Hermitage Hits Back Over Tax Allegations

For MTA page from Hermitage's dossier, describing how a lawyer working for the fund was allegedly beaten and hospitalized.
Hermitage Capital Management on Thursday hit back against what it said was a personal attack on its chief executive, William Browder, after a newspaper reported that he would face tax-evasion charges.

In a front-page story Thursday, Kommersant cited police sources as saying that security forces had issued an arrest warrant for Browder, the Hermitage CEO and Ivan Cherkasov, the fund's general manager.

Citing unidentified police sources, the paper said the executives were being charged in absentia for using a Cyprus-registered firm to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes.

But on Thursday, the Moscow city police denied that any tax-evasion charges had been filed and said they did not know where the leak for the story had come from.

"The Moscow police issued no arrest warrant for Browder and no tax evasion case is pending against him as far as we know," spokeswoman Anzhela Katuyeva said by telephone.

Hermitage, for several years the largest Russia-focused hedge fund, responded to the story by circulating a lively and strongly worded 61-page dossier, rebutting the allegations and in turn accusing some Interior Ministry officials of a heavy-handed campaign of harassment against the company.

The dossier, titled, "Criminal Justice -- Russian Style," and including clip art of police beating a man, burglars and a hospitalized beating victim, said the tax case against Browder, who was barred from entering Russia in November 2005 on national security grounds, was "a personal attack" on him for "fighting against corrupt officials in Russia."

It also said Browder asked First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos for his personal help in restoring Browder's visa. Medvedev offered Browder his support, the flow chart-style dossier said, showing an arrow with a visa pointing to Browder.

Zhanna Odintsova, a spokeswoman for Medvedev, the president-elect, said by telephone Thursday evening that she did not have enough information to confirm the meeting.

"As far as we know, Medvedev kept his promises by handing over Bill Browder's documents to the immigration services," a Hermitage representative said by telephone late Thursday. "He cannot come back here as long as these uncertainties continue. There's just no way to focus on Russia when forged claims are made against the company."

The representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Hermitage decided to release the dossier after a tip-off from a Kommersant reporter that unnamed Interior Ministry officials were leaking information.

"We were advised not to make [any] noise about the case, so that it could be settled quietly," the representative said. "But we can no longer fold our arms if some Interior Ministry people are leaking false information about our company."

In mid-2007, the Interior Ministry launched a tax evasion investigation into Cyprus-based Kameya, which they claimed belonged to Hermitage. Hermitage has insisted that it only advises Kameya, and that the authorities used the claims against Kameya to justify wider claims against the fund's assets.

The Interior Ministry claimed that Kameya underpaid by 1.15 billion rubles ($44 million) in dividend withholding tax and had illegally applied the double-taxation treaty in place between Cyprus and Russia.

Under Russia's double-taxation treaty with Cyprus, companies that invest more than $100,000 in Russia are entitled to pay a reduced 5 percent withholding tax rate on dividends, rather than the usual 15 percent.

In September 2007, Hermitage said it received a letter from the Federal Tax Service, stating that Kameya did not owe any additional taxes, and had in fact overpaid.

Hermitage said that on June 4, 2007, Interior Ministry troops simultaneously raided and searched the Moscow offices of Hermitage and Firestone Duncan as part of the tax investigations against Kameya.

The raids saw computers, servers and documents taken away by the authorities, Hermitage said in its dossier.

Kuznetsov had previously contacted Hermitage's research director Vadim Kleiner in February 2007, saying he could help make the firm's problems with the immigration service "disappear," according to a transcript of the conversation provided by Hermitage.

During the Firestone Duncan search, Victor Poryugin, a lawyer for the firm, was severely beaten and arrested for attempting to stop the confiscation of unrelated documents, Hermitage said. Poryugin, who was hospitalized for two weeks, was also fined 15,000 rubles, the dossier said.

Three other lawyers working for Hermitage also had documents stolen or suffered burglaries in the months before and after the raids, Hermitage said.

Hermitage claims that it uncovered several lawsuits, filed by unknown Russian companies against its three Russian subsidiaries, Rilend, Parfenion and Makhaon. Courts ordered the companies to pay damages to the plaintiffs, amounting to nearly $2 million, after the ownership documents of the three entities were tampered with, enabling impostors to reregister the companies under another name elsewhere in the country. Hermitage claims that the original ownership documents were among those taken in the Interior Ministry-led raids.

Hermitage and HSBC have managed to have the claims overturned in three of the suits, but $1.5 million in claims are still outstanding. They are still in legal proceedings to recover the ownership of the entities.

Russian media reported last year that the Interior Ministry investigation was prompted by Kameya's use of gray schemes to invest in Gazprom. Until January 2006, nonresidents were barred from buying locally traded shares, but investors were able to circumvent the rules by registering Russian entities, which acquired the shares.

Kameya invested in publicly listed Russian companies, among them Gazprom, from 1999 to 2006, making it a profit of $472.2 million, on which it paid $135 million in tax.

The most recent moves against Browder and Hermitage appeared to be a smokescreen to try and distract attention away from earlier illegal attempts to take over the Hermitage companies, Jamison Firestone, a lawyer at Firestone Duncan, said by telephone Thursday.