#PandoraPapers

Pandora Papers | Eagle One, the offshore company of Mohsen Marzouk

Following the Panama Papers, Mohsen Marzouk's name reappears in the Pandora Papers - and this time, the documents prove that the politician did indeed set up an offshore company during the presidential elections in 2014, through a Dubai-based firm. 
Written by | 03 October 2021 | 15 minutes | Available in ArabicFrench
Mohsen Marzouk's company 'Eagle One Investments Holdings Limited', was registered on December 16, 2014 in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands. This archipelago of about fifty islands is the official overseas territory of the United Kingdom, and well-known as a tax haven, i.e. a country where taxation is either low or non-existent, and where ambiguity reigns over banking transactions. 

The information comes from recently leaked documents that were obtained by the ICIJ and handled with selected partners, including inkyfada. Bringing together more than 600 journalists in 117 countries, the investigation, dubbed the Pandora Papers, is based on 2.94 terabytes of confidential data, comprised of over 11.9 million files and other records. Shared with the ICIJ from an anonymous source, the documents originate from a number of offshore service providers who set up and operate shell companies and trusts in various tax havens around the world.

From Carthage to the British Virgin Islands

When contacted by inkyfada, Mohsen Marzouk admitted to having created the offshore company 'Eagle One'. "The idea behind the creation of this company was the preparation of my plan to leave the political scene and resume my previous activities", he explains. Before entering politics, he says he had a career as an international consultant, an occupation that provided him with all his revenue. "From the moment I didn't know where I was going to settle down, I opted for an offshore company", he admits. 

A few years earlier, inkyfada had already revealed that Mohsen Marzouk was seeking to open an offshore company. In April 2016, at the time when the Panama Papers were exposed (an international investigation also conducted in partnership with the ICIJ), documents revealed that the politician had exchanged emails with the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, in the middle of the presidential elections. Marzouk was looking to obtain information on how to open an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands or Anguilla. 

At the time, Mohsen Marzouk rejected these accusations and vehemently defended himself. "I never sent a message to this company", he said on air with Mosaïque FM on April 5, 2016, the day after the article was published. "Those who claimed this will assume their responsibility before the law", he added, threatening to file a complaint against inkyfada.

Today, he tells a different story than in 2016, and fully acknowledges having written to Mossack Fonseca.  

This new investigation shows that parallel to the exchanges with the Panamanian firm, Mohsen Marzouk also approached SFM Corporate Services, a similar firm based in Dubai and Geneva, regarding the incorporation of a company in the British Virgin Islands. For this service, SFM charges £1,791 (approximately D6,800), whilst Mossack Fonseca charges $2,613 (about 7,400 dinars) for the same service. 

He ultimately chose SFM Corporate Services, which had been "recommended by friends", and Eagle One Investments Holdings Ltd was incorporated on December 16, 2014. 

Like Mossack Fonseca, SFM sets up shell companies and provides other offshore services to conceal the identity and activities of its clients and minimise taxation.  The firms communicate online about their services, which can be accessed directly on their website.

"This type of communication is simply incitement to tax evasion and fraud", said a French parliamentary commission of enquiry in 2013.

The Emirati firm is one of the 14 service providers involved in the Pandora Papers, with 190,000 of their documents revealed.

Behind the scenes of thE set-up

Mohsen Marzouk made an initial transfer of £1791 (about 5193 dinars at the time) to hire SFM Corporate Services. This is evidenced by a payment order sent by Ogone, an online payment service, to Reza Afshar, the Executive Director of SFM. 

The latter states that the client Mohsen Marzouk paid using an American Express card registered in the UK. Although he continues to be vague about the conditions of this payment, he claims that he was not the one who made it, but rather a  "friend" who did him a favour by paying the bill with a sterling account in exchange for Tunisian dinars. The documents to which inkyfada had access indicate that this payment was made from Tunisia. After verification, the IP address associated with this transaction leads to the city of Sousse.  

This document is an extract of the payment request for the establishment of Eagle One Investments Holding Limited. The bank card mentioned refers to an account in Great Britain, whilst the IP address indicates that the payment was made from Sousse in Tunisia.

To finalise the creation of Eagle One Investments Holdings Limited, SFM went through a final intermediary: a Panamanian law firm called Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee (Alcogal), known for setting up financial structures, and also implicated in the Pandora Papers. The latter handled the incorporation of the company in the British Virgin Islands. The company's official documents were then sent voa DHL from the island of Tortola to the office of SFM Corporate Services in the United Arab Emirates on December 30, 2014. 

Mohsen Marzouk's company was officially registered at P.O. Box n°3175, in Road Town, on the main island of the archipelago, Tortola. This address corresponds to a P.O. Box that houses, among other things, the local Alcogal office.

This address was brought to the attention of the ICIJ during the Offshore Leaks investigation in 2013, which identified 34 entities (legal entities or private persons) registered at this P.O. Box. 

As the final stage of this arrangement, Alcogal designates a company figurehead, allowing Mohsen Marzouk to be completely concealed as the company's real beneficiary. In this type of financial arrangement, the use of intermediaries and figureheads is common. These firms provide so-called "nominee directors” and shareholders, i.e. people who are paid to pose as owners or managers of a company, but who have few actual responsibilities and usually no relation to the real beneficiaries. "I wasn't going to run it myself so I couldn't put myself in charge", Mohsen Marzouk told inkyfada.

This document entitles the figurehead Geneviève Odette Rona Magnan to become a Director and shareholder of Eagle One.

Geneviève Odette Rona Magnan, a woman residing in the Seychelles, becomes Director and shareholder of Eagle One. Again, the ICIJ had observed this type of activity before. On March 12, 2009, Ms. Magnan was appointed Director and shareholder of  Finex Global Ltd, a Moscow-based company.

According to the "Open Corporates" database, Geneviève Odette Rona Magnan is working in a total of 179 companies, and is a director of 151 of them. Even if considering solely the active entities, this woman would currently be running 58 companies. As part of this leak, her name appears more than 3700 times in the ICIJ database.  

When contacted by the ICIJ, Alcogal stated on September 13, 2021 that they "adhere to all legal requirements for company incorporation and business services, in full compliance with all applicable requirements in each jurisdiction in which we operate".

In the same document, Mohsen Marzouk and Geneviève Odette Rona Magnan sign off on her appointment, supported by two witnesses.

"There are different types of set-ups, including the creation of shell companies with managers, 'straw men'. The advantage is that we don't know who the real owner of the assets is", explains public law professor Neila Chaâbane,

Indeed, Mohsen Marzouk's name is not mentioned anywhere in the company's official documents. The only documentation linking Eagle One to Marzouk are with SFM Corporate Services.

"It's a standard set-up that is done for all clients, not especially for me", the politician defended himself. However, at the same time, he asserted that "it is they [SFM] who propose options and send me the different possibilities, and I choose". Mohsen Marzouk therefore decided an arrangement that uses a figurehead, which is not routinely proposed by SFM, according to the various documents that inkyfada was able to review.

An offshore company to manage Marzouk's "family heritage"

Amongst the leaked SFM files, one document was filled in and signed by hand by Mohsen Marzouk. In this beneficiary declaration, he explains that he wants to open a company in order to make "investments, manage the family heritage, provide a source of retirement revenue" or "create an endowment fund for [his] children's education". When asked about this document, he maintains that SFM handled everything. "I didn't write or ask for anything", he insists.

Extract from the Mohsen Marzouk's beneficiary declaration at the time of the establishment of the offshore company.

In this declaration, he pledged that the funds to be invested in this company, or any other company he may acquire through SFM, would not include any assets "directly or indirectly related to political activity"

"I, Mohsen Marzouk, born on 10.07.1965, hereby warrant that all and any assets to be introduced directly or indirectly by me into the Company or any company or other entity I may acquire from SFM represent my legitimate personal funds or assets and do not comprise any State funds or other assets, directly or indirectly in relation with a political activity", Marzouk stated in his declaration from December 16, 2014, during his time as Béji Caïd Essebsi's campaign manager. 

According to the document, he states that the funds allocated for investing in the company came from "20 years of international consulting in the field of development", "conferences and conference organisation", and "consulting services for NGOs". 

"Many people don't know that I am an international expert", Mohsen Marzouk told inkyfada. "My income has always come from abroad in the framework of these activities", he adds. Lastly, he explains that when he returned to Tunisia (without specifying exactly when this was), he repatriated all his income and did not invest it in the company. "I invested this money here in Tunisia, and bought property with it", he adds.

Mohsen Marzouk therefore claims that he has never accumulated wealth through this offshore company, nor opened a bank account in the name of Eagle One. Inkyfada has not been able to verify this information: amongst the documents shared with ICIJ and to which inkyfada has had access, there is no information revealing the actual purpose of Eagle One Investments Holdings Ltd, with the exception of the statement quoted above. While firms such as SFM Corporate Services allow the creation of offshore companies, they are not necessarily aware of the subsequent use of these entities. 

"SFM supports its clients in the establishment of their company and advises them on how to complete the process of establishment. However, we do not provide legal or tax advice. Nor does SFM have access to a client's financial resources or any say in how their business is run."  SFM Corporate Services' statement upon being contacted by the ICIJ, September 17, 2021.

Conflicting statements on Mohsen Marzouk's residency

Mohsen Marzouk assures inkyfada that he was not residing in Tunisia until 2015, and that therefore, when the company was established in 2014, he was not a Tunisian tax resident. "I was offered to be the Secretary General of the ' Arab Democracy Foundation' based in Doha. I went and settled there", he specifies. Mohsen Marzouk became the Secretary General of this organisation in 2008 but claims he no longer holds this position. 

However, his career trajectory testifies to his multiple engagements in Tunisia, and his involvement in the political scene. As early as 2011, he was a member of the The Higher Authority for Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition. He then joined Béji Caïd Essebsi's team of advisors when the latter became Prime Minister. In 2012, he was also one of the founding members of Nidaa Tounes, and two years later he joined the presidential campaign team.

All of these activities testify to a regular presence in Tunisia. Mohsen Marzouk himself acknowledges being a resident in Tunisia, in an email sent to Mossack Fonseca on December 10, 2014.

"I am an individual who would like to incorporate a company for myself and I am a resident of Tunisia", he writes.

Throughout his correspondence with SFM during the same period, he provides a Tunisian address, and never mentions any other place of residence.

An email exchange between Mohsen Marzouk and Mossack Fonseca in December 2014, expressing his wish to open an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands or Anguilla. It should be noted that the email address used by the politician is the same as the one used for his exchanges with SFM Corporates Services.

From a tax point of view, a person who has their main residence, or who stays more than 183 days per year on Tunisian territory, is a tax resident in Tunisia, explains Neila Chaâbane. According to Tunisian law, in order to open a company in the British Virgin Islands "you have to prove activity there, genuine activity", explains the public law professor. Mohsen Marzouk, however, says that the company is "an empty shell that has not been active". 

He claims to have created Eagle One in anticipation of his departure following the end of the 2014 presidential elections to return to his consulting activities abroad. "I even intended to make a statement on the day of the election results, win or lose, to say that I was going to retire from politics and devote myself to my activities in civil society as an international consultant", he says.  

In reality, he continued his political activities within Nidaa Tounes and was appointed advisor (with the rank of Minister) to Béji Caïd Essebsi. In December 2015, the break with Nidaa Tounes was complete. Mohsen Marzouk founded his own party Machrouu Tounes, and even ran for president in 2019.

14,000 dinars for 
an "empty shell"

Between December 16, 2014 and May 27, 2016, Mohsen Marzouk would have spent more than 14,000 dinars to establish, maintain and then dissolve this company based in the British Virgin Islands, yet without ever having used it for anything, according to his own statements.

On May 27, 2016, SFM Corporate Services issued a third invoice for the  "dissolution/liquidation of the legal entity". Mohsen Marzouk decides to close Eagle One because he has  "finally decided to remain in Tunisia". He was charged 2200 euros for Eagle One's dissolution, but Mohsen Marzouk does not remember if it was  "properly settled". However, he is convinced that the company was indeed closed.  

When asked about the fact that this dissolution came barely a month and a half after the Panama Papers were revealed, he insisted that the two events were unrelated. "I could have done it earlier but I was very busy and it was not easy to contact them", he explains. He added that he had mentioned the existence of this company to Béji Caïd Essebsi. The latter had advised him to close it down if "there was no money".    

invoice invoice amount Equivalent in dinars, at the time the invoice was issued
Invoice #2014-06616 from 16/12/2014 - Establishing a company in the British Virgin Islands 1791£ 5194 DT
Invoice #2016-03232 from 20/10/2015 - Renewal of services from December 2015 to November 2016
1740€ 5060 DT
Invoice #2016-04768 from 27/05/206 - Dissolution/Liquidation of a legal entity 2200€ 3793 DT
TOTAL                                                                                                                                                      14.047 DT

The British Virgin Islands offer all the benefits of a tax haven. "A tax haven is not necessarily about not paying taxes, the biggest advantage is that the information on the establishment of financial arrangements [and the real beneficiaries] is not transmitted to other states", explains Neila Chaâbane. Without the leaked documents obtained by the ICIJ, there would have been no way to link this offshore company to the Tunisian politician.