* $1 bln deal for gas terminal denied by Spanish partner
* Spanish signatory vanishes after fiasco
* Ukraine agrees no deal, says all a "misunderstanding"
* Mystery man is ski-instructor-turned-businessman
By Richard Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk
KIEV, Dec 6 It was hailed as a historic $1
billion deal marking a major step towards ending Ukraine's
reliance on imported Russian gas.
But the ballyhoo had no sooner died down after the signing
of the gas terminal deal than the alleged Spanish partner
disowned it and the mysterious outsider involved vanished,
leaving Ukrainian officials humiliated and embarrassed.
The deal at the centre of the high-profile signing ceremony
on Nov. 26 had seemed to tie in Spain's Gas Natural Fenosa
as the main investor in building a liquefied gas (LNG)
terminal on the Black Sea Coast - a strategic project for which
the former Soviet republic has long been looking for foreign
But, to the surprise of Ukrainian officials including Prime
Minister Mykola Azarov and Yuri Boiko, the country's powerful
fuel minister, who both attended the ceremony, the Spanish
energy company swiftly denied joining any consortium.
In the ensuing confusion, attention focused on the identity
- and role - of the Spanish-speaking man who had signed on
behalf of the company - a bald figure with a tufty beard who was
well-known as a middle-man in deals between Spanish companies
He was identified by Ukraine's state investment agency -
whose chief Vladislav Kaskiv was co-signatory of the agreement -
as Jordi Sarda Bonvehi, who Reuters has learned is a 43-year-old
ski instructor-turned-businessman from the Barcelona region.
But Gas Natural said Bonvehi did not work for the company
and, in a statement on Nov. 28, suggested it might consider
taking legal action.
Bonvehi himself slipped away after the ceremony, left the
country and his whereabouts are unknown although he was said to
be in Spain last week.
Speaking by mobile phone with Reuters, a man who identified
himself as Bonvehi conceded he had not been authorised to sign
for Gas Natural. "I thought I could sign it and then settle it
with the company," he said.
In subsequent telephone conversations with Reuters in Spain,
apparently the same person declined to answer questions by
telephone, but said that at some point he would make a
Collapse of the LNG terminal construction deal, particularly
in such humiliating circumstances, is a setback for the Kiev
government which is desperate for alternative energy sources to
wean itself off dependency on Russian gas.
Apart from figuring in energy discussions, Bonvehi has
travelled to at least two parts of Western Ukraine where he
sought to interest local authorities in waste-recycling
projects, local officials say.
Neither deal came to anything, they said. "We had a visit
but it came to nothing. We talked and that was all. There was
not a single phone call from them afterwards," said Viktor
Dobrorez, who heads the local investment department in the town
Gas Natural, a leading LNG operator with stakes in
liquefaction plants in Egypt and Qatar, says its engineering
unit carried out a viability study into the LNG project at the
behest of the Kiev government. The company says such studies do
not necessarily entail final participation in a contract.
In a press statement after the signing, the Ukrainian state
investment agency initially i dentified the Spanish signatory as
a Gas Natural executive called Jordi Garcia Tabernero.
Gas Natural immediately denied this too, saying that
Tabernero, the company's managing director of communications,
had not been in Ukraine then. At the time of the signing, he had
been in his Barcelona office, it said.
It has declined to make any further statements on the matter
beyond what it said in the immediate aftermath of the signing.
Ukrainian officials now accept the deal is no longer valid
and had been signed with an unauthorised person. Bonvehi, they
say, acted "at his own discretion" and exceeded his authority.
The planned LNG terminal, to be built near Odessa, would
receive liquefied gas by tanker from foreign suppliers and then
re-gasify it for feeding into Ukraine's pipeline network.
The collapse of the deal is all the more embarrassing
because the Kiev government often uses its LNG potential as a
card to play in talks with Russia as it strives for a more
equitable relationship and cheaper gas.
Ambitious LNG plans foresee imports of about 10 billion
cubic metres of gas in 2018 when the planned onshore terminal
would be up and running - roughly a quarter of Ukraine's current
gas consumption levels.
Kaskiv, head of the state investment agency whose job is to
identify foreign investors for key national projects, had been
seeking foreign financing for some time for the LNG project.
A 39-year-old former journalist who was once a foreign
investment adviser to jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko,
Kaskiv was named to head the agency in December 2010. But
despite a world-wide road show banging the drum for Ukrainian
projects, his agency has notched up few successes.
Kaskiv said he feared the collapse of the deal would hand a
"trump-card to opponents" of LNG development in Ukraine -
meaning Russia - though officials say they will continue the
search for foreign investors despite the setback.
Kiev-based diplomats said they had been surprised when the
signing with Gas Natural was announced since a deal on the
highly ambitious project was not known to be near.
In the initial post-signing euphoria, Kaskiv said the deal
provided for Gas Natural taking the lead in a group of foreign
investors who would provide over 90 percent of the financing for
the LNG terminal, the first to be built in Ukraine.
Prime Minister Azarov, seizing on the moment to symbolically
launch a new land pipeline to connect with the planned terminal,
spoke of a "really historic moment ... the first real big step
towards energy independence".
But within a short time, Gas Natural came out with a flat
denial of any participation. "Gas Natural has not signed any
contract to invest in an LNG plant in the Ukraine, nor are we
leading any consortium to develop such a terminal ... nor are we
studying anything along these lines," it said.
So where did the mystery Spanish signatory appear from? And
why did the Ukrainian side think it had the grounds for a deal?
In Spain, family members said Bonvehi, who left home when he
turned 20 and became a ski instructor in Andorra, moved to
Ukraine 10 years ago after visiting as a tourist and marrying a
His father, Joan Sarda, who still lives near Barcelona, was
quoted by a local newspaper, Regio7, as saying his son set up
two local businesses in Spain in 2008. Both concerns, which are
registered as being involved in real estate, had been inactive
for years, the father said.
"Jordi ... was never interested in business, neither in mine
nor in that of his brothers or anyone else's. He never
demonstrated any interest in business whatsoever," the father
was quoted as saying. Joan Sorda could not be reached
independently by Reuters for comment.
Speaking to Reuters, Bonvehi's brother, Oriol Sarda Bonvehi,
said Bonvehi had visited his parents on Nov. 30 and then
disappeared again. "He never told me anything about it (his
business). But to reach as far as he did he must be good at
People who have followed the case in Ukraine say Bonvehi
worked as a go-between in deals for Spanish companies and the
Ukrainian authorities and is listed as general director of the
Ukrainian branch of Grupo Hera, whose speciality is given as
waste-recycling on its website.
The Hera company name is still listed on an intercom panel
at the three-storey building in Kiev from where it operated. But
the first-floor office is occupied by another firm which says it
has nothing to do with Hera.
Bonvehi has travelled around Ukraine on business ventures
and in September attended the YES conference, an annual economic
forum in Yalta, where he took part in LNG discussions, energy
officials say. A photograph from the conference shows him seated
at a round table opposite Fuel Minister Boiko and Kaskiv.
"PRESSURE OF CIRCUMSTANCE"
Speaking to Reuters on Nov. 30, Kaskiv said Bonvehi emerged
as a signatory at the Kiev ceremony in the absence of any other
Spanish officials. He now admits though that Bonvehi had no
authority to sign for Gas Natural.
Ukrainians say that no money was lost - apparently ruling
out immediate financial gain as a motive. They do not talk of
duplicity, only of a "misunderstanding".
"It (the signing) was the pressure of circumstance because
at the last minute it became clear that there was no-one from
the Spanish side who could, as far as we understood, sign the
document," Kaskiv said.
"This person did not simply appear out of nowhere. He took
part in negotiations and clearly positioned himself as a
participant in the negotiating process in the preliminary stages
when other official persons were there," he said.
But he admits Bonvehi did not have the legal right to sign
for Gas Natural. "There was no legal document that would have
authorised him to be the signatory of the agreement. But given
that he had been participant in all preliminary stages of
negotiations - things were clear for us," he said.
Pressed on how Bonvehi had therefore been allowed to sign,
Kaskiv said: "It was a mistake ... We discussed this question
with him just before the signing and in the course of this
discussion we took this decision (to allow him to sign)."
On the Ukrainian side, Kaskiv's role is likely to come under
scrutiny in a government commission of inquiry which was set up
Speaking to Reuters on Wednesday, he suggested that the
Ukrainian side were still hoping for a top-level meeting with
Gas Natural executives to clear things up.
"We have not received any clarifications beyond the
information that they (Gas Natural) had not taken any decision
at that particular time and that they are carrying out an
investigation among themselves to clarify relations with Mr.
Bonvehi," Kaskiv said.
Was there any duplicity? "I know there is no doubt that he
(Bonvehi) took part in negotiations at various stages. As for
what happened at the time - we are waiting impatiently for some
clarification from the Spanish side."