on that date and discovered that only one private jet had landed at 19.10hrs on the 18th June 2020. This jet had arrived from Estonia’s capital – Tallinn and following on from its clearance at Minsk, the jet flew on to the Belarus town of Vytebsk.
Investigations uncovered that this particular jet could be traced back to the Austrian town of Klagenfurt where it departed for Tallinn at 13.16pm, a time too early for Marsalek to catch after he was in the office for the morning briefing. The investigators pose a theory that Marsalek took a connecting flight from Munich via Frankfurt to Tallinn and from there connected to Minsk after chartering the private jet.
Further investigation into the whereabouts of Marsalek by Bellingcat have not proved to be fruitful, with no leads found from the Vienna-based charter-jet leasing company who were reached out to for comment. Furthermore the author moots that there could be a possibility that border-crossing data from Belarus and Russia may be tampered with to create a false lead, but any meddling in this would be a direct action of the FSB, thus potentially indicating a relationship between Marsalek and the FSB, should accusations prove true.