Death of a Banker: Did Laundered Russian Billions Play a Role? Part 1

Aivar Rehe, helicopter pad, Danske Bank, Tallinn, Estonia
Aivar Rehe on the helicopter pad on the roof of Danske Bank, Tallinn, Estonia. Photo credit: Vallo Kruuser / Eesti Ekspress
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Note to readers: This is a step-by-step account of a WhoWhatWhy inquiry into an evolving story with global implications — one that has received only scant media attention. In this three-part series, as we close in on the central mystery, we invite readers and potential sources to join us in this expedition toward the truth.


“The dog that did not bark” is an oft-used expression borrowed from a Sherlock Holmes mystery, “Silver Blaze.” In the story, a dog’s failure to sound an alarm and bark during the night indicates that the dog was familiar with the intruder — an observation that helps solve the mystery. 

In this story, there are two dogs, and neither one barked.   

They are the beloved pets of an Estonian banker caught up in one of history’s largest money laundering scandals, an orgy of cash driven by funds exiting Russia. 

The banker went missing in late September and, after an intense 48-hour search of the neighboring area, the authorities announced that he had been found dead — right in his own backyard. 

We’ll come back to that grim discovery, the banker, his dogs, and more bodies tied to banking. But first, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. 

Do All Roads Lead to Putin?

It started with a whistleblower. In 2013, a UK national working as an executive at the Danske Estonian branch warned his superiors in Copenhagen that banks were allegedly laundering hundreds of billions of dollars — the largest cash wash ever reported anywhere — and the vast majority of it ran through a single Estonian branch of Denmark-based Danske Bank. (Go here to see the 60 Minutes interview with the whistleblower, Howard Wilkinson.)

The ultimate beneficiaries appeared to include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first cousin, Igor Putin, as well as individuals with ties to the Russian intelligence elite, including elements of the FSB spy service. (Others implicated were from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, also part of the old Soviet Union.)

“There are two sorts of money that come from Russia,” Estonia’s Finance Minister Martin Helme said recently. “One is stolen money that wants to escape Russia.” The remainder, he added, “has been used by Russia’s security services to finance their operations abroad.” 

Estonia, finance minister Martin Helme, Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left); Estonia’s Finance Minister Martin Helme (right). Photo credit: President of Russia (CC BY 4.0) and Ave Maria Mõistlik / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

He did not say what those “operations abroad” were. But here’s an example of how Russian money moved through neighboring Latvia was used: it supported an attempted coup in 2016 in Montenegro.

In the meantime, Russia’s money laundering machine is on spin cycle: the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Financial Monitoring told Vladimir Putin on November 12 that Moscow was winning international recognition for its efforts to tackle money laundering. 

Helme is not likely to agree. He said Russian authorities visited Estonia recently, but not for the purpose of “tackling” money laundering. 

“They are here to find out what we know and use that information to better conceal their operations.” 

The full dimensions of the scandal are only emerging now. And the rot around Danske Bank’s operations extends to other banks, including another large Scandinavian entity, Swedbank —  against whom Estonian financial regulators have just announced criminal charges

Swedish Public Television found evidence that a Putin ally, former president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, had used Swedbank to launder money looted from Ukraine to send payments to Paul Manafort.

This laundry cycle involved moving funds from Ukraine to Danske’s Estonian branch to Swedbank’s Lithuanian branch… and into Manafort’s pockets.

Manafort, for a few weeks, was the 2016 campaign manager for Donald Trump.

This brings to mind what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently asked Trump: “Do all roads lead to Putin, Mr. President?”  

Why ‘Give a Shit About Some Tiny Place’?

Estonia is the northernmost of three Baltic republics that declared their independence from the Soviet Union decades ago. It is a neighbor of Scandinavia, and small: just 1.3 million inhabitants. Yet it is an emerging player in, among other things, industry, science, and technology, with a world-class culture and famously vibrant nightlife. 

It is also a place where East (Europe) meets West — with all the intrigue that entails.  

When I mentioned what’s been happening in Estonia to one acquaintance, he was blunt: “I don’t give a shit about some tiny place.” 

Angry about Trump, he was enraged over Ukraine. But why should money laundering and related large-scale tax evasion involving this below-the-radar gnat of a place matter? 

Over the years, through a variety of whistleblowers, leaks to news organizations, and investigations, we’ve come to understand the magnitude and consequences of what the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project dubbed the “Russian Laundromat.”

Simply put, most of this money was originally other people’s. These oligarchs and their friends pillage public and private coffers, and the resources and birthright of others — impoverishing populations, destabilizing economies, and ultimately transforming national and even international politics. They craft policy and even international relationships based on the need to protect their illicit profits. 

Russia’s own economy has been held back by the outflow of money that might have been used to improve the standard of living for its own long-impoverished masses. In Russia, there are people whose jobs are devoted to stopping money laundering and capital flight. What goes through their minds as they try to do their work while trying not to notice that their ultimate bosses are alleged to be involved — directly or indirectly — as key perpetrators? 

The proceeds of these nefarious activities — indulged by “legitimate” interests in banking, real estate, luxury goods, and other industries — end up in apartments, palatial homes, and fancy cars in places like London’s Belgravia, Florida’s Gold Coast, or sumptuous triplexes stacked in Manhattan highrises like Trump Tower. 

Since early in Trump’s term, WhoWhatWhy has reported on curious real estate transactions involving shadowy figures from the former Soviet Union and Trump and his long-time attorney Michael Cohen. 

Money laundering is a financial crime. But it is also a means of protecting the proceeds of yet other crimes, including trafficking in drugs, protected wildlife, and human beings. Money laundering also touches virtually every aspect of our lives. For example, the luxury real estate market, inflated by illegal monies, adds to pressure on the existing housing stock and land use — and leads to further inequality in housing. 

Ultimately, those who benefit from the global money laundering machine are not just the elites of the countries from which the tainted money flows; also lining their pockets are the bankers and their de facto allies and cooperators in the affluent Western countries, who claim to be upset about the whole thing.  

Recently, Netflix began running The Laundromat, a film by Steven Soderbergh that dramatizes the alleged money-laundering and asset-hiding activities of an offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, first brought to public attention through a trove of documents dubbed the Panama Papers. The firm’s business was chock-a-block with funds from Russian oligarchs with Putin ties — and, purportedly, from Putin himself. 

As with that story, the Estonian tale is about thousands of bank accounts, numerous unknown figures moving and washing money, and, in the background, some big names.

This is why exposing the enormously complex and vast mechanisms for money laundering and tax evasion is important to the US and the world. The true identities of the ultimate “beneficial owners” of the funds are elusive. But there are identifiable entities and individuals who, despite their ability to avoid being directly tied to any improper activity, nonetheless leave footprints. 

Those footprints showed up at the Danske Bank branch run by Aivar Rehe. But he is no longer around to tell us what he saw. 

The Body in the Backyard

My inquiries began on Wednesday, September 25, when a researcher on my team sent over a short article from the New York Times. It reported that an Estonian banker, caught up in a big financial scandal, had committed suicide. 

The Times article, datelined Frankfurt, also mentioned that the scandal had led to official investigations in Sweden, Germany, and the US, and even threatened the economies of the Baltic countries. That same day German prosecutors confirmed they were investigating the role of the large German entity Deutsche Bank as an intermediary that helped Danske process suspect customer transactions in the United States.

Deutsche Bank has been in the news a great deal because of its longstanding relationship with Trump. It is  believed to have loaned more than $2 billion to Trump or entities related to him, over two decades, when other banks wouldn’t. The very day the Estonian banker’s body was found, German prosecutors marched into Deutsche Bank headquarters in Frankfurt and seized files. 

 

Donald Trump, Deutsche Bank

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from DennisM2 / Flickr (CC0 1.0) and The White House / You Tube.

All this financial stuff was provocative, but what really caught my attention was a fact only briefly mentioned in the article: Rehe, the Estonian banker, had been missing and a search had been conducted for 48 hours before his body was discovered — in the backyard of his personal residence.

The death of anyone caught up in a big, far-reaching controversy would seem to warrant further inquiry — especially when the details run counter to common sense.  

Plus, given the magnitude of the alleged wrongdoing of the dead man’s bank, the ruthlessness of some of the alleged beneficiaries, and the unleashing of extensive investigations, it seemed to me that the death of this man should not be so quickly dismissed — even if there were the typical trappings of a suicide. 

After all, when someone has sensitive information about illicit activities that, if disclosed, could present risks to others — it may introduce dangerous incentives to make sure the information is not made public. 

And history shows us there are several means employed. One way is to make a bold statement and thereby shock and intimidate others with, for example, a very public “assassination,” such as a drive-by professional hit or a car bombing. 

But if the goal is only to eliminate a problem while not drawing additional investigative attention, then the person must either be killed and the death made to look like an accident or suicide — or the person must be strongly incentivized to do himself in.

This is a common enough trope in books, movies, and TV shows. And, based on what the espionage experts tell us, it’s not mere fiction but standard “tradecraft” in the spying game.

I could not, of course, help thinking of the recent death by alleged hanging of another potentially inconvenient witness against powerful people: the financier Jeffrey Epstein.

What also struck me about Rehe’s death was that — despite the magnitude of the money laundering going on at his branch — he personally had not been arrested or charged with a crime by Estonian authorities. Yet lower-level local employees had been. And his ultimate chief in Copenhagen, the CEO, had been arrested by Danish authorities. No, the Estonian authorities were quick to say, this all had nothing to with the management of Danske Estonia Bank, and Rehe was not under investigation. In fact, he had been cooperative with them. 

Cooperative? In what way? I needed to see for myself.

I fully understood that it was going to be hard to definitively establish how and why Rehe died. But I believe that it is imperative to make the effort.

As far as I could tell — based on a review of published material and initial inquiries with those who might know — neither the local Estonian press nor the international media were looking into it. I got why:  nosing around this kind of story is considered hazardous to one’s professional and personal health. 

“You’ve got to be [careful], haven’t you,” Howard Wilkinson, the whistleblower, told 60 Minutes. “The very nature of the people who want to launder money probably means that they’re not the sort that you want to go down to the pub and have a pint with.” 

One acquaintance of mine with years of experience investigating money laundering offered an explicit warning. “You better be careful over there,” he texted me. “Those guys don’t mess around. This is dangerous stuff.” 


On the first leg of my trip, across the Atlantic, I reviewed what had been written and what I had so far divined about the case. 

The fallout after the money laundering scandal blew open in the fall of 2017 was considerable. At Danske’s corporate headquarters in Copenhagen, the CEO, Thomas F. Borgen, was charged by Danish authorities with neglecting his responsibilities. The bank’s former finance director was charged with failure to prevent the suspicious transactions. Estonian authorities arrested ten relatively low-level employees in the Tallinn branch — the ones who worked directly with accounts of nonresidents. 

The Danish parliament increased money laundering penalties eightfold — they are now among Europe’s toughest. And Danske Bank was ordered to get out of Estonia altogether.

The bank’s stock shares plummeted 50 percent. Management stated that it expected to pay combined fines of several billion dollars to financial regulators in several countries, including the US. Other large regional banks have been implicated as well, and they are all bailing out of the Baltic banking scene. They fired top executives, their stocks suffered, and they face a barrage of institutional and other shareholder lawsuits

As for the dead man, Aivar Rehe, CEO of Danske’s Estonian branch, he had left the bank but never been charged with wrongdoing. Aside from a rare interview, Rehe, 56, had kept a low profile. The man in the middle of this enormous scandal had somehow escaped all repercussions. Or so it seemed.

That all changed on that sunny morning in late September. 

Rehe went missing on Monday, September 23. He left around 10 o’clock in the morning “to go for a walk,” he’d told his family. A handsome six-footer with graying dark hair, he left without his mobile phone, his wallet, or either dog. When he did not return by noon, his family called the police.

That same day, Valdo Poder, operations chief of the Northern Police Prefecture, told a local news service that Rehe’s family had “given sufficient hints” that he may have committed suicide.

Rehe had a handgun license, but no gun. The police did not report whether he ever had a gun, or why he no longer had it. Was it because of his suicide attempt? But why did he have a gun (if he did) in the first place? Poder was quoted as saying that police were not ruling out kidnapping or — and this astonishing item was just dropped in — the possibility that Rehe had been taken into a witness protection program.

An even more intriguing item came up briefly, then slipped beneath the surface: police reportedly had said, “there have been credible threats in recent months to his life.” 

Later I learned that none of my contacts in Estonia knew anything about this, possibly because it seems to have appeared only once, and in only two foreign news outlets (Emerging-europe.com and amlcompliance.ro/news). 

I wondered if those threats might explain the gun license.


Soon after Rehe went missing, police mounted a search party. For all of Monday, September 23, about 40 people, including both volunteers and officers armed with dogs and flashlights, combed the area and  woods around his home in Pirita, a green, affluent neighborhood of Tallinn. Drones were employed to scan the area from above.

News reports were extremely vague, and because of that, locals wondered if perhaps Rehe had been kidnapped, or if someone had killed him. Some wondered if, under pressure of the scandal, Rehe had simply arranged to disappear. 

The search continued into Tuesday. Nothing was found.

Tuesday turned into Wednesday. Still nothing. 

Then on Wednesday morning, almost exactly 48 hours after the family had first alerted authorities, the police received a phone call from a family member: They themselves had discovered Rehe. The government officially stated that he had been found, somewhere “near” his home.

And this provocative bit of information was reported later: 

On Wednesday afternoon, police arrived at Rehe’s house to investigate … Behind Rehe’s house, they noticed a garden where someone had climbed over.There were also traces of movement behind the hay [in the back of] the garden, and police took a picture of the place.

Tallinn, Estonia, city wall

Tallinn City Wall from Toompea Hill, Estonia. Photo credit: Henning Klokkeråsen / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Tallinn

My airBaltic flight from Paris touched down on a Wednesday evening, two weeks after Rehe had been found, and a late-model, spotless taxi brought me quickly from the small airport to my hotel, one of the tallest towers in the city center. 

The next morning, I fortified myself with a typical regional buffet of herring and smoked salmon, fresh fruit, a variety of tasty cheeses (in Estonia, milk is called “white gold”), crunchy muesli, and very good coffee served in the dining room on a high floor with huge windows. I gazed out on the gray landscape, distractedly watching the harbor in the distance, where ferries plied back and forth, hauling day workers to Helsinki in neighboring Finland. On the street, a few people hurried to their offices. I began to plan.

I have always believed, even in this age of Google and social media, that there’s no substitute for personal contact. But I knew that, because of laws on privacy, plus the culture of the place — Estonians are rather close-mouthed — the government would be extremely reluctant to reveal any details to the public. 

But I would try to speak — on the phone or face to face — with as many local journalists as possible; find out what efforts they had made and what they had found; and recruit local “fixers” who could help with translations of documents and, where necessary, technical interpreting (most Estonians speak English well), plus arrange logistics, introductions, and, as necessary, advise me on protocol and decorum. Then check in with someone from the US embassy, extend my outreach to a range of international organizations, and pose inquiries to Estonian authorities. 

The first thing that struck me, as I began my rounds, was that most people accepted that Rehe’s death was a suicide, and that the authorities’ statement was the final word. Behind this easy acceptance was the simple fact that people under stress sometimes do kill themselves; that suicide is not so rare (Estonia ranks 16th in the world in suicides per 100,000 population); and that things had not gone well for the deceased in the last few years of his life. 

And yet… 

Rehe, who had worked in more than one bank where dubious monies were processed, was potentially a critical witness in how the “Russian Laundromat” continues to reinvent itself to get around the determined efforts of national and international bodies to foil the scheme. I wondered if he had known too much for his own good.

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The banker was well-spoken and well-liked, according to locals and journalists I talked to. A corporate front man who presented a positive picture of his employer’s activities. After the Danske debacle, Rehe kept saying that there were no problems — though known to be detail-oriented, he declined to provide any details. The Estonian media grew increasingly frustrated with his stonewalling, and a journalists’ association gave him a facetious award as “Enemy of the Press.” 

“We had the data showing all these weird clients, it seemed so shady, yet here he was assuring us that everything was just fine,” said one Estonian financial journalist. 

No one with whom I spoke could make sense of the particulars. The basic “knowns” were maddeningly elusive, and often conflicting. They had emerged, in a nonlinear fashion, from an array of sources of dubious veracity. And since nailing down the facts and pinning down the sources appeared to be a hard slog, most just shrugged and concluded none of this would ever get figured out. 

Rehe, according to one of my sources, had left behind his wallet and mobile phone, his wedding ring — and a suicide note. (This was also implied in vague media accounts that studiously sought to honor the government’s privacy protocol while still providing some reporting.) I didn’t know exactly when the family had found these items, or in what order. Did the family know from the start that he had planned to do himself in? Early news reports hinted that the police had been told he may have been suicidal.

Whatever they knew, the authorities almost instantly declared the case solved and pronounced the investigation, whatever it consisted of, over. But shortly before my arrival in Tallinn, the interior minister, Mart Helme, announced that the investigation was being reopened:  

A person has died and the circumstances of his death have to be investigated to the level of all details and they have to be presented to the public to avoid all doubts.

Citing an “ongoing investigation” allows authorities to cloak their actions, past and present, in the phrase “unable to comment.” “Official” answers to the simplest queries, I realized, would not be forthcoming.

Tomorrow:  Part 2. Our reporter starts digging, and discovers that things do not add up. 


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Petar Milošević / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0), Hans Põldoja / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Danske Bank / Wikimedia, President of Russia (CC BY 4.0), US Treasury / Wikimedia, and private collection.

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