Thursday, July 04, 2024

Vatican official to testify in London property trial at UK High Court

Over 8 months after the conclusion of the trial in the Vatican Tribunal regarding the purchase and sale of the London property, which saw the conviction of ten defendants for various crimes including fraud and corruption, the issue of the Sloane Avenue property has returned to the forefront in another judicial proceeding, this time at His Majesty's High Court of Justice in England.

The trial began on June 24 following a civil complaint filed in 2020 in England by Raffaele Mincione, the financier among the ten defendants in the Vatican trial. 

The Vatican Tribunal sentenced him to 5 years and 6 months imprisonment, plus an 8,000-euro fine and permanent disqualification from public office, for money laundering, embezzlement, and corruption.

The Federal Court of Appeals in Switzerland had also expressed its opinion on the matter, confirming in 2021-22 the seizure of almost 100 million euros from some defendants, including Mincione.

Mincione initiated this civil proceeding, aiming to obtain around thirty declarations from the High Court affirming that he "acted in good faith" in the transactions with the Holy See for the purchase and sale of the London property.

The Secretariat of State, however, has always contested the inflated price of the property and the special powers Mincione acquired in the various transactions beyond the contracts.

Mincione was introduced to the Vatican through Enrico Crasso, a longtime financial consultant for the Secretariat of State (also convicted in the Vatican trial), to conduct due diligence on an investment initially proposed by Cardinal Angelo Becciu, then Substitute of the Secretariat of State, for oil wells in Angola. The investment quickly fell through, partly due to a negative opinion presented by Mincione.

After more than a year, Mincione had warned the investment would be a risky operation, instead proposing the purchase of a building, formerly Harrods warehouses, in a prestigious street in the British capital.

The property was "overvalued" between 56 and 101 million pounds, something that caused "damage" to the Holy See, which owned 45% of it, as stated in the argument by the civil lawyer of the Secretariat of State, Paola Severino.

All subsequent operations, such as the expensive Credit Lombard and the purchase of a share through the Athena Capital Fund headed by Mincione himself, were aimed "to satisfy the interests of the managers rather than the subscriber, burdened with significant losses," Severino highlighted.

The Holy See, summoned to the High Court, will be represented by Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the Substitute of the Secretariat of State, who will appear as a witness.

The Venezuelan-born Archbishop arrived in Rome in 2018 and was immediately called to deal, between late 2018 and early 2019, with a financial operation that he himself, in a June 2, 2020, memorial filed with the Vatican Tribunal, described as a true "fraud" against the Holy See.

In his double interrogation in the Vatican Tribunal courtroom in March 2023, he spoke of a "via crucis." He will now report to the British magistrates in three interrogations scheduled for July 4, 5, and 8.

The Substitute will therefore intervene in the ongoing trial, being the only representative of the Holy See since all other Secretariat of State actors involved in the matter (Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the aforementioned Crasso, and former Administrative Office official Fabrizio Tirabassi) were convicted in the Vatican Tribunal in the first instance. This fact makes it impossible for them to be heard as witnesses.

Meanwhile, the attorneys for the Secretariat of State—Charles Hollander, Samar Abbas Kazmi, James Bradford, and Jagoda Klimowicz—have prepared an 84-page defense memorandum.

The document notes the timing of Mincione's complaint, filed on June 16, 2020, when the financier "was under investigation by the judicial authority of the Vatican City State, the Office of the Promoter of Justice, for a series of serious financial crimes of which the Secretariat of State was the victim."

The Promoter's investigations, it reads, "led, among other things, to the freezing of some of Mincione's assets in Switzerland and the indictment of Mincione and others for fraud, self-laundering, and embezzlement of funds. His co-accused included employees and agents of the Secretariat of State, some directly involved in operations related to the property" (the Sloane Avenue building).

The lawyers also note that the complaint came a couple of days after the arrest in the Vatican of Torzi (June 13-14, 2020), who, according to the Secretariat of State's thesis, "while claiming to act as an agent of the Secretariat of State in operations related to the property at the center of this proceeding, was part of a criminal association with illegal means (together with Mr. Mincione and others) to defraud the Secretariat of State."

The memorandum also emphasizes that the trial in the Vatican Tribunal had the "advantage" of being based on a broad adversarial process with an "enormous number" of people heard from "all interested parties (55 witnesses in addition to the accused)," reaching "conclusions that spanned a long period."

From this trial, which began in July 2022 and ended in October 2023, "a sad story of corruption and abuse of office by unfaithful officials and speculation by external actors" emerged, during "the entire period from Mincione's entry into the Secretariat of State in 2012 until after the acquisition of the property by Gutt."

"The events addressed by the Vatican court concern deeply rooted corruption, fraud, and embezzlement over the years," the document reads. It is acknowledged that "many of the issues subject" to the criminal proceedings in the Vatican "are not admissible" in the civil trial in London, but it is still urged to consider them.

Regarding the formulation of the requested declarations, the memorandum emphasises that “the key issue raised (market price of the property and whether the Secretariat of State paid too much) does not appear in the requested declarations" from Mincione, "which seem deliberately to avoid this topic."

"The closest they come is a series of statements about the applicants acting in good faith," it notes.

Finally, the defense memorandum points out that Archbishop Peña Parra was involved in the entire matter when it was already nearing its conclusion and therefore has "very limited" knowledge of the previous events,

"Therefore, the Secretariat of State's case in this trial is based on a combination of documentary evidence and issues that will need to be addressed to Mincione and others in cross-examination."