UK lawsuit gives details on Vatican’s controversial London building
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 6, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- A lawsuit filed against the Vatican Secretariat of State by its former investment manager, Raffaele Mincione, includes new details about the Vatican’s investment in a London building.
Filed in June, the suit asks the U.K. High Court to rule Mincione acted in “good faith” in the sale of the building at 60 Sloane Avenue to the Vatican in 2018.
Mincione asked the court to provide “declarative relief,” and argued that he acted appropriately in his dealings with the Vatican, in response to allegations that he is subject to a Vatican criminal investigation into his role in the transaction.
The suit claims to reveal the role of key Vatican figures in authorizing the final sale of the property, and specifically the commissioning of Gianluigi Torzi, through his Luxembourg company, to complete the sale. The suit also offers details of how the Vatican agreed to the terms of Torzi’s role as a pass-through for control of the London building from Mincione to the Secretariat of State which allowed him to allegedly extort the Vatican for millions of euros.
The Holy See bought the building from Mincione in stages over several years, beginning in 2014 with an initial investment in the building, then owned by Minicone, through a fund managed by Mincione in which the Vatican was the sole investor.
The Vatican acquired total ownership in November 2018, through the transfer of a final payment of 40 million pounds and the forfeiture of the secretariat’s shares in Mincione’s Athena Global Opportunities Fund.
Court filings reviewed by CNA show that, according to Mincione’s lawyers, the Secretariat of State has “alleged, or has appeared to claim or allege” that the building did not retain “significant upside potential” and that it did not wish to “exercise greater oversight of the property through Gutt as its agent whom it was anticipated would carry out future strategic decisions relating to the development of the property.”
In total, the secretariat paid a reported 350 million pounds for the building, which came with a 125 million pound mortgage.
Gutt SA is a Luxembourg holding company owned, at the time of the transaction, by Gianluigi Torzi, who was arrested by Vatican prosecutors in June for his role in the property sale. Torzi was charged with extortion, aggravated fraud, and self-laundering.
In the lawsuit, Mincione’s lawyers cite “a request for judicial assistance in criminal proceedings concerning inter alios Mr Mincione dated 19.12.19 from the Holy See to Swiss authorities” and “sundry media reports (the source or sources of which the Claimants infer to be the Holy See or its representatives)” as the reason for the suit.
Swiss media outlet NZZ am Sonntag has previously reported that tens of millions of euros had been frozen by Swiss authorities in several bank accounts, in cooperation with Vatican investigators looking into the London property deal.
Italian media have reported that the frozen accounts include some belonging to Mincione, who has repeatedly denied any professional wrongdoing in his dealings with the Secretariat of State.
In the court filings, Mincione’s lawyers contend that the London property deal was conducted strictly in accord with legal requirements in the U.K. and Luxembourg, and that the involvement of Torzi through his company Gutt was at the Holy See’s instigation and designation.
They also argue that Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, a former head of the administrative office at the First Section of the Secretariat of State, was properly authorized by the Vatican to sign the relevant contracts and agreements for the deal.
The documents include the text of a letter, signed by Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, who became sostituto at the Secretariat of State in June 2018, replacing Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
In the letter, Peña Parra grants Perlasca “the widest powers relating to what will be provided for under the contracts, with promise of full ratification and approval.” Although the date of the letter is not included in the London court filings, it references other dates and events, showing it was signed after Nov. 11, 2018.
Perlasca was the head of the Secretariat of State’s administrative office from 2009 until July 2019, when Pope Francis appointed him Promoter of Justice at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature; chief prosecutor of the Church’s highest ecclesiastical court.
Perlasca’s home and offices were raided in February, 2020, as part of ongoing investigations into financial misconduct at the Secretariat of State. Perlasca is now widely reported to be acting as a cooperating witness with Vatican prosecutors.
A Letter of Comfort, sent by the secretariat to Mincione’s company Athena, after Nov. 22, is quoted in the court filings saying “We hereby further confirm that (a) Gutt is instructed and has full authority to pursue the transaction as purchaser on behalf of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and (b) Gutt will be fully funded via equity by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See in order to pursue the transaction.”
Specifically detailed in Peña Parra’s letter delegating authority to Perlasca is the agreement for Mincione’s company to transfer ownership of the London building to Torzi’s company Gutt SA, and for the Holy See to acquire 30,000 ordinary shares of Gutt, intended to give the secretariat effective ownership of Gutt and the building.
The figure of 30,000 shares is significant. Corporate documents seen by CNA show that in an extraordinary general meeting on 22 November, 2018, Gutt was reorganized, converting the company’s 31,000 shares into 30,000 ordinary shares and 1,000 Class A voting shares. The Vatican acquired the 30,000 ordinary shares, giving it an apparently overwhelming majority stake in the company, but Torzi retained control of the 1,000 voting shares, effectively keeping control of the company and the London building.
According to multiple media reports, it was Torzi’s alleged efforts to exact a further fee of millions of euros from the Vatican in exchange for these final shares, and therefore control of the company and building, that led to his arrest earlier this year.
One day following the extraordinary general meeting, on Nov. 23, a lay official who oversaw investments at the secretariat, Fabrizio Tirabassi, was appointed a director of Gutt. He was removed as a director on December 27, 2018.
Tirabassi, is one of five Vatican employees suspended in October 2019, following a raid conducted by Vatican gendarmes, who seized computers and documents related to financial dealings at the department. Tirabassi has not since returned to work, and it is unclear whether he remains employed.
In the court filings, Mincone’s legal team argue that his role the sale of the London building to the Vatican via Torzi was in accord both with the law, and the secretariat’s explicit instructions, and ask the court to effectively prohibit any attempt by the Vatican to nullify contracts or the sale itself.