By Elias Hazou
To some, feisty cigar-chomping tycoon Andreas Vgenopoulos has the air of the quintessential ‘bankster’. His moxie scaled new heights this week when he lashed out at both the Greek and Cyprus governments as the legal noose tightened around his associates at Marfin Investment Group (MIG). Yet the enigma remains: is the MIG boss sweating or snarling?
Commentators in the Cypriot media seem to believe the former, but time will tell. Certainly in recent weeks the Greek financier has been escalating his verbal assaults against all those who might dare lay a finger on him or his banking bedfellows. ‘Back off’ is the unmistakable message.
The piece de resistance unfolded this week, when during a news conference in Athens, home turf, Vgenopoulos went so far as to urge Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to intervene to halt the extradition of MIG officials to Cyprus.
Meanwhile, MIG’s Eftymios Bouloutas and Markos Foros – facing charges in Cyprus in connection with their role at now-defunct Laiki Bank – have gone AWOL, despite a European arrest warrant out for them.
During Wednesday’s performance, and wearing a perfectly straight face, the MIG boss tried to whip up hostility towards Cyprus which he alleged was claiming €4bn from the Greek state.
He was alluding to an appeal filed at an arbitration court by the administrator of now-defunct Laiki Bank, seeking compensation from the Greek government as it failed to protect the bank’s investment in Greece.
Vgenopoulos demanded that the Greek state protect MIG and its executives as it has a turnover of €1.2bn and employs 30,000 people in Greece.
A thinly-veiled threat that MIG’s downfall would take all of Greece down with it? Probably.
In one fell swoop Vgenopoulos took on Greece’s Deputy Justice Minister Demetris Papangelopoulos, whom he accused of seeking to tamper with judicial independence, then revealed he was suing the head of Greece’s high court, in connection with alleged illegal actions linked to Bouloutas’ and Foros’ extradition procedures.
Papangelopoulos was singled out for special attention, with Vgenopoulos asserting it was “shameful” for the deputy minister to have even deigned to read the letters sent to him by Cyprus’ Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou and Attorney-general Costas Clerides.
In the missives, the Cypriot officials were asking the Greek deputy minister to reopen an investigation in Greece against Vgenopoulos, shortly after he was cleared of all charges by an Athens district attorney in connection with his role in the demise of Laiki Bank in 2013.
Clearly playing the ‘Greece v Cyprus’ card, Vgenopoulos even expressed his displeasure at the presence of DISY leader Averof Neophytou at a gathering of Greece’s New Democracy party in Athens a few days earlier.
The implication was that Cypriot and Greek politicians were getting a little too cosy.
This seemed a bit far-fetched to bring up, suggesting that perhaps the pugnacious banker was beginning to lose the plot.
It was also somewhat strange, given rumours that former Greek PM Antonis Samaras, of the conservative New Democracy Party had once told President Nicos Anastasiades to ease off Vgenopoulos.
And it cannot be lost on observers that Greek shipowner Michalis Zolotas, an associate of Vgenopoulos, funnelled €1.5 million to AKEL and €500,000 to DISY in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections in Cyprus, at a time when Vgenopoulos held the reins at Laiki.
Vgenopoulos and his team took over management of Laiki in 2006. The lender went under in 2013, despite an €1.8bn cash injection underwritten by the Cypriot state. Many here blame ‘Vgeno’ for the banking meltdown that precipitated the recession.
Among other business connections, Zolotas participated in MIG’s €5.2 billion capital increase in 2007, partly using funds allegedly loaned to him by Marfin-Laiki and collateralised only by the MIG shares bought, a claim Vgenopoulos has repeatedly denied.
Yet Vgenopoulos has a track record of straying off-topic and talking like a politician. Arguably a member of the inner-core Greek establishment, he has nonetheless been at pains to portray himself as the victim of the establishment, an innocent businessman trying to make a buck.
Perhaps the change of guard in Greece, with the nominally leftist Syriza taking over from New Democracy, has Vgenopoulos rattled.
Still, bar Iceland, no country has jailed bankers for their shenanigans. Not the United States, not Greece, and in Cyprus trials are ongoing so the question is still open.
There is little doubt though that Vgenopoulos is upping the ante in this high-stakes game. And the man is as slippery as an eel.
Last month, in a move apparently aimed to foil his questioning in Cyprus, Vgenopoulos asked Greek judicial authorities instead to investigate allegations of financial shenanigans at Laiki Bank.
It was reported that Vgenopoulos filed a complaint asking Greek authorities to look into whether the shares of (MIG) and now-defunct Laiki Bank were manipulated.
The move meant that should Greek prosecutors determine that there is a case for Vgenopoulos and his associates to answer for stock manipulation, a case would be filed in Greece.
Moreover, were Greek authorities to find no case against Vgenopoulos, he could claim he has been ‘cleared’ and that he cannot be investigated elsewhere (read Cyprus) for the same offences.
Stock manipulation, a felony in Cyprus, is classified as a misdemeanour in Greece.
What’s more, if prosecutors do find that Vgenopoulos has a case to answer in Greece, this would be a moot point, as the offence in question has expired under the Greek statute of limitations.
But in filing the complaint, Vgenopoulos was changing his story: from the earlier ‘nothing to see here’ trope, he now seems not to be denying outright that malfeasance could have occurred at Laiki under his watch.
Such intellectual discrepancies are likely the last thing weighing on the banker’s mind. A great deal hinges on whether Cypriot police can get their hands on Bouloutas and Foros, and soon, so one should expect the poker game to heat up in the days and weeks to come.