Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank says it did not authorize directors of consumer giant Innscor Africa to open offshore bank accounts uncovered in the ongoing Panama Papers investigation.
Documents found in the probe indicate that Innscor Africa directors Zinona (Zed) Koudounaris and Michael Fowler, operating through lawyers and accountants, opened four companies in the British Virgin Islands and transferred money from their salaries to the firms early last year.
That move would violate Zimbabwean laws, which prevent money earned in Zimbabwe from being deposited in offshore accounts unless approved by the central bank.
VOA Zimbabwe attempted to call Koudounaris and Fowler for comment but their wives said both men are out of the country.
Innscor Africa Board of Directors chairman Addington Chinake says all of Innscor's financial transfers “constitute lawful movement of funds compliant with all relevant regulations, including those of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.”
Chinake, an attorney, told VOA that “at no point has Innscor Africa Limited transferred any sums of money representing accumulated salaries into any of the entities as alleged.”
When asked to clarify Koudounaris’ and Fowler’s relationship with the law and accounting firms allegedly involved with the transfer, Chinake said “there are no further comments to make at this stage.”
Source of funds: 'accumulated salary'
VOA Zimbabwe's Ray Choto is a reporting partner with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The group is examining more than 11 million documents from a Panamanian law firm that reveal a global network of secret offshore tax havens.
Choto says he came across Koudounaris and Fowler while doing a search of the papers for Zimbabwe-linked people and companies. There were "a couple thousand" documents on the two men, he says.
Those documents show Koudounaris and Fowler used the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and British accounting firm Northern Wychwood to register the four offshore companies, known as Federated Properties Holdings Limited, Skyfox, Acia Aero Limited and Acia Aero Holdings.
In January 2015, Northern Wychwood senior corporate and trust administrator Sophia Birchall wrote to Mossack Fonseca manager Helen Okell informing her that the funds to be transferred to the firms were the Innscor salaries of Koudounaris and Fowler.
“Koudounaris is a well-known and successful businessman and is director of a large Zimbabwean quoted group, Innscor Africa Limited, involved in retail and manufacturing industry, hotel and tourism in Southern Africa,” Birchall wrote. “SOF (source of funds) is from accumulated salary.”
Asked if Koudounaris or Fowler registered such payments, Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya told VOA in an e-mail statement: “According to our records we do not have any approval for the persons whom you have mentioned.”
Innscor is headquartered in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. Fowler is a founding shareholder and Koudounaris has helped to drive the firm’s core fast-food chains, including Bakers Inn, Chicken Inn and Pizza Inn, found across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Kenya. The company is also involved in meatpacking, light manufacturing, consumer electronics, and auto parts operations.
It employs more than 14,000 Zimbabweans and continues to do steady business in a weakening economy, with 2015 revenues of more than $814 million.
Bank, accountants helped establish fronts
Mossack Fonseca documents show that Koudounaris and Fowler used Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe (CBZ) reference letters to register the offshore firms. Those letters were signed by senior managers in the bank’s wealth management unit, confirming that the two were account holders in the executive wealth management center, identified by the bank as “a prestigious unit for high net-worth customers.”
The Koudounaris reference letter of March 2014 was signed by CBZ wealth management head Maureen Marimirofa. Ten days later, Birchall forwarded that letter to Mossack Fonseca after date-stamping it as the authorized signatory at Northern Wychwood. The Fowler reference letter of September 2014 was co-signed by Marimirofa and by a Mrs. N Dube, who signed as the senior manager of the wealth management department.
“In all our dealings with Mr. M J Fowler, he has proved to be a man of high integrity and good character,” wrote Marimirofa and Dube. “He has conducted all his business dealings as a respectable man who would not commit himself beyond his means. We hereby recommend him favorably for any services that he may require. This letter is however issued without prejudice to the bank or any of its officials.”
An internal report by Mossack Fonseca manager Okell says she met Northern Wychwood administrator Birchall and “ran through the requirement and she (Birchall) has signed and sealed two original documents, which I will send to compliance this week. The teach-in sessions were of great interest and she said she will book her staff on as soon as they are offered.”
A Harare lawyer who requested to remain anonymous said the request for reference letters by Northern Wychwood was a procedural move to show that Mossack Fonseca was complying with British Virgin Islands anti-money-laundering laws.
“The so-called teach-in sessions were used by Northern Wychwood as platforms to discuss with its clients how to move funds from jurisdictions outside BVI and how to have fronts for the actual beneficial owners,” explained the Harare attorney.
VOA Zimbabwe called Northern Wychwood director Shaun Fergusson Cairns for comment on this story, but his wife, Tracy, said he was asleep. Additional calls went unanswered.
Mossack Fonseca corporate liaison officer Jordan Spencer refused to take questions on Koudounaris and Fowler or on Innscor Africa, saying he was not allowed to discuss the Panama Papers with the media.
Offshore registration documents list residential addresses for Koudounaris and Fowler in Alexandra Park and Colne Valley, two suburbs of Harare, along with photocopies of their passports certified by Innscor Africa company secretary Andrew Lorimer. Repeated attempts to reach Lorimer for comment were unsuccessful.
Koudounaris and Fowler are listed as beneficial owners of Federated Properties with Northern Wychwood executives Bryan Ellis and Brett Hurst as directors. Koudounaris and Fowler are also beneficial owners of Acia Aero Holdings and Acia Aero Limited along with Hurst.
Koudounaris is the beneficial owner of Skyfox with Hurst and Huan Berger Badenhorst as directors and ordinary shares split 80-20 between Innscor International and Chimanimani Holdings Limited, respectively.
More than 100 news organizations are examining Panama Papers documents detailing more than 200,000 offshore entities, some dating back to the 1970s.
VOA Zimbabwe continues to review documents connecting Northern Wychwood executives Cairns, Ellis and Hurst to shell companies linked to hundreds of Zimbabwean clients.