N1 Slovenia published an investigative report about one of the biggest abuses of a state institution in Slovenian history, which is connected to the elections in the country, as well as the elections in Serbia.
According to the report, there was an agreement between the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and the Slovenian Prime Minister at the time, Janez Jansa, that they would use anti-money laundering agencies in both countries in order to obtain and exchange potentially damaging information about their political opponents ahead of the elections.
Jansa was reportedly interested in Gen-I Balkan transactions, while Vucic was interested in possible Slovenian bank accounts and transactions of Serbian opposition leader Dragan Djilas, and primarily businessman Dragan Solak, who has been “state enemy number one” for Vucic for years and has been a person of interest for Jansa as well.
Here is the full report:
A short anonymous tip was enough for Damjan Zugelj, director of the Office for Money Laundering Prevention during the third Jansa government, to initiate one of the most extensive investigations into bank accounts in the history of this office.
In 19 days, he sent 238 requests to Slovenian banks for insight into 195 transaction accounts of 107 persons and companies in Slovenia. The evidence obtained by N1 Slovenia in the last three months strengthens the suspicion that it was one of the biggest abuses of a state institution in Slovenian history. Very likely for political purposes. Elections were approaching. And this is happening in two countries – Slovenia and Serbia.
On just eleven short paragraphs typed on one page and a quarter, the anonymous English-language report filed by the Anti-Money Laundering Office in late 2021 launched one of the most extensive and by far the largest investigations in the Office’s history.
According to the statistical data of this institution, in its investigations, it sent an average of two to three requests for inspection of a given bank account. In most cases, it would only send one. In the period from November 25 to December 13, 2021, during the reign of the SDS, the Office for the Prevention of Money Laundering under the leadership of Damian Zugelj sent as many as 238 requests to banks in Slovenia as part of an investigation into a total of 195 transaction accounts of 107 natural persons and companies in Slovenia.
“I have never heard of such an extensive investigation by the Office, which would go so far, especially on the basis of an anonymous report,” said an international expert on the work of the Office for the Prevention of Money Laundering and one of the many people contacted by N1 Slovenia during the preparation of this report. , which he unofficially stated.
“I have never heard of such an extensive investigation by the Office, which would go this far, especially on the basis of an anonymous tip,” said an international expert on the work of the Office for Money Laundering Prevention and one of the many people contacted by N1 Slovenia during the preparation of this report. This was his unofficial statement.
This is especially problematic when considering exactly what the professional work of the institution is and what it should not be. The evidence they collected in the last three months shows that the office did not examine such a large number of accounts because it was being detail-oriented, but points to abuse of position and gross abuse of this state institution, very likely for political purposes.
Let’s start from the beginning. Elections are approaching.
At the end of 2021, the political atmosphere in Slovenia was already very heated. Jansa’s government’s measures during the covid crisis fueled protests that peaked on October 5. It was a day when the police were particularly resolute towards the demonstrators because of the EU-Western Balkans summit at Brdo and cracked down on them at the centre of Ljubljana. At that time, the elections were fast approaching.
The evidence obtained at N1 in the last three months shows that Damijan Zugelj was already under a significant time crunch. That’s why the anonymous letter, on the basis of which he could start an investigation, arrived as ordered.
He would throw bait in all possible directions, hoping to catch something. Even better if he would manage to catch something that could be used before the elections, which – and this is not insignificant – coincided in 2022 in Slovenia and Serbia. They were held in Serbia on April 3, and in Slovenia on April 24, 2022.
There is an assumption that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and then Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa agreed that before the elections they would use anti-money laundering services in both countries to obtain and exchange potentially interesting information about their opponents.
It is assumed that Jansa was interested in Gen-I transactions in the Balkans, while Vucic was interested in possible Slovenian bank accounts and transactions of Serbian opposition leader Dragan Djilas, and primarily businessman Dragan Solak, who has been “state enemy number one” for Vucic for years and has been a person of interest for Jansa as well.
Two weeks before November 25, 2021, when Zugelj sent the first package of requests to banks in Slovenia for the delivery of data from the accounts of individuals and legal entities in Slovenia, Robert Golob, still as director of Gen-I, was already answering questions at a press conference about whether he is entering politics. Then, just before the elections, when all the polls were already pointing to Golob’s victory, one of the television stations, which is editorially close to the SDS party, reported about the allegedly controversial Gen-I transactions in the Balkans. The transactions were reported to be part of an “international financial investigation.”
Serbian state institutions have the authority to check Serbian accounts and transactions, and Slovenian institutions have the authority to verify Slovenian accounts and transactions. This so-called “international financial investigation” could be just that.
A pact between Jansa and Vucic?
The Necenzuirano portal reported that Jansa and Vucic made such a pact some time ago. There is no evidence for this, but as what happened is being analysed by N1 based on the sequence of events and on knowledge of the context and the information gathered, this possibility certainly exists.
However, there was also one essential difference between Jansa and Vucic. In the elections, Jansa had a competitor who actually threatened his rule, while Vucic, who has complete power in Serbia, was not threatened.
The opposition in Serbia under the leadership of Djilas was weak, in the elections on April 3, 2022, the most it could hope for was the mayoral position in the capital of Serbia, but it did not succeed in that either, and at the national level, Vucic’s absolute power was not questioned for a second.
Vucic’s “state enemy number one” in Serbia is not the opposition, nor any of the politicians, but has rather been Dragan Solak for many years. And according to the evidence collected by N1 Slovenia in the newsroom, he was also the main target of the Slovenian Office for Money Laundering Prevention.
Dragan Solak is a Serbian businessman and billionaire, whose numerous companies operate in several countries of the Western Balkans, the European Union and the United Kingdom. He is a co-owner of United Group, which has several companies in Slovenia as well. Telemach, Shoppster, Sportklub and N1 Slovenia are the most well-known among them among the general public.
As already mentioned above, Solak is not only a thorn in the side for Vucic but also for Jansa. When his United Media offered as much as five million euros for the Siol portal in Slovenia in 2021, even though the state-owned Telekom Slovenia was selling it for almost two million, nothing came out of it despite the fact that this offer was by far the best in the public tender. According to reliable information collected by N1 from the previous Jansa government, the sale of Siola to Solak was prevented by Janez Jansa himself. Regardless of the warnings that it could cause damage to the state-owned Telecom.
Vucic, on the other hand, has been waging a real war against Solak in Serbia for years, at the centre of which is N1, since N1 Belgrade is one of the few media outlets in Serbia that is not under Vucic’s complete control.
Vucic tried in every way to stifle Solak. From initiating an intense campaign to discredit him through the media under Vucic’s control to attempts to stifle business, prevent the conclusion of new deals, not allocating national broadcast frequencies, which is the responsibility of the Serbian state body under Vucic’s influence, and so on…
There are many such examples and, knowing this context very well, N1 could not rule out the possibility that Vucic used the opportunity to obtain sensitive financial information about Solak and persons connected to him in Slovenia, in addition to the data from Serbia that he already has.
The Anti-Money Laundering Office was able to easily access this data and collect it.
An extremely high number of bank account checked and errors
The collection of data from bank accounts in the Office for the Prevention of Money Laundering under Zugelj’s leadership was enormous. They combed through all the bank accounts that Solak has in Slovenia, they examined the bank accounts of some members of Solak’s immediate and extended family, the accounts of all his companies in Slovenia, as well as the personal bank accounts of all responsible persons in these companies.
They also looked into the accounts of the responsible persons in all the companies that Telemach bought since 2007, the accounts of the current and three former directors of Telemach and other holders of important business functions in this telecommunications company.
They investigated the accounts of legal and physical persons connected to Solak’s Bled golf course, even that of Janez Bohoric, the former director of Sava, which sold the Bled golf course to Solak in 2013, was on the list…
The list is long and extensive. As stated, they examined 195 bank accounts of as many as 107 persons and companies in Slovenia connected to Solak.
Katja Seruga is among the persons whose personal bank account was looked into by Zugelj’s office, according to the records kept by N1 Slovenia in the editorial office. I am the director of the Slovenian company Adria News Production, which was also looked into and is owned by Solak’s United Group. I am also the editor of N1 Slovenia and I have been a journalist for more than 25 years. At the same time, I am the author of this investigative piece by N1 and the author of this article. My bank account was examined by the office under Zugelj’s leadership, but I was not charged.
The fact that the account of a Slovenian company and its two owners was even examined by mistake also shows the zeal with which Zugelj’s office worked.
They also looked into SBB doo, thinking that it was the Slovenian branch of the telecommunications operator SBB Serbia Broadband from Serbia, which is owned by Dragan Solak in Serbia. But the Serbian SBB does not have a branch in Slovenia. Not even a formal office.
The only company in Slovenia that exists under this name is the shop in Brezje near Dobrova in the municipality of Dobrova-Polhovgradec. It is owned by a married couple who were also on the list for examining personal bank accounts because they thought they were checking the Slovenian branch of Solak’s teleoperator from Serbia, which does not exist at all.
Although at N1 Slovenia, based on the list of all the people and companies we examined, they managed to figure out the methodology that Zugelj chose – that is an examination of everything and everyone in Slovenia who had connections with Solak and his Slovenian companies since 2007 – one name stands out in this list.
And that is a big surprise, which only further strengthens the suspicion that it was a case of Zugelj’s abuse of his office and official position at the Office for Money Laundering Prevention.
Why the director of Pop TV?
Branko Cakarmis, program director since the end of 2021 and general manager of Pro Plus since February 1, 2022, was also on the list of Zugelj’s office, the company that runs Pop TV and Kanal A. His bank accounts had to be checked as well.
The logic behind the decision of Zugelj’s office to include him in this investigation of bank accounts of people and companies connected to Solak remains unclear.
“As for Mr Cakarmish, I have no comment, I can only say that the Office did not take any action against him, at least during my mandate, nor did it provide any information or complaint to the law enforcement authorities”, he told N1.
The statement that the Office did not take any action against Cakarmish is true, according to the evidence that N1 Slovenia obtained. However, they had him on the list of people whose personal bank accounts should be inspected, even though Cakarmis has nothing to do with Solak’s companies in Slovenia. It is only true that Pro Plus is on Telemach’s cable offer. There are many other television stations included in this offer, but their directors and other responsible persons were not on Zugelj’s list.
Cakarmis has not commented on this so far. However, the only logical question that arises is: did Zugelj examine Cakarmis’s personal account when he was under a crunch before the elections because in case he could find some “interesting discovery”, it could be used against Pop TV in the crucial pre-election period? Already at the end of 2021, there were rumours that Cakarmis would soon become the new General Director of Pro Plus.
A “weird” anonymous tip
As already mentioned, the office launched an extensive review of bank accounts in Slovenia at the end of 2021 based on an anonymous report.
Zugelj told N1 that this anonymous tip “was quite extensive, detailed and can be characterized as alarming”.
But the editorial office of N1 Slovenia also received it. It is written on one-and-a-quarter typed pages and does not contain a single piece of evidence, nor does it have attachments with evidence.
According to an international expert on the work of the anti-money laundering office, consulted while researching this report, “it might be possible to take it seriously” if there would have been anything of substance in the tip.
However, since this is not the case, the expert could not explain the extensive collection of data from bank accounts in any other way other than that “it is very likely that there was a great abuse of the Slovenian Office for Money Laundering Prevention”.
This is confirmed by official data from the report on the work of the office. They show that the office initiates about 1,000 new cases per year, of which about two per year are based on anonymous tips. All other cases are investigated at the initiative of banks and other financial institutions or at the initiative of the police and prosecutor’s office. When they investigate more extensive cases, which certainly include the Solak case, those are mostly investigated at the initiative of law enforcement authorities, and not on the basis of anonymous tips.
A more extensive investigation of connected persons and their multi-year transactions, such as the Solak investigation, usually takes several years. The office managed to process the investigation into Solak in a month because there was allegedly already a rush due to the elections in Serbia and Slovenia. But more on that below as well.
Without providing evidence, the tip contained allegations of money laundering and tax evasion and violation of labour laws. FURS got involved in the investigation, as evidenced by the criminal report, which is also kept in the editorial office, and which Zugelj’s office and then Simic’s FURS submitted to the police.
The complaint was filed against more than ten companies and natural persons in Slovenia and abroad, among them Solak, Telemach and the Ljubljana company of the brother of the opposition leader from Serbia, Dragan Djilas.
The document is signed by Damijan Zugelj, who was the director of the Securities Market Agency during the first Jansa government, and the director of the Office for the Prevention of Money Laundering in the third, and Ivan Simic’s deputy, Simon Starcek, a member of the SDS. They sent it to Petra Grah Lazar, director of the State Investigation Office (NPU), who held that position during Jansa’s government.
N1 Slovenia tried to ask Ivan Simic what, if anything, he knew about this investigation and complaint as general director of FURS. He answered very briefly. He only said, “I don’t want to comment on anything.”
According to the Law on Prevention of Money Laundering, the office only informs the authorities about the findings of its financial investigation but does not file criminal charges in this regard. Complaints are decided by other authorities, such as FURS, the police or the prosecutor’s office.
What Zugelj suspected was large-scale money laundering was actually… paying bills
It is also very interesting that FURS, which joined the investigation as a co-signatory of the criminal complaint, did not launch a single inspection against any of Solak’s companies in Slovenia during that time.
There are only two possible explanations. That FURS did not believe in Zugelj’s “operation”, but supported the investigation based on political commitment, or that, more likely, they simply ran out of time. The pre-election period of reckoning with everyone who is not to their liking was already close.
Zugelj and his closest colleagues in the office managed to analyze the huge amount of data that the office obtained by reviewing as many as 195 bank accounts in one month, in December, during the holiday season.
Zugelj sent the requests for access to the bank accounts to the banks by December 13, 2021, and according to the NPU, Zugelj and Starcek sent the appeal already on January 19, 2022, to Petra Grah Lazar.
“More than a hundred people would have to work on it 24 hours a day, without a single day off during the December holidays, to be able to file a criminal complaint because of such a large amount of data involved,” the international expert on the work of the anti-money laundering office said.
NPU officials definitely took the lawsuit seriously. They held briefings and gathered information for several months. However, in March of this year, according to N1’s knowledge, the NPU informed the state prosecutor’s office that they could not confirm suspicions of alleged criminal acts in the investigation. The Prosecutor’s Office completely rejected the indictment brought against more than ten legal and natural persons. So the process is over.
Zugelj told N! that he worked according to professional standards. When asked how he then interprets the rejected report, he answers that “it is a bit unusual for two state institutions to jointly sign a notification of suspicion of a criminal offence (report; op.a.), reach the same conclusions, and then for prosecuting authorities to not find anything illegal.”
“This reminds me of an Iranian case I’ve seen before,” he said.
But how well-founded and of what “quality” his investigation was, in the end, will probably be best explained by the following: As one of the key indicators of money laundering, Zugelj investigated and processed an amount of about 80 million euros in cash, which in a decade and a half, that is between 2007 and 2021, went to Telemach.
He saw in this, as he once publicly explained in connection with this case, “the worst form of crime committed by a criminal group.”
But this 80 million euros in cash was nothing but cash payments which are usual practice in the world.
It was the sum of cash payments of bills accumulated over 15 years, which were paid by Telemach’s subscribers at the counters of Telemach’s branches throughout Slovenia in the period from 2007 to 2021.
Those are mostly pensioners who pay their Telemach monthly fees at Telemach branches because they can pay them there without commission.
This was already visible from the initial bank data, but in the end, it was found out and confirmed by the police and the prosecutor’s office. But now, according to N1’s knowledge, it is being investigated in the opposite direction – how did Zugelj initiate one of the most comprehensive and by far the largest investigations in the history of the Slovenian Office for Money Laundering Prevention, and whether he broke the law, abused his position and the state institution he led.