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WSJ: British Danske employee blew whistle on suspicious activities

Danske Bank's Estonian branch on Narva mnt in central Tallinn, as it appeared before its closure in 2019.
Danske Bank's Estonian branch on Narva mnt in central Tallinn, as it appeared before its closure in 2019. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

A British man who worked for Danske Estonia for several years flagged up his concerns about money flows but his warnings went unheeded, according to a report on the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Howard Wilkinson, now 47 and living in rural England, worked at Dankse Estonia from late 2006 until April 2014, according to the article, and enjoyed working there, finding it more dynamic than Helsinki where he had previously been employed.

The beginning of Mr Wilkinson's employment coincided with Danske's acquisition of Finnish Sampo Bank, often taken as the baseline date of suspicious flows of transactions via Danske's Estonian branch (though not resulting from it) and, more pertinently, the gunning down of Russian Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov. Mr Kozlov was thought to have been cracking down on money laundering activities. The arrival of Thomas Borgen as Danske CEO came soon after (Mr Borgen stood down in the wake of the Danske money laundering scandal as it came to light through 2018).

Something not quite right

However, it was not long before Mr Wilkinson noticed something was not quite right. The non-residents' department on the third floor at Danske in Tallinn seemed something of a mystery; though he didn't work there, Mr Wilkinson was responsible for transactions on behalf of some of these clients, mostly currency trades and buying/selling treasuries, which gave returns as high as 400% and which he described as "good, easy money".

Subsequently, Mr Wilkinson noticed Russian companies based in London which had vast through-flows of money (as much as $1 million, or close to €900,000, per day) and yet no significant fixed assets registered to their name.

In one case, a Russian company called Lantana LLP was registered at an address next door to a suburban London DIY/hardware shop, yet had transferred over €400 million in just five months. Mr Wilkinson, who was easily able to download company information in the UK for just one pound a throw, noticed that Lantana had links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, via a relative.

In all, Mr Wilkinson looked at at least a dozen companies he found suspicious and lodged four complaints.

'Clerical errors'

Mr Wilkinson raised his concerns with colleagues at Danske, but these tended to be smoothed over, according to the article; the lack of financial assets was a "clerical error" (even when this was put right, the assets of the company were only a stated at a little over seventeen thousand euros); an email headed "whistle-blowing disclosure" was rather blandly responded to with a "thanks for your concern"-type of response.

Any accusations of paranoia on Mr Wilkinson's part (not that any were made, according to the article) could be allayed by the fact that JP Morgan Chase & Co. ceased clearing US dollars which had come via Danske as early as 2014. On the ground in Tallinn Mr Wilkinson received fairly short shrift too, the article states; "we're not the police!" said one colleauge, in response to his concerns.

Moreover, Thomas Borgen himself was looking to offload Danske Estonia at around this time; a buyer was lacking, however.

'I've done my own small part'

Matters came to a head in April 2014; it appears Mr Wilkinson, increasingly sidelined (viewing an internal Danske audit was denied him, and some of his phone calls were tapped) had had enough and stepped down. He now lives quietly with his daughters somewhere in the English countryside, reading books on the activities at the World War Two code-breaking nerve centre at Bletchley Park.

However, he still describes the amounts of suspicious transactions in question (around €200 billion), not only dwarfing the per annum GDP of Estonia (and close to that of Denmark) but also exceeding corporate takings in the Russian Federation as "surreal", and simply takes some solace from the fact that "I've done my own small part".

The full WSJ article is here.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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