Failed Hypo Bank Owed €42m for Unbuilt Montenegro Resort

20 Jun 15
Failed Hypo Bank Owed €42m for Unbuilt Montenegro Resort

A mysterious tale involving two of the Balkan’s most powerful businessmen, 42m euros of risky loans and a Montenegrin luxury resort that was never built shines a light on the reckless lending that pushed Hypo Bank into bankruptcy.

Tanja Malle, Aida Ramusovic, Alexandra Siebenhofer and Ivan Angelovski
Vienna, Podgorica, Belgrade

Photo by: Alexandra Siebenhofer

Stricken Hypo Bank, nationalised under the weight of its colossal debt and mountains of risky loans, handed 42m euros of loans to an untested and opaque firm involved in a grandiose luxury tourism development in Montenegro which remains unbuilt eight years after the first tranche of money was handed over.

Documents seen by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reveal that Hypo Alpe Adria knew Austrian Billionaire Martin Schlaff and Serbian tycoon Vojin Lazarevic were linked to the scheme from the start, despite having no formal involvement with the borrower, Bigova Bay Doo.

The company, based in the coastal town of Kotor near the site of the planned development, was set up in 2006, just months before it first began applying to Austria’s Hypo for 20m euros to buy 100 hectares of land on an untouched cape which cuts into the turquoise water of the Adriatic.

Despite having no experience in the field, Hypo agreed to lend the money to Bigova Bay Doo in June 2007, using the land which was to be bought, Lazarevic’s family home in Kotor and promissory notes as collateral.

In the face of opposition from some local residents, Bigova Bay has struggled to acquire the land needed to embark on the development, which would have included hotels, a village modelled on a historic Mediterranean city and a marina.

But much of the land that has been bought by the firm was not officially registered as collateral for the loan and swathes of it were not even properly recorded as having been sold at the cadastral office.

The bank – which has since been sold, nationalised, bailed out with 7bn euros of Austrian taxpayers’ money and broken up – called in auditors PwC in 2009 to assess its deteriorating finances.

It uncovered dozens of risky loans including those to Bigova Bay. PwC estimated the Bigova Bay loan had just 8.5m euros of collateral putting the bank – and latterly Austrian taxpayers – at risk of losing at least 11.5m euros.

It is not clear how PwC came to that exact figure, but cadastral documents seen by BIRN reveal that in 2008 just 7 out of the 100 hectares of land had been officially registered as security on the loan, although Bigova Bay may have purchased significantly more without completing the legal process.

Analysis of more than 1,000 pages of real estate, banking and company accounts obtained from Montenegro, Serbia and Austria, also show that despite this earlier warning, Hypo awarded a second loan to Bigova Bay Doo for 22m euros in 2013.

Vojin Lazarevic
Photo by: Beta

The second loan was part of a complex deal between Martin Schlaff’s firm, Robert Placzek Holding, Vojin Lazarevic’s offshore company Aralsoft Limited and Hypo.

Schlaff’s Robert Placzek Holding became the official owner of the firm, taking on both the initial 20m euro and the subsequent 22m euro loans.

The second could not be spent on the Bigova Bay development but, instead, had to be used to pay off three apparently unrelated Hypo loans issued to two firms owned by Lazarevic which were “at risk of defaulting” according to a statement by Hypo Bank, under the terms of the lending agreement set by Heta Asset Resolution AG, the company formed to settle the banks ‘bad debts’.

As a result, the debt was transferred from the soon-to-be privatised Hypo Serbia to the Austrian-taxpayer owned Heta Asset Resolution.

Bigova Bay Doo now sits on 42m euros of debt without additional funds to invest in buying the remaining 10 hectares of land needed for the development, purchases Schlaff will now fund through his own companies.

Key to whether Bigova Bay Doo and Heta make a profit or loss will be the value of the land which, according to a real estate expert based in Kotor, could fetch anything between 10m and 50m euros.

A spokesman for Hypo told BIRN that while the original loan was risky, the second loan was organised to “improve the …legal position” of Heta Asset Resolution AG.

Rainer Hable, an MP for the small, liberal NEOS party and a member of the Austrian parliamentary committee currently holding an inquiry into the struggling lender, said it was “very likely” the issues uncovered by BIRN regarding both loans would be raised during the coming sessions.

“Unsecured loans [awarded] for goat pasture seem not to be unique cases at Hypo,” he said.

“The minutes of the credit hearing we obtained during the parliamentary hearings show that credits were issued that a normal bank would never have issued. Hypo was systematically pillaged while politicians were watching.”

He added that Schlaff may be called to give evidence so the committee can explore why the second, 22m euro loan was issued to Bigova Bay.

“Concerning the circumstances described, we must discover if after the bail-out Hypo was issuing loans without sufficient collateral,” he said.

Bigova’s complex ownership

Unlike the clear waters lapping Bigova’s shores, ownership and control of the firm set up to develop this stretch of coast has been murky.

Export-Import Bigova Bay Doo was registered in May 2006 by little known Vienna-based businessman Predrag Lupsic at an address in Kotor, listing ‘real estate development’ as its main activity.

Documents seen by BIRN reveal at the time of Bigova Bay’s loan application in 2007, Hypo knew Lazarevic was behind the scheme and that Schlaff had expressed an interest in investing in the project.

Hypo also gave Bigova Bay a generous three-year grace period on all repayments, a boon which has been rolled over in successive extensions to the loan agreement, meaning that it now has until 2018 to repay it.

The loan was secured against the value of the land at Bigova and promissory bank notes – which promised to pay a certain amount of money in case of default – signed by Lupsic.

Unusually, given Lazarevic’s unofficial links to the firm, the collateral also included promissory notes from Lazarevic and his palatial 1,400 square metre house in the heart of Kotor’s picturesque old town.

Palace Kotor
Photo by: BIRN

Kotor-born Lazarevic is among the richest Serb businessmen, according to Forbes, and is regularly listed as one of Serbia’s most influential figures. He is currently under investigation in Belgrade for his involvement in a series of allegedly “harmful” deals with the Serbian state electricity firm EPS, but has never been charged with an offence.

He denies any wrongdoing in connection with the Serbian investigation and also declined to answer BIRN’s questions about his involvement with Bigova Bay Doo.

The Lupsic family are no strangers to Lazarevic as Predrag’s father is Aleksandar Lupsic, an influential Serbian businessman who founded the Belgrade tabloid Blic. Aleksandar and Predrag have lived in Vienna for many years where Lupsic Sr. managed some of Lazarevic’s businesses based there.

Lupsic declined to answer BIRN’s questions when contacted.

On December 23, 2011, Lupsic sold his shares in Bigova Bay for just 1,000 euros to Aralsoft Limited, a Cypriot-based firm controlled by Lazarevic, according to official documents.

Schlaff officially took control of Bigova Bay Doo in 2013, although Hypo insiders say his interest in the project was common knowledge from the outset.

Official company documents show that on June 7, 2008, Moshe Russo, a board member of Schlaff’s Robert Placzek Holding, was appointed director of Bigova Bay.

Montenegro’s Ministry of Tourism was also confused about Bigova Bay Doo’s ownership structure, reporting inaccurately in 2011 that Robert Placzek Holding owned “almost 100 per cent of land” on the cape.

A spokesman for Robert Placzek told BIRN that it had turned down the opportunity to become a shareholder in 2008 because “the legal situation was too unclear” but that it had “secured an option to buy 50 per cent of the shares and – in exchange for that – invested a considerable amount in the project“.

“This investment came entirely from our own funds and no money of Hypo Alpe Adria was used. To secure our options, we asked and were granted a seat on the executive board.”

Schlaff’s career has been embroiled in controversy, including his telecoms and casino operations and close links to high-ranking Israeli politicians.

Just before the initial Bigova Bay loan was issued, Schlaff had played a critical role in brokering the sale of Serbia’s biggest mobile phone operator, Mobtel, in 2006 – a complex deal in which Hypo was also an important player.

This deal resulted in an Austrian fraud probe which the authorities later dropped without charging Schlaff. He was also named in two Israeli corruption investigations involving high level politicians in Tel Aviv which did not go to court.

Schlaff denies any wrongdoing in connection with the above.

A spokesman for the billionaire told BIRN that his intervention in Bigova Bay Doo had saved Heta from a “considerable loss”.

Insufficient collateral

Bigova Plan

The land owned by Bigova Bay was to have been developed into four separate tourist resorts:

MARINA VILLAGE: A tourist resort modelled on historic Mediterranean cities complete with compact settlements, narrow streets, squares, parks and a dock for 150 vessels.

ZABICA RESORT: Similar to Marina Village

CAPE ESTATE: An isolated resort with villas for the most exclusive clients.

PARK TERRACE: Similar to Cape Estate.

Only electric vehicles were to have been allowed in the entire development.

Two hotels, one in MARINA VILLAGE, another in ZABICA RESORT, were also earmarked for construction.

Bigova Bay Doo failed to register swathes of the land that it had bought at the cadastral office and to record that it was collateral for the 2007 loan, official documents reveal.

As a result, Hypo would have struggled to reclaim the land in the event of a default.

As the scale of Hypo Alpe Adria’s mounting debts emerged in 2009, auditor PWC was called in to assess the health of its loan book and highlighted the Bigova Bay loan as a considerable risk.

According to PwC, the collateral provided by Bigova Bay Doo, including the land itself, was only worth 8.5m euros.

Bigova Bay’s debt to Hypo, then standing at 22.9m euros because of the additional interest, was listed in “risk group 2” out of three tiers.

Regarding “risk group 2”, the report notes: “The value from selling these securities is probably not sufficient to pay off the loan.”

Contracts obtained by BIRN show Lupsic started to buy land from local owners at 25 euros per square metre from the summer of 2006.

To date, almost 90 hectares have been bought but the firm has faced resistance from local landowners who have been unwilling to sell.

The loan agreement from June 2007 seen by BIRN shows the money was to be spent on securing 100 hectares for the development, including “refinancing” some earlier land transactions.

Following the purchase of land, Bigova Bay was required to register the land at the cadastral and record that it was being used as security for the loan.

But official documents reveal that by June 2008, just 7 hectares had been registered as collateral.

‘Unusual’ deal

Despite concerns about Bigova Bay’s initial loan, Hypo agreed in April 2013 to lend a further 22m euros to the firm.

Hypo stipulated that the money could not be used to buy the remaining land needed to advance the scheme, but must instead be used to pay off apparently unrelated loans totalling 22m euros taken out by two companies owned by Lazarevic from the bank’s Belgrade branch.

The loans had been issued to Navy Invest, a ship-building firm, and Rudnap, an energy-trading company.

It is not clear why Lazarevic, who declined to comment, could not repay the 22m euro debt, which Hypo said was at risk of default, or why the bank did not have collateral it could call upon.

At the same time as the 2013 loan agreement went through, Lazarevic sold Bigova Bay Doo to Schlaff through Robert Placzek, for 1,000 euros.

Thus Schlaff became, for the first time, the owner of Bigova Bay through his firm Robert Placzek Holding with 42m euros of debt to repay and remaining land to buy from his own resources.

According to official records, at the time of the sale to Schlaff, 60 hectares of land was registered as security to the loan and a further 27 hectares of land was either recorded as owned by Bigova Bay and unsecured or had not been lodged at the cadastral office at all.

Schlaff’s private trust, MS Privatstiftung, agreed to provide an additional cash security of 12.9m euros from his trust fund MS Privatstiftung until the remaining 27 hectares were properly recorded as collateral, which he is now close to achieving.

He is also expected to fund the purchase of the remaining 10 hectares through his own funds. Lazarevic, on the other hand, no longer owned Bigova Bay but had 22m euros of debt owed to Hypo Serbia repaid in full.

And Heta, Hypo’s bank responsible for its bad debt, was now owed 42m euros by Bigova Bay.

In answer to BIRN’s questions as to why the bank decided to lend Bigova Bay Doo another 22m euros, despite concerns raised about the initial 20m euro loan, a Heta spokesman insisted the change of ownership to Schlaff was “in Heta’s interest and had been initiated by Heta”.

The spokesman insisted the 2013 loan was not an additional loan as such but rather “a rescheduling of an old loan [that was] at risk of default” and that the new agreement had strengthened Heta’s legal position and reduced its financial risk.

“We emphasise that the MS Privatstiftung, Robert Placzek AG and Bigova Bay have since then fulfilled all obligations…we see no reason why our new business partners will not fulfil its obligations in the future,” he added.

Financial expert Bojan Brankovic told BIRN: “What you described is not a standard banking procedure, but it’s not a forbidden way of carrying out risk management.”

Future plans

Two independent sources – one close to the bank and the other from the municipality of Kotor – have raised questions about whether the development, due to be completed in 2012, will even go ahead.

To date, 90 out of the 100 hectares have been purchased.

Schlaff also unsuccessfully bid for a neighbouring piece of land in 2014 which he had hoped to incorporate into the scheme, although a spokesman for the Austrian said it was not critical to the development.

The tender board, chaired by tourism minister Branimir Gvozdenovic, rejected the sole bid from Robert Placzek Holding because it said it had not met key conditions or provided sufficient documents.

This is the second time Schlaff’s attempt to secure the land – a former military site – has failed, as in 2009, despite being the sole bidder, Robert Placzek attempt to buy the land outright, rather than the long-term lease that was being offered, was rejected.

Bigova Bay Doo last year submitted a request for the municipality of Kotor to begin the process of building a road to the original site and connecting it with water and electricity, costing an estimated 13m euros.

While the request has in theory been approved, a high-ranking source at the municipality told BIRN it would not begin until the town hall was convinced the development would go ahead.

The senior figure added that Bigova Bay Doo still had to acquire land before being able to go ahead with the scheme.

“The municipality will not start doing anything until it gets strong assurances from the investor that it will start building,” the source said.

Now the company faces fresh questions over its loans from Hypo after Austria’s parliamentary committee investigating the troubled bank said it would look into BIRN’s findings.

“If necessary, Martin Schlaff shall be summoned to appear before the parliamentary enquiry commission, in order to ascertain the truth,” MP Hable told BIRN.

This story was produced as part of the BIRN Summer School for Investigative Reporting programme and its project, a Paper Trial to Better Governance.

Source: Balkan Insight (Montenegro)