By Blaise GAUQUELIN
When executives of the collapsed German tech giant Wirecard go on trial this week accused of the country’s biggest ever fraud, one key player will be missing.
Chief operating officer Jan Marsalek vanished into thin air as Germany’s horrified leaders woke up in June 2020 to the news that nearly two billion euros ($2 billion) was missing from the payments company then worth more than the country’s biggest bank.
The smooth operator was several steps ahead of the law, faking an elaborate escape to China via the Philippines while in reality he was bound for Moscow via Belarus on a private jet.
It was a double bluff worthy of a James Bond movie, with the added twist that a former Austrian intelligence officer and a far-right politician had helped him disappear.
Germany’s most wanted man is now thought to be living under a new identity in Moscow protected by the Kremlin.
For years the handsome charmer had been living the life of an international man of mystery, hanging out with spies, porn barons, Libyan warlords, Russian mercenaries and former heads of state, according to judicial sources and a German parliamentary inquiry into the Wirecard scandal.
It was not the sort of company you would expect the number two of a financial services company to keep.
But then Marsalek, 42, whose “magnificently restored” villa in Munich was opposite the Russian consulate, was never one to follow the usual career paths.
Born in Vienna, he left school without any qualifications, but that didn’t stop him briefly setting up his own software company before rising quickly up the ranks of Wirecard after joining the start up in 2000.
Colleagues fell under the spell of this “brilliant”, “lovable” man who “lived on planes”.
But beyond his smooth exterior, Marsalek, who had eight passports, let precious little slip.
“I don’t know anything about him,” his personal assistant Sabine Heinzinger told German lawmakers, despite working for him for seven years. “He has always separated work from private life.”
He cultivated discretion, preferred to use cash and was addicted to the encrypted Telegram messenger service.
Heinzinger said her boss was careful to leave his phone outside the room when he had confidential conversations.
Tellingly, Marsalek always avoided travelling to the United States, saying he feared legal proceedings without saying why.
– Wagner militia –
Marsalek used the prestige of his senior position at Wirecard — once valued at more than 21 billion euros — to expand his network far beyond the finance sector.
A man of many faces, he lunched with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, helped Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is wanted in the US for bribery and racketeering charges, and called American porn baron Hamid Akhavan, convicted of bank fraud in New York, “darling” in emails.
In the shadows, he liaised with spies, paying an intermediary in 2015 to obtain “secret information” on numerous people, according to an Austrian prosecutors’ warrant seen by AFP.
Anxious to impress potential business partners, in 2018 he showed off the formula to the Russian nerve agent Novichok which Moscow is accused of using on critics. He had obtained the classified document from an Austrian official.
Another time he bragged that he travelled with the Russian Wagner mercenary group to Palmyra days after the Syrian city was retaken from Islamic State group fighters.
He also tried to set up a deal with Wagner in Libya to stop migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
And Marsalek horrified one-time associate Kilian Kleinschmidt by praising the body cameras Wagner’s soldiers wore, saying you could “see the guys shooting all the prisoners”.
Marsalek said the people who controlled the Libyan people smugglers were living in Monaco would have to be compensated, Kleinschmidt told German lawmakers. He said “he could establish contact” with them.
The revelations spooked the German entrepreneur who broke off contact with Marsalek. He now fears for his life having testified against him.
– James Bond-worthy flight –
“It was through the Austro-Russian Friendship Society that Mr. Marsalek came into contact with the Russian intelligence services and was able to organise his escape and disappearance,” the German parliamentary inquiry concluded.
While Germany’s most wanted man was flown to Belarus on a private jet from a small airport in eastern Austria, he managed to cover his escape by getting corrupt immigration officials in the Philippines to confirm his arrival there and subsequent departure for China.
“You can be the best spy in Europe, you can be the best crook in Europe, but not both at the same time — that seems unlikely to me without state support,” a former Austrian prosecutor familiar with the case told AFP.
“Looking back, you can almost say that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin bought him and said to him, ‘Turn this into a successful business for me and then blow it all up,'” said the prosecutor, who requested anonymity.