Hermitage Says Raid Led to Identity Theft

Hermitage Capital Management, the $3 billion hedge fund run by William Browder, says it is a victim of corporate identity theft, according to legal filings sent to prosecutors in Russia and the Channel Islands.

Hermitage says the attack began with an inquiry by Moscow tax officials into a Cyprus-based account it managed. Last June, Interior Ministry investigators raided the Moscow offices of Hermitage and its lawyers at Firestone & Duncan, according to court filings by a unit of HSBC Holdings, the trustee and administrator of the fund. They took Hermitage's corporate seal, tax registration and charter, according to the filings.

A month later, Hermitage, once the largest foreign owner of Russian stocks, was defended by lawyers it did not hire in a lawsuit in St. Petersburg that it did not know about, the complaints said. The court ordered Hermitage to pay $367 million, a ruling that has since been reversed, documents show.

"None of these events or actions could have occurred, including the falsification of new corporate bylaws and the powers of attorney, without those responsible having gained access to the original corporate documentation and corporate seals seized by the Interior Ministry," wrote Paul Wrench, a director at HSBC's Guernsey branch, in a complaint to the Guernsey Financial Intelligence Service dated Feb. 13.

Wrench filed similar complaints to the Prosecutor General's Office and the Interior Ministry's internal affairs division in Moscow in December. The ministry's investigative unit, the one Hermitage and HSBC says employs the people behind the campaign, said Feb. 5 that it would investigate the charges.

Pierre Goad, a spokesman for HSBC in London, declined to comment Friday.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Kiselyova declined to comment, as did Browder, a U.S. native and British citizen who has campaigned against waste and mismanagement at some of the country's largest companies, including Gazprom. Wrench did not respond to calls seeking comment.

In all, at least six lawsuits against Hermitage funds and companies totaling $1.5 billion in claims have been filed since the Moscow raids, all but one of which have been reversed, a Hermitage spokesman said, declining to be identified because the cases are pending.

Browder has campaigned to renew his visa since it was revoked without explanation in 2005. He petitioned First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev directly at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 28, 2007.

Kommersant said Thursday that Browder had been charged in absentia with evading more than 4 billion rubles ($169 million) in taxes. Kiselyova, the Interior Ministry spokeswoman, denied Friday that Browder was charged and declined to comment on Hermitage's accusations.

A critic of corporate mismanagement in the country since 1996, Browder, has supported Putin and defended the Kremlin's campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was the county's richest man before he was arrested in October 2003 and sentenced to eight years in a Siberian penal colony on fraud and tax-evasion charges.