Wirecard Probe in Philippines Focuses on Two Bankers Who May Have Forged Documents
|07/23/2020 | 07:00am|
By Feliz Solomon
Philippine investigators say they have identified dozens of people and entities of interest in their probe into Wirecard AG, and are focusing on two bank employees who may have facilitated a multinational accounting scandal at the insolvent German payments company.
Wirecard had claimed some $2.1 billion in cash on its balance sheet had been transferred to accounts at two Philippine banks. Both banks -- Banco de Oro and Bank of the Philippine Islands -- denied the accounts existed, and officials say the money never entered the country's financial system.
Wirecard later said the money probably never existed at all.
Mel Georgie Racela, executive director of the Philippines' Anti-Money Laundering Council, a government entity, said investigators are focusing on two "rogue bank employees" -- one from Banco de Oro and one from Bank of the Philippine Islands. He said the council's initial findings indicated they forged the documents that Wirecard used to mislead auditor Ernst & Young GmbH about the existence and location of the missing funds.
The two bank employees, who according to the initial findings were acting "in exchange for financial gain," have been fired. Mr. Racela said law-enforcement agencies would study the council's findings and consider possible criminal charges.
Mr. Racela said 55 other individuals and entities are among those the AMLC is seeking information on.
Banco de Oro and Bank of the Philippine Islands didn't respond to requests for comment.
Regulators, including Germany's top financial supervisor, have come under fire from investors and politicians for their failure to act earlier on concerns about Wirecard's accounting practices. Authorities in several countries including the U.K., Germany, Singapore and the Philippines have opened investigations into those practices.
Chuchi G. Fonacier, deputy governor of the Financial Supervision Sector at the Philippines' central bank, said the country's financial sector isn't to blame. "This will not tarnish the reputation of the Philippines because our strong oversight protocols proactively identified and addressed the issues," Ms. Fonacier said. "This case is evidence of bad actors, not evidence of any fault on the part of the Philippines banking system."
Among the people of interest to Philippine authorities is lawyer Mark Tolentino. Mr. Tolentino was identified on the forged bank documents as Wirecard's trustee, according to people familiar with the company. Mr. Racela said Mr. Tolentino is seen as a possible gatekeeper, a term for a lawyer or other nonfinancial associate who acts as a trusted go-between.
Mr. Tolentino didn't respond to requests for comment. He has previously denied through a statement issued by his lawyer that foreign currency accounts opened in the name of his law firm were linked to Wirecard, claiming he was the victim of identity theft.
German investigators have asked for the AMLC's assistance, Mr. Racela said. "If German authorities share information about some sort of criminal activity we will provide them with the necessary information," Mr. Racela said. "We're open to all options."
Wirecard's dramatic downfall began after a whistleblower in Singapore alerted compliance officers in 2018 that local finance staff forged documents to make the company appear more profitable. A Financial Times report about the whistleblower prompted an investigation by Singaporean authorities that is continuing.
Short-selling investors also alleged that Wirecard used third-party partners, tasked with collecting payments in countries where the company wasn't licensed to operate, to make the business look larger than it actually was. Three such partners, based in Dubai, Singapore and the Philippines, were found to account for a large share of Wirecard's revenue, according to a special audit conducted by KPMG AG and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Wirecard last October hired KPMG to conduct the special audit into the allegations. In April, KPMG said it couldn't confirm whether the revenue was real after third-party partners refused to cooperate.
The company's market value crashed when Wirecard's auditor, Ernst & Young, declined to sign off on the company's annual accounts because it doubted the authenticity of letters from the two Philippine banks supposed to be holding $2.1 billion in trustee managed accounts.
The third parties are now the focus of Munich prosecutors' investigation into Wirecard's collapse.
On Wednesday, the prosecutors arrested former Chief Executive Markus Braun -- who had previously been arrested and released on bail -- and two other former executives citing evidence suggesting they had made up income from the third parties starting in 2015 to make the company's loss-making businesses appear profitable. Mr. Braun has denied wrongdoing.
Mr. Braun's right-hand man, former Chief Operating Officer Jan Marsalek, has been on the run since being fired in late June. Philippines immigration records appearing to show Mr. Marsalek transited through the country may have been faked, officials have previously said. Recent reports by investigative journalism website Bellingcat and German news magazine Der Spiegel said he may be in Belarus or Russia. Authorities in both countries didn't respond to requests for comment.
--Paul J. Davies and Patricia Kowsmann contributed to this article.
Write to Feliz Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
This article was corrected at 1124 GMT because the original incorrectly spelled Markus Braun's name as Markus Brau.
This article was corrected at 1250 GMT because the original incorrectly stated that CEO Markus Braun was arrested was arrested on Tuesday. He was arrested on Wednesday.