It’s September 2018. You have a yacht worth almost 50 million euros under your feet. You are oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, Moldova’s most influential man at the moment.
Perhaps the word „honor” means something to you, so you name your yacht „Honor”. And exactly one year later, your paradise gets shaken.
The fact that Vladimir Plahotniuc owns a yacht surfaced to light in 2020, as an outcome of a court trial in Cyprus. Lawyers representing Oxana Childescu, Mr. Plahotniuc’s ex-wife, expressed their disagreement, in a published article, with a ruling issued by the Nicosia Court. The latter dismissed a lawsuit filed against several individuals and firms in Cyprus, the Emirates United Arab, China, Spain, and the Seychelles.
Our enquiry kicked off from the yacht’s name, which we learned from the criminal investigation against Vladimir Plahotniuc. Prosecutors estimated the property at 32 million euros, though in reality the yacht is worth much more.
The investigation is based on official documents obtained from national and international databases, such as those in Luxembourg, Gibraltar, and Cyprus. Some of the documents were made available by OCCRP ID.
FIRST THERE WAS VICKY
A ship cuts the Mediterranean Sea waters in its maiden trip in 2012. This sea jewel is 73 meters long and was built by Turquoise Shipyard, a Turkish shipbuilding company. It is the largest yacht ever built by Turquoise up to that time.
It’s called Vicky and it was designed according to the tastes of the commissioning side, who named it after his daughter Victoria.
Vicky’s owner is Andrey Goncharenko, a Russian businessman who seven years later will become one of beneficiaries of the Chisinau International Airport’s takeover. Yet Mr. Goncharenko never owned Vicky personally; he used a front company called Continental Maritime Limited, registered in Gibraltar, which had borrowed the money for the ship.
It’s 3 June 2011. Continental Maritime Limited obtained a loan of about $23.4 million from a bank in the United Kingdom. „Mortgage Agreement on a Ship under Construction,” as says an internal company document in possession of RISE Moldova.
From that document we learned who was building the vessel, its approximate length, and other commitments assumed by the company towards the lender.
On 3 July 2012 the Gibraltar-based Continental Maritime pledged the ship against the borrowed money. This time, the vessel is introduced to the bank with an official name and registration number: Vicky, no. 743711.
On 21 December 2012, a consortium of three firms from Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Bahamas undertook to repay the €23.4-million loan on behalf of the Gibraltar firm. One of the creditors is PMB Real Estate S.A., whose real beneficiary is Russian businessman Andrey Goncharenko.
Thus, Continental Maritime Limited is the first official owner of the yacht. In the waters of the seas, the ship floated under the flag of the Cayman Islands, until it changed hands.
WHEN DID VICKY BECOME HONOR?
It happened in July 2018. At the same time, the yacht arrived under the jurisdiction of the Isle of Man.
Two months after its rebaptizing into Honor, specifically in September 2018, the ship passed through a carousel of offshore companies, which were founded during the same period. So, from Continental Maritime it landed in the hands of Eastern Yachting Ltd., another Gibraltar-registered entity.
This was when Mr. Goncharenko conceded the yacht’s ownership to Mr. Plahotniuc. At that time, the Moldovan oligarch was in the midst of the parliamentary polls campaign.
„Those who receive a monthly pension amounting to less than 2,000 lei will benefit from a holiday allowance of 600 lei (30 euros) in December,” the luxury yacht’s owner generously promised at a press conference in November 2018.
But let’s get back to the yacht. The offshore chain around Honor would not have told us anything if the above-mentioned companies had not been involved in estate transactions in Chisinau. At the time they were footballing the vessel from one to the other on official papers, several properties controlled by Finpar Invest, a family business of the Plahotniuc family, landed in possession of companies linked to his Gibraltar entities (Querious Holdings LTD and then Eastern Holdings LTD). Among them an urban villa near the Parliament headquarters with the status of historical monument, ten hectares of land near the North Bus Station in the capital, and the Global Business Centre complex in downtown.
The total value of these three properties amounted to 608.5 million lei. Thus, if Querious received the Honor yacht from Eastern Holdings, the latter acquired Plahotniuc’s properties in Chisinau. You may read more about these transactions in our investigations „GBC – din offshorul lui Plahotniuc în Gibraltar” and „De la Plahotniuc, la Moldasig via Gibraltar” („GBC – from Plahotniuc’s offshore to Gibraltar” and „From Plahotniuc to Moldasig via Gibraltar”).
HONOR – LUXURY AND OPULENCE
There are four useful floors crossed by a lift, doors that open automatically, remote-controlled curtains, marble-plated bathrooms, TV sets that lower from the ceiling or rise from the floor, and even a helipad. The yacht has seven rooms that could accommodate at least 14 guests, and its crew consists of 18 people.
The bottom level is meant for guests’ relaxation and hosts the crew’s quarters. Here’s a spa area, a Turkish bath and jacuzzi, a massage room, and gym. Also, a movable wall opens and closes the deck, the place where the yacht’s guests can embark on water adventures, whether it’s swimming or jet skiing and boat rides, all part of the ship’s endowment.
On the next deck there’s a living room with panoramic windows in the ceiling, to allow natural light. In it, there is a minibar and a Steinway & Sons piano. According to RISE Moldova’s investigation „The Oligarch’s Secret Payments,” in October 2018, Vladimir Plahotniuc paid about $300,000 in two installments for this kind of piano and related services.
On the same level, there is also a lounge and six guest bedrooms, including two VIP cabins, each with a wardrobe, two double rooms, a twin cabin, and a children’s room – each with its own shower and unique design.
The next deck, third, belongs to „the master.” It has a mini-lounge with a view of the lower floor and, next to it, a spacious office with a private bathroom. Entrance iinto the office is possible both from the hallway and from the owner’s apartment. The suite covers a large space that includes a bedroom and a living room, two balconies, a huge bathroom, and a large wardrobe.
On the upper deck you can see a bar and a DJ area. It’s the entertainment floor. There’s a swimming pool, chaise-longues, and a sofa there. On the same top deck, there is a helipad, a helipad, which means that Mr. Plahotniuc could reach the yacht by air even it’s in the open of the sea.
FROM AL CAPONE TO LA JAMES BOND
In July 2019, after Plahotniuc lost power and fled the country, his yacht was put up for sale. A yacht broker was hired to handle the sale, and a news piece published on a seafaring website on 15 August claimed the yacht was sold 20 days later the notice for 48.5 million euros, or approximately one billion lei.
Shortly after changing ownership, the yacht was renamed from Honor to Quantum of Solace. The new owner, John Staluppi, a notorious businessman in the United States who owns several yachts, is known for naming his ships after James Bond movies.
Immediately after the acquisition, Mr. Staluppi gave the ex-Honor a charter purpose, charging renters between 560,000 and 630,000 dollars for one week. And yet, just three months after its acquisition, Mr. Staluppi himself put the yacht up for sale. He managed to sell it only in late 2022, for 56.4 million euros.
RISE Moldova contacted John Staluppi via his Twitter and LinkedIn pages and asked him whether he had knowledge that the yacht belonged to Moldovan oligarch Plahotniuc and why he was so quick to get rid of the vessel – but the businessman never responded.
As a matter of fact, the Honor wasn’t sold by Plahotniuc personally, because neither the oligarch nor his ex-wife Oxana Childescu were ever listed as the yacht’s direct beneficiaries. Instead, the former couple used intermediaries, who turned to be crooks. The latter cheated the Plahotniucs for nearly 50 million euros.
The Honor deal was handled by Ileana-Mihaela Burcea, a Romanian national who lives in Dubai. In 2020, journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed that Mrs. Burcea had been running several businesses connected to Vladimir Plahotniuc.
Therefore, Oxana Childescu sued Mrs. Burcea and others in the Nicosia Court, in October 2019. Coincidentally or not, John Staluppi put the yacht up for sale during the same period when Childescu was filing court papers in Cyprus, complaining of “expropriation.” She demanded back her property rights and explained why she had used intermediaries.
“The Applicant (Oxana Childescu) and her husband VP reside in Miami, USA with their family and have applied for political asylum. During the period of their separation (2010-2011) due to the VP’s involvement in politics they made an amicable division of the family property through corporate structures.
The Claimant and the VP held most of their assets through various corporate structures with nominee shareholders and Directors to secure of confidentiality regarding their ownership for the purpose of protecting the political career of the VP from political attacks as well as to protect against the high risk of the corporate environment in Moldova,” reads the Nicosia Court ruling.
According to Miss Childescu’s statements in the Cypriot court, she and Mr. Plahotniuc had sought legal assistance from Mrs. Burcea and a compatriot of hers named Andrei-Bogdan Gheorghiu in setting up companies and opening bank accounts in various jurisdictions, in order to hide their assets. In turn, Mrs. Burcea and Mr. Gheorghiu „convincingly informed (…) that the assets should be controlled via companies whose ultimate beneficial owners” should be the Romanians themselves or persons close to them.
„Given that the plaintiff and VP regarded those persons as their acquaintances […], they entrusted them with various assets, including the yacht […] which was to be managed by the family office in Dubai,” a court paper says.
„[Ileana Burcea and Andrei Gheorghiu] abused their trust and friendship with the petitioner, and taking advantage of her and her family’s difficulties, engaged themselves in a wide-ranging dispossession of assets,” the document further states.
But Mrs. Burcea denied in the court that she was managing the businesses of the Plahotniuc-Childescu couple and claimed that she was the yacht’s rightful owner and had paid for it with „her own means and money”. Furthermore, she stated that she „did not sell the yacht in August 2019, but much earlier.”
Ultimately, in March 2020, the Nicosia Court dismissed the lawsuit. It concluded that most of the defendants were not residents of Cyprus and, therefore, it could not take decisions concerning residents from other jurisdictions. Moreover, „the plaintiff’s version that she was in fact the final beneficiary (…) is her acknowledgement that she had knowingly disregarded internationally prohibited arrangements and thus, inter alia, violated the agreements on prevention and combating of money laundering,” the court ruled.
RISE Moldova asked Ileana-Mihaela Burcea why now Miss Childescu accused her of stealing her of the yacht and what sort of services she had offered to the Plahotniuc-Childescu family.
Ileana-Mihaela Burcea: The result of the business relationships I undertook with Ms. Childescu is a loss of approximately 7 million euros for my company (…). The lawsuit was an absolutely unsuccessful attempt – based entirely on lies – to find a way to avoid paying this debt.
I reiterate that I have never provided services to the Plahotniuc-Childescu family, as I have never had any commercial or personal relationship and have never met Mr. Plahotniuc. The business relationships were exclusively between me and Mrs. Childescu, one of my companies providing incorporation services for companies in various jurisdictions.
In Chisinau, RISE Moldova found Ileana-Mihaela Burcea’s name in two penal dossiers. She is a suspect in the so-called „Bank Fraud” case, for complicity in fraud and money laundering, both on a particularly large scale. According to the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, Mrs. Burcea is evading the criminal investigation and is on an international manhunt list at the request of Moldovan authorities.
In another dossier, Burcea was just questioned as a “witness” and at the moment has not been charged or given the status of defendant. It is a criminal case of money laundering and a decision on her status in this case will be made upon receiving responses to inquiries made to the authorities in Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates, anticorruption prosecutors told RISE Moldova.
On her part, Mrs. Burcea claims that she is not aware of being criminally pursued in Chisinau, nor being sought by the Moldovan authorities, specifying that she has been merely questioned as a witness.
„I am not aware of the accusations you refer to [in the „Bank Fraud” case], as they have not been brought to my attention by the body of penal investigation. I have always cooperated with the authorities in investigations where my intervention or support was necessary, to the extent that I knew relevant information,” Mrs. Burcea told RISE Moldova.
IN DUBAI, TO SEEK FOR JUSTICE
In 2019, Miss Childescu filed for another lawsuit. This time, she went to the Dubai International Financial Centre Court (DIFC), an institution for resolution of disputes under civil and commercial laws. Although most of the DIFC decisions are public, the one concerning Childescu’s case is not available online.
„These dossiers are not published on our website because they are private cases. While most of our cases are published for the public, there are occasions when applicants ask their dossiers to remain private,” a spokesperson for the DIFC responded in an email.
There are two „private dossiers” in Childescu’s case, according to the DIFC. The first was filed in 2019, as mentioned earlier, and the second in 2020. Childescu’s case was mentioned by three law firms in the UK that represented Plahotniuc’s former wife in the Dubai court.
„A multi-million-dollar fraud case in Dubai involving complex trust and corporate structures where work was done (…) to obtain a worldwide assets-freezing injunction. This case was highly complex due to the web of corporate structures and trusts used to conceal the fraud. These structures also spanned multiple jurisdictions and assets were also held in separate jurisdictions.”
Pallant Chambers, a UK law firm
Ileana-Mihaela Burcea claims that plaintiff Childescu has lost this case in Dubai too.
Ileana-Mihaela Burcea: „It is true that initially, in both cases, a partial freezing of assets was ordered, but this measure was a precautionary one – only being possible based on the first impression upon hearing the stories so nicely told by Mrs. Childescu.
(…) What really matters is that in two different jurisdictions, two different courts have ruled in a definitive and irrevocable manner that Mrs. Childescu’s claims have no connection to the factual reality, in other words were groundless.
Vladimir Plahotniuc fled Moldova in June 2019. In September, the same year, the Moldovan authorities launched an international manhunt for the once powerful oligarch. Prosecutors have filed six dossiers against the former politician in order to try him for fraud and money laundering on an exceptionally large scale, for establishing and leading a criminal organization, for illicit enrichment, abuse of power, bribery, and forgery of official documents.
In the case known as the „2014 Bank Fraud,” prosecutors have placed sequester on assets worth 2.3 billion lei. Yet, none of the dossiers has landed in a court of law for trial.
As early as November 2022, RISE Moldova sent a list of questions to Vladimir Plahotniuc regarding his yacht, via his lawyer, wondering among others where he obtained the money from, but he has not responded.
In April of this year, our journalists reminded his lawyer about our enquiries. Lucian Rogac refused to talked to RISE Moldova, asking instead to resend the questions and promising to reach out for Mr. Plahotniuc on the issue.
Lucian Rogac, Plahotniuc’s lawyer: “He has certainly received them, because if you sent them to me, I forwarded them to him. Maybe something has changed in the meantime, maybe you can share your enquiries again, and I will redirect them. (…) I’m telling you that I don’t want to comment, I don’t want to provide a reaction or answer your questions. If you send the questions again, I will surely forward them (to Plahotniuc), and if there is a response from my client, then yes, but you won’t hear comments from me.”
So, we emailed the questions again, and again we’ve received no answers.
In October 2022, Vladimir Plahotniuc announced plans to return to Moldova’s political scene. „I am a politician who is very skilled at solving crises, and my time is coming now,” he said in an interview, after which he disappeared again from the public setting.
Contribution: Vladimir THORIK
Editing: Nicolae CUȘCHEVICI
Fact-checking: Dumitru BACIU