Italian firm `laundered money for Kremlin'

A SQUEAKY-CLEAN Italian family firm has come under suspicion of laundering money for the Kremlin as the Russian financial scandal widens.

A report in the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera alleges that a thriving furniture business that provided designer sofas for hotel lobbies around the world received large sums of Russian cash and channeled them into bank accounts in London, Ireland or Canada that could be accessed safely by members of the Yeltsin "family".

The paper said the cash, usually in pounds 100,000 tranches, was delivered to the company, Oak Industria Arredamenti, every fortnight by Russian couriers who drove down from Switzerland. One of those couriers, identified by Italian police, is now dead. He is thought to have been killed in a car accident.

Investigators in Como, near the Swiss border, have ordered the managing director of Oak Arredamenti, Virgilio Pologna, to stand trial for tax evasion. But behind that mundane charge investigators are pursuing the suspicion that the company was used to launder millions of dollars, possibly as a condition for lucrative contracts in the Kremlin.

The Italian connection first came to light after a routine tax inspection, and the alleged existence of the couriers was confirmed by a former local bank director. "Towards the spring of 1995 a courier used to come down from Switzerland every two weeks bringing me up to 400 million lire (pounds 130,000) at a time," he told Corriere della Sera.

After months of investigations, Italian police managed to identify one of two Russian citizens who had acted as couriers and sought to question him. But the man was already dead, reportedly the victim of a car crash. Details of the accident have not been revealed. The police are still searching for another Russian citizen who they suspect acted as a courier. Oak is one of countless small export-orientated businesses that flourish in Brianza, Italy's furniture valley, which runs from Milan almost as far as the Swiss border.

It has close ties with Mabetex, the Swiss-based company, which has landed a lucrative reconstruction contract for the Kremlin.

The director of Mabetex, Behgjet Paccoli, is under investigation for allegedly paying large kickbacks to win the tender, money that is reported to have ended up in the pockets of Boris Yeltsin's two daughters, Tatiana and Yelena.

Mr Virgilio Pologna told The Independent his company had produced couches, tables and wall coverings for the Kremlin makeover on order from Mabetex, but had never had any direct contact with the Moscow authorities.

"These accusations are totally unfounded and nonsensical," he said. "I have never met any Russian couriers. And anyway, why would anyone want to send money down to Italy and then to Britain or Canada when they could send it directly?"

Mr Pologna added: "My company has worked with Mabetex for many years, as have many other suppliers in Cantu. We are not associates or partners - and we have always been paid promptly and treated well."