Tag Archives: Quaestor Financial Consulting

A small but close circle: the Orbán family and Arab businessmen

The Pharaon affair simply doesn’t want to disappear.

In the first place, it is not an everyday occurrence that the prime minister of a country and his close family are caught doing business with a man, Saudi businessman Ghaith Pharaon, who is being sought by the FBI and Interpol.

Second, once the story broke Viktor Orbán and several high-level members of his government managed to get themselves entangled in a web of contradictory statements. Analyzing and comparing every statement they made has kept reporters and commentators busy for several days.

Third, since the pressure on the government refused to let up, it seems that the decision was made to change tactics. A couple of days ago Magyar Idők, the government’s mouthpiece, began accusing the United States of being responsible for the problems that plague Hungary, and specifically its prime minister, as a result of Pharaon’s presence and business dealings in Hungary. Soon enough, Pharaon was portrayed as an agent of the CIA who tried to blacken the good name of Viktor Orbán. That was bizarre enough, but for good measure Hungarian intelligence sources complicated matters by adding another twist to the Pharaon story: it was Russian and Israeli intelligence agencies that revealed Orbán’s secret dealings with Pharaon and other Arab businessmen. These stories gave rise to a new round of speculative articles in the Hungarian media.

Finally, Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of Quaestor, the brokerage firm that for at least a decade if not longer was engaged in a Ponzi scheme, gave an interview to Magyar Narancs the other day from which the Hungarian public learned that shortly before the collapse of Quaestor in March 2015 Foreign Minister Szijjártó arranged a meeting between Tarsoly and Pharaon.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theories. “The ugly American” version comes from Magyar Idők, which on November 23 published information that was allegedly obtained from the Hungarian intelligence services. The gist of the story is that, although the Americans consider Pharaon “very dangerous,” they were so careless that they were searching for him under 11 different names, four different birth dates, and two different birthplaces. The Pharaon who entered Hungary was none of those 11 Pharaons, claimed the Hungarian authorities. Surely, the story continues, if Pharaon were so dangerous and the Americans really want to capture him, they wouldn’t be doing business with the man in Georgia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As for Pharaon’s fingerprints, the FBI didn’t pass them on to Interpol. “One wonders why,” Magyar Idők adds mysteriously. To add insult to injury, the fingerprints the Hungarians got from the FBI were useless. So clearly, it is not Hungary’s fault that a visa was issued to Pharaon.

pharaon3

Ghaith Pharaon

Armed with the above information, Magyar Idők apparently confronted the U.S. Embassy in Budapest but said they “haven’t received substantive answers” to their questions. On the other hand, the paper received information from “government sources,” according to which “the idea of Pharaon as a national security risk for our country came directly from the United States” because “with this information the U.S. can strike a blow against the Hungarian government.” This story was then embellished by János Lázár, who at one of his press conferences claimed that at the time the visa was issued in October-November 2014 the Hungarian government asked the U.S. Embassy whether there was any objection to allowing Pharaon to enter Hungary. If this is true, says 444.hu, the Americans tricked the Hungarians, knowing full well that greedy Hungarian businessmen with close connections to the government would make sure that the government issued a visa without any vetting. I find this version of the story most unlikely. And I disregard Lázár’s story altogether. I’m sure that his story about getting in touch with the U.S. Embassy is one of his many fabrications.

While some Hungarian intelligence sources were whispering into the ears of the reporters of Magyar Idők, others were busy dropping stories about Russian and Israeli involvement to Hetek, the publication of the Assembly of Faith. According to this version, Israel is concerned about the very large investments by Arab businessmen in Hungary, which they consider to be “indirect Islamization of the region, which is especially dangerous in a country with the largest Jewish population in the region.” And the Russians? They are worried about Hungary’s close relations with Pharaon because of his reputation as a CIA agent. He must be an agent because there is no other explanation for the fact the United States has been unable to arrest him in the last 25 years. I disregard this version as well.

One doesn’t need to concoct stories about intelligence and counterintelligence to understand a simple story that was made purposely complicated by officials of the Hungarian government. Indeed, greedy Hungarian politicians and businessmen would make deals with the devil himself. They cared not who Pharaon was or what the FBI and Interpol thought of him. National security experts whom I trust are certain that the Hungarian intelligence agencies were fully aware of Pharaon’s past and the dangers that close relations with him would pose but that the prime minister of Hungary overruled them. Yes, I think the story is that simple.

Finally, here is the latest development in the career of Pharaon in Hungary. According to Csaba Tarsoly of Quaestor, a few days before the collapse of his brokerage firm he had a chance to meet a wealthy Saudi businessman who was interested in investing some money in a huge project that was extremely important to the firm. Quaestor owned 50% of a large tract of land (33 hectares) on the northern side of Csepel Island. The plan included the erection of a large conference center with a hotel and several apartment houses and commercial buildings. Tarsoly and his business associates needed about 300 billion forints to erect Duna City, as the future project was named. According to Tarsoly, “at the beginning of 2015 the foreign ministry brought a Saudi investor called Ghaith Pharaon to me. There was a big dinner at the Buddha Bar where I was introduced to him and his secretary; later I returned the invitation. It was after these two meetings that the investors met in my office and told me they would be willing to invest in the development of Duna City. I found the amount offered insufficient, and therefore the Saudi investor told me that if I give him 5% he will take care of the financing.”

Foreign Minister Szijjártó readily admitted that the Befektetési Ügynökség (Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency/HIPA) that functions under the aegis of the foreign ministry did suggest Tarsoly’s Duna City project to Pharaon. After all, it is HIPA’s job to encourage foreigners to invest in Hungarian projects, and therefore it was practically the agency’s duty to hook Tarsoly up with Pharaon. When Magyar Narancs asked him outright whether he himself was in any way involved in the negotiations, Szijjártó denied any participation. But again, something is not quite right with the story. The director of HIPA told Hír TV that he had nothing to do with either Ghaith Pharaon or the Duna City project. I suspect that this particular business deal was so important to the circle around Viktor Orbán that they sidestepped HIPA and that the negotiations with Pharaon were conducted at the highest level, with Szijjártó or perhaps even Viktor Orbán.

And here’s an interesting footnote to the story of the meeting of Pharaon and Tarsoly in the Buddha Bar. It was on June 14, 2012 that Budapest’s newest luxury hotel, Buddha Bar Hotel, owned by two Jordanian investors, opened in the Klotild Palace in downtown Budapest. It was no ordinary opening. Almost all the foreign ambassadors attended in addition to former president Pál Schmitt and, of all people, Cardinal Péter Erdős. But the most surprising guest was the prime minister himself. While reading Origo’s description of the opening ceremony a name caught my eye: Zaid Naffa, honorary Jordanian consul in Budapest. Sharp-eyed readers of the Hungarian press or Hungarian Spectrum will immediately recognize the name. He is the man who requested a Hungarian visa for Ghaith Pharaon at the Hungarian consulate in Beirut.

Viktor Orbán was the guest of honor at the opening of the hotel. He delivered a speech which revealed the close ties between the Jordanian businessmen and the Hungarian government. It turned out that the two investors had spent their student days in Hungary and that their company, Mellow Mood Group, owns nine more hotels in Budapest. As usual, Viktor Orbán was expansive in his praise of Hungary’s Arab friends and called attention to the common traits of Arabs and Hungarians. They are both hospitable, open people. And, he said, it is obvious from the example of the owners of the hotel that Arabs understand that “not even profit gives satisfaction if there is no friendship and soul.”  Viktor Orbán was, and I suspect continues to be, friends with this small group of people, to whom, I think, Ghaith Pharaon also belongs.

November 25, 2016

The Quaestor scandal

I have been remiss in the last few weeks in not following up on the collapse of a number of Hungarian financial institutions. I did write about the bankruptcy of the Buda-Cash Group, which owned several credit unions that were shuttered as well as a brokerage firm. But I said nothing about Hungaria Értékpapír (Hungaria Securities), which declared bankruptcy soon after Buda-Cash’s announcement. And then on March 9 came the collapse of the Quaestor Group. In the case of Buda-Cash, Fidesz politicians and officials of the Hungarian National Bank claimed that its problems started at least fifteen years ago and therefore the socialists were responsible for its financial demise. The same trick couldn’t be used to explain away Quaestor’s problems because the CEO of the Quaestor Group, Csaba Tarsoly, had for years worked closely with the Fidesz government and people close to Viktor Orbán himself. Tarsoly also had a role to play in the government’s “eastern opening” and all the corruption cases that surfaced there.

I’m not even going to try to map out the complicated business arrangement that will most likely enable Tarsoly to save his skin and keep the money he stole from his unsuspecting customers. After all, the Quaestor Group had 68 affiliated companies, among which large sums of money changed hands.

At the center of the current controversy is the sale of billions of forints worth of Quaestor bonds. Hrurira, one of the Quaestor Group companies, handled the issuance–60 billion of bonds that were approved by the National Bank and 150 billion that were “fictive.” Quaestor Értékpapír Zrt. sold the bonds to unsuspecting clients. The money that came from the sale of the bonds was transferred to Quaestor Pénzügyi Tanácsadó/Quaestor Financial Consulting, the parent company, in the form of a loan. The company that is now under scrutiny, Quaestor Hrurira, has no assets. It could repay the customers that bought bonds from Quaestor Értékpapír Zrt. only if it could collect money from the Quaestor Pénzügyi Tanácsadó, from which Csaba Tarsoly departed. On March 16 he named a new CEO–Béla Orgován, a penniless, unemployed man with a prison record. Déjà vu all over again. Josip Tot, Kaya Ibrahim, and the halcyon days of Fidesz.

There is a strong indication that the Hungarian government has been lending a helping hand to Tarsoly so he can keep at least part of his ill-gotten money. While business associates of Buda-Cash and Hungaria are in custody, Csaba Tarsoly is free and, according to neighbors, is in the process of packing. Over the last few days we kept hearing that he will be arrested soon, but he hasn’t even been questioned by the police.

And who is Béla Orgován? 444.hu found the man who will have to face the music when Quaestor’s customers demand their nonexistent money. And, according to some sources, a lot is at stake: 150 billion forints, presumably the amount earned from the sale of the “fictive” bonds, disappeared on Csaba Tarsoly’s watch. Orgován is a 38-year-old unemployed man who lives in the village of Tápióság in Pest county. He apparently has been in jail several times, mostly for robbery but once for attempted murder. His children are already grown, and he and his wife have several grandchildren. I would say he is a perfect person for the job. In the last twenty some years there have been several down-and-out, often homeless people who for a few thousand forints were tapped to serve as CEOs of bankrupt companies.

The Hungarian government’s less than rigorous pursuit of the Quaestor case and its generosity toward Tarsoly most likely has something to do with the fact that the government and Quaestor had some joint business deals. As we just found out yesterday, the Hungarian National Trading House that functions under the ministry of foreign affairs and trade had an account at Quaestor. (In Hungary, where hometowns often matter, it may not have been irrelevant that both Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Csaba Tarsoly are from Győr. Moreover, until March 9, 2015, Tarsoly was the owner of the Győr ETO FC team, which is a good recommendation in today’s Hungary.) For the Trading House to have money invested with Quaestor or any other brokerage firm is against the law. All state money must be kept in treasury bonds. The amount of money involved is unclear. Some people talk about 25 billion forints. According to Tamás Katona, former undersecretary of the ministry of finance, for such a large amount of money to have landed at Quaestor must have had the blessing of Szijjártó himself.

Csaba Tarsoly and Péter Szijjártó at the opening of the Moscow Trading House in 2013

Csaba Tarsoly and Péter Szijjártó at the opening of the Moscow Trading House in 2013

So, we have the illegal deposit of a large amount of government money at a private firm, which is bad enough, but what follows is truly outrageous. A day before the collapse of the firm an official of the Trading House decided to take out its money, thereby saving the taxpayers’ money. What a coincidence! What fantastic financial acumen! It will be hard to deny the likelihood of insider information.

Apparently, the Trading House was not the only one that had large amounts of money at Tarsoly’s firm. There were other state companies as well, and it seems that they were all affiliated with Szijjártó’s ministry. We don’t know whether they suffered losses or whether Tarsoly warned his friend from Győr ahead of time, thereby protecting the accounts of such institutions as the Hungarian Export-Import Bank and Hungarian Export Credit Insurance.

Naturally, the ministry spokesman denies any wrongdoing. First of all, he claims that these state companies had a right to place their capital with an outside firm. The spokesman also claims that they chose Quaestor because it was the only firm that provided its services without any charge whatsoever. Well, yes, I scratch your back, you scratch mine. We all know how it goes. And if there’s a problem, Quaestor may offer a lifeboat to the government while individual bondholders are left to sink.

Shady Hungarian wheelers and dealers in Russia

When in February I wrote a post on Ernő Keskeny, “the man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement,” I was planning to write about another key figure, Szilárd Kiss, who was also instrumental in convincing Viktor Orbán of the importance of the Russian market for Hungary. At the moment Kiss is in jail in connection with defrauding the already ailing Orgovány és Vidéke Takarékszövetkezet. The fraud itself involved a loan of 700 million forints that Kiss couldn’t pay back but that, with the assistance of the president of the credit union and a businessman friend, he managed to settle for 140 million, 40 of which went into the pocket of the bank president. It is unlikely that Kiss will be able to wiggle himself out of this very tricky situation because he and his businessman friend discussed all the details of the deal on a wiretapped telephone.

That was in the summer of 2013. Even after that date, however, Kiss remained a member of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. Now that he is in jail nobody wants to take responsibility for having hired him, but it looks as if it was the ministry of agriculture, specifically the minister, Sándor Fazekas, who thought that Kiss would do a bang-up job in Moscow, where he claimed to have important friends in government circles. Kiss spent the larger part of his adult life in Russia and has a Russian wife or a girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova, who also has extensive ties to Russian politicians. She is in charge of the newly established Hungarian visa center in Moscow. This is the office where Russian citizens for a certain amount of money can gain permission to settle in Hungary.

Otherwise Kiss worked as a lobbyist for business people interested in Russian or Hungarian opportunities, while making sure that he received payment for his good offices in these transactions. He usually asked people to invest in his own mostly failing enterprises. It was most likely that kind of arrangement that was behind a deal between Sergey Galitsky, a Russian billionaire, and Péter Szijjártó, then still undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, to establish a large logistical center for Galitsky’s chain of supermarkets, Magnit, in Hungary. In return, Galitsky became a partner in one of Kiss’s businesses, Winexport Kft. The logistical center has been shelved.

It is bad enough that one of the government’s top advisers on Russian agro-business turned out to be a swindler. Quaestor, perhaps the largest of the recently failed financial conglomerates, also had a role to play in the foreign business plans of the Orbán government. Quaestor, the financial empire of Csaba Tarsoly, managed the Moscow and Istanbul branches of the government’s Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház (Hungarian National Trading House), designed to encourage and smooth the way for ventures of Hungarian businessmen in Russia and Turkey and Russian and Turkish businessmen in Hungary. Yesterday the Hungarian foreign ministry broke the contract with Quaestor.

Szilárd Kiss and Csaba Tarsoly are no strangers. Kiss for years was on the board of at least two Quaestor firms, Quaestor Financial Consulting and Quaestor Energy. The two men had joint business ventures in Russia because Tarsoly believed Kiss’s fabulous stories about his extensive connections in Russia. According to Index, Kiss as usual failed to deliver.

Péter Szijjártó, Elena Tsvetkova, and Csaba Tarsoly at the opening of the Moscow Trading house, November 19, 2014

Péter Szijjártó, Yelena Tsvetkova, and Csaba Tarsoly at the opening of the Moscow Trading House, November 19, 2014

And now enter Viktor Orbán’s friend from Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros. While the journalists of Index were looking for Kiss’s Russian businesses, they found a company called Mадьяp that was established in November 2012. Originally it belonged to Kiss alone, but by now he has two partners, a Russian woman and Lőrinc Mészáros. The mayor of Felcsút did not include this Russian business on his financial statement. When confronted by the journalist, Mészáros sounded truly confused. At one point he thought that he was part owner of Verngerskie Produkti, but he was mistaken. That company’s sole owner is Szilárd Kiss.

Mészáros apparently decided to do business with Kiss because Kiss promised him that he would be able to sell his bacon to Magnit, the huge Russian supermarket chain whose owner is a partner in one of Kiss’s businesses. Keep in mind that it was not so long ago that Viktor Orbán himself opened his friend’s mangalica farm. But it is a modest business, while Magnit has 7,500 stores all over Russia. So, the whole thing sounds like a hoax to me, the kind Szilárd Kiss seems to specialize in.

Viktor Orbán’s new type of diplomacy has not only led to Hungary’s isolation. His reliance on shady businessmen who convinced him that old-fashioned diplomacy is a thing of the past has embroiled the country in crooked and/or fanciful business deals. And it seems to me that Orbán hasn’t learned his lesson yet because only a couple of days ago he delivered a lecture to Hungarian diplomats about his philosophy of a new-age diplomacy. Unfortunately, his ideas come straight from swindlers who are already in jail or will be there soon.