How a Bristol barber shop links Boston marathon bomb probe and host of international corruption scandals
In 2017, Erkan Cil, the former owner of a kebab van business, bought an empty shop next to a KFC in the Fishponds suburb of Bristol.
To anyone peeking through the window, Cil’s new premises, looked empty.
And yet official records showed hundreds of active companies registered to the property. Letters addressed to these firms, dropped through the letterbox daily. A woman named “Olga” retrieved them.
A year after Cil bought the store, he rented it out to two local hairdressers, who started trading as New Styles Barber Ltd.
Still, the unexplained mail continued to arrive.
Thousands of miles from Bristol, Vitālijs Šavlovs, a 42-year-old Latvian former banker — also known as Vitaly Shavloff or Vitaly Shavlov — has for many years run a company formation business, made up of a network of companies and affiliates, from his office in an apartment block next to the Daugava river in Riga, Latvia. The agency is often known as Arran Consult, or sometimes B2B Solutions.
As part of a months-long investigation into English limited partnerships, Finance Uncovered and the BBC identified at least 219 shell companies that were set up as English limited partnerships (ELPs) by Šavlovs’s network, on behalf of hidden clients, most of them registered to the Cil’s shop.
At least 47 still appeared active at the end of March this year, according to Companies House records.
There is no suggestion that Arran, its employees, nominees, proxies and Erkan Cil participate in or know of wrong-doing linked to companies it helped create. There is no suggestion that the owners of the barber shop business are in any way involved in company formations.
One of the mystery ELPs registered to the shop was Rivelham LP, a partnership set up in 2012. It had been formed by two companies based in Belize, each using a hired proxy to sign paperwork required by Companies House, the UK’s official corporate registry,
As a partnership, Rivelham LP had no directors, and Finance Uncovered has found no further information about the company in public records or on the internet.
It was, however, named in a classified financial intelligence document held, thousands of miles away, by the US Treasury Department.
This document was part of a leak of more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports (SARs), first obtained by Buzzfeed News and later shared with other media outlets, through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, as part of a 2020 collaborative reporting project called FinCEN Files.
The SAR, dated July 2013, lists Rivelham LP and 26 other companies and individuals of interest to FBI special agents who were probing the bombing of spectators watching the Boston marathon in April of that year. Also on the SAR list were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who carried out the islamist terror attack, which left four dead and hundreds injured.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed days later during a shootout with police. His brother Dzhokhar was captured and was in jail awaiting trial on terror-related charges by the time the SAR was written.
The SAR detailed 116 payments, in and out of a bank account in Latvia owned by Rivelham LP, all made in a four-week period almost four months before the bombers struck. Together, the transactions totalled $7.4 million.
Some of the money wired to Rivelham LP came from yet another anonymous UK partnership, the SAR recorded. Meanwhile, accounts owned by five more anonymous UK partnerships each received payments from Rivelham LP.
Exactly what Rivelham LP was up to, and why it was of interest to the FBI, remains a mystery. It was not declared dissolved until 2018.
The FBI’s investigation into the bombers was wide-ranging and some aspects were never made public. Many observers remain unconvinced by prosecution claims that the brothers had radicalised themselves on the internet before planning and carrying out the attack without outside help.
In his final hiding place before being captured — a dry-docked boat in the Boston suburb of Watertown — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had scrawled a hasty proclamation in pencil on the inside of the vessel.
“The US Government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote. “We muslims are one body… You hurt one, you hurt us all.” He was later convicted of multiple terror-related offences and sentenced to death, an outcome his lawyers are still fighting.
In addition to Rivelham LP, 27 other companies registered to the same Bristol shop were also named in leaked suspicious activity reports, Finance Uncovered’s analysis of the FinCEN Files found.
Beyond those firms mentioned in the FinCEN Files, several other mysterious companies at the same Bristol address have been linked to controversies.
In a 2016 sting, FBI agents allegedly learned that one such company, Glomeratus Ltd, of Fishponds, Bristol, had used a bank account in Estonia as part of a Russian-linked scheme to collect advertising revenue for KickassTorrents, one of the world’s most popular illegal peer-to-peer file sharing sites.
Two months later, FBI agents seized the site’s domain names, shutting it down. At the same time, KickassTorrents’ alleged founder Artem Vaulin was arrested in Poland at the request of the US Justice Department, accused of “[stealing] more than $1 billion in profits from the US entertainment industry.” Vaulin, a Ukrainian national who had been traveling via Poland to Iceland for a family holiday, initially fought extradition to the US, but in 2020 reportedly skipped bail, becoming a fugitive.
Moldova bank fraud
A company called Lerson Ltd, also registered to the Bristol address, featured in a leaked report that the Moldovan government had commissioned from Kroll, the corporate investigations firm. Kroll found that Lerson Ltd — whose true owners were hidden behind nominee directors and shareholders — had likely served as one of several front companies used in 2012 to secretly buy a controlling stake in Unibank, allegedly as part of a scheme to defraud the bank on an industrial scale.
Combined with related frauds at two other Moldovan banks, the subsequent state bailout is estimated to have cost the government $1 billion, equivalent to 12 percent of Moldova’s gross domestic product.
According to reports, Savlovs vehemently denies having had any connection to firms used in the Moldova bank fraud, and disputed that an Arran Consult employee established Lerson Ltd, as cited in the Kroll report.
Ukraine corruption allegations
In 2016, two other companies registered to the Bristol shop — Iris Assets Limited and Abital LP — were named in a Ukrainian law enforcement investigation into allegations that tax officials suspected of corruption had failed to properly declare assets held in Latvian bank accounts opened in the name of Iris Assets Limited and Abital LP, two companies registered to the Bristol shop. The case was eventually closed, however, after Ukraine’s constitutional court ruled that the country’s new asset-declaration laws were an excessive imposition on government officials.
The Bristol connection
Abital LP, like Rivelham LP, was an unusual type of anonymous UK shell company, formed using obscure partnership laws in England and Wales that date back to 1907.
As a corporate form, ELPs are rarely used because they do not have “legal personality”. That means they cannot carry out basic business functions such as owning property or entering into a contract.
Nevertheless, the Bristol shop became one of the first UK addresses to play host to large numbers of anonymous shell company ELPs, each of them giving the Fishponds address in official paperwork though they had no connection to the property.
In total, research by Finance Uncovered and the BBC found that at least 197 anonymously-owned English limited partnerships (ELPs) were registered to Cil’s shop. Most, but not all, were set up before Cil bought the lease.
In addition, more than 200 other types of partnerships and limited companies have also been registered to the Fishponds store over the years — many of them then being abruptly dissolved before they were required to produce their first set of annual financial statements.
The most recent uninvited addition was a limited company created in February this year, owned and operated by an Uzbek businessman based in the country’s resource-rich eastern region of Namangan.
Cil knows nothing about these companies. In 2018, he told The Bristol Cable, a local magazine, how, shortly after buying the property, he had received a phone call from Latvia. The caller was Vitālijs Šavlovs, a specialist in company formations, who asked Cil to continue receiving mail in exchange for a payment of £300. Cil agreed.
Cil no longer sticks by the account he gave the Bristol Cable, however. Speaking to Finance Uncovered earlier this month, he claimed there had been no phone call from Latvia and no agreement about mail. “I never know the name Šavlovs,“ he said.
Cil nevertheless confirmed that letters continue to arrive every day at the barbershop, each one addressed to a company unknown to him or the barbers who now work there. The unwanted mail is now returned to its senders, Cil said.
“What do I need to do to stop this? Obviously, someone is using the address without our permission, or without my tenant’s permission,” he told Finance Uncovered. “I will definitely sort this out. This is too much now.”
The website for B2B Solutions, published in both Russian and English until it was closed down very recently, was one of the ways the agency marketed its anonymous offshore companies. The site assured customers that Šavlovs’s network had close relationships with several European banks that would “guarantee clients complete confidentiality”.
On the FAQ page, it explained that even in countries where information about a company’s owners was made public — a reference, presumably, to countries such the UK — “confidentiality is ensured by the use of nominee shareholders and directors”.
A second website used by Šavlovs’s network, arranconsult.com, was also published in Russian until it too was recently shut down. Until then, it listed the network’s partner banks, including Latvia’s Rietumu, ABLV and Norvikbanka. All three have been fined in relation to money laundering, with ABLV and Norvikbanka (later called PNB Bank) being forced to close.
In 2015, a journalist from BNE Intellinews visited Šavlovs’s Riga office and found a neon sign for Austria’s Bank Meinl hanging above the door. Asked about its relationship with Šavlovs, the bank later insisted he was not one of their representatives, though it would not say whether the bank had a partner relationship with him.
Four years later, the European Central Bank revoked the banking licence for Bank Meinl, by then renamed Anglo Austrian Bank, amid compliance failures and money laundering concerns.
Finance Uncovered has seen no evidence that the Arran Consult network, or Šavlovs — or any of the companies they set up on behalf of clients — were connected to alleged money laundering at ABLV, Rietumu, Norvikbanka or Bank Meinl.
Though Šavlovs’s network offered clients offshore companies in well-known secrecy havens such as Belize, British Virgin Islands, Panama, companies registered in the UK were a speciality. As early as 2007, Šavlovs’s organisation set up two businesses —Arran Business Services and Arran Secretaries — at a modest residential house in Pilton, a deprived suburb of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital.
These two firms were deployed over and over as front companies, masking the identity of the ultimate owners of scores of companies.
Meanwhile, Šavlovs and Arran operatives used other nominee companies, based in offshore secrecy havens, to form anonymous shell companies under Scottish partnership law. Before long, however, some of these Scottish firms were linked to significant scandals.
In 2014, a British judge said Šavlovs had been a “trusted acquaintance” of a trader at Russian bank Otkritie who conspired to embezzle $175 million from the bank. He had helped the banker to create and secretly control Mauchline Ltd, which the judge found was “a shell company, with no real activity, used as a means of removing funds beyond the reach of [Otkritie].” The judge did not suggest Šavlovs participated in, or even knew of, wrong-doing.
In 2012, a United Nations report into arms embargo breaches in the Ivory Coast included emails that showed how, three years earlier, a UK company called Performance Global Limited had been linked to Captain Anselme Seka Yapo, a former military leader who was subject to European Union sanctions and accused of illegal weapons trafficking. Performance Global Limited had been set up by Arran, which provided nominees and proxies that obscured the identity of the individuals who really controlled the company.
Finance Uncovered and the BBC called and wrote to Šavlovs but received no response. Some of those who had previously had business dealings with him said they had cut ties.
There is no suggestion that Šavlovs participated in or knew of wrong-doing linked to any of those companies.
When journalists phoned “Olga” — the woman who had occasionally retrieved letters from the Fishponds address in Birmingham — to ask about Arran she said: "It's nothing to do with me," and hung up.