April 14, 2016 / 1:30 PM / in 2 years

Russia law enforcement searches office of tycoon Prokhorov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian law enforcement officials, some wearing ski masks, searched the offices on Thursday of Mikhail Prokhorov, a tycoon whose newspaper has published revelations about people with ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Several sources close to Prokhorov’s businesses said officials from the Federal Security Service and tax inspectors conducted the searches at Onexim Group, which manages Prokhorov’s assets.

According to Forbes magazine, the 50-year-old is Russia’s 14th richest person with $7.6 billion of wealth. He is also the owner of N.B.A franchise the Brooklyn Nets, previously known as the New Jersey Nets.

Two of the sources told Reuters they believed the searches were linked to Prokhorov’s RBC Media holding, although an RBC Media spokesman said its offices, which are in a different location to Onexim‘s, had not been searched.

The media group’s flagship newspaper, RBC, has in recent months published detailed reports into the “Panama papers” leaks and offshore assets of Putin associates, and reported on the business interests of Putin’s son-in-law.

A Reuters reporter outside the Onexim office building, on a leafy boulevard in an upscale part of Moscow, said the main entrance had been locked. A man in a ski mask briefly emerged and then went back inside.

A worker who came outside to smoke said some “serious guys” had arrived in the building and were restricting access to some areas of the office.

The Federal Security Service could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesman for the tax service said he did not yet have any information.

Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying that the searches were linked to suspected tax evasion and moving funds offshore. The news agency later reported that the search had been completed.

An Onexim spokesman told Reuters the tax authorities were conducting investigative activities at the company. He said Onexim operates in full compliance with the law and is ready to cooperate with the authorities.

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The searches happened as Putin was taking part in a televised phone-in, an annual event where he fields questions and requests for help from ordinary Russians.

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Tim Ash, emerging markets analyst at bank Nomura, said he believed the raids were a “clear warning to other oligarchs to stop capital flight, bring money on-shore”.

Two of the sources said that searches were also being conducted in Prokhorov’s investment firm Renaissance Capital. A spokesman for the firm was not available for comment.

A representative of power generating company Quadra (TGKD.MM), also controlled by Prokhorov, said there were some checks underway in his office, probably with the Tax Service involved.

Prokhorov also owns stakes in potash producer Uralkali (URKA.MM) and aluminum producer Rusal (0486.HK). Uralkali and Rusal were not affected by the searches, their representatives said.

    Prokhorov, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall and was once described as Russia’s most eligible bachelor, launched his businesses out of the privatization in the 1990s of a huge Arctic mining operation.

    He later entered politics, setting up a party aimed at Russia’s liberal urban intelligentsia, and he said he would run against Putin for the presidency in 2012.

    He finished third with less than 8 percent of the vote, and his party -- which some observers allege has been used by the Kremlin as a lightning rod for anti-Putin feelings -- has failed to make an impression.

    Prokhorov has always been measured in his criticism of the government.

    His media interests -- which also include a magazine and a TV station -- are among the most forthright in Russia’s mainstream media, however, publishing revelations that are viewed by many as taboo.

    Russia has a history of law enforcement raids on tycoons who irritate the Kremlin.

    In 2000, men in masks raided the offices of media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky as part of a fraud investigation.

    In 2004, tax officials raided the offices of oil firm YUKOS, which was suspected of tax evasion. Yukos co-owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic, was later jailed.

    In 2014, billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov spent several months under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering. The charges were dropped after an oil company he controlled was transferred to the state.

    In those cases, the Russian authorities denied their actions were politically motivated.

    Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Andrey Kuzmin, Anastasia Lyrchikova, Alexander Winning, Darya Korsunskaya and Oksana Kobzeva; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jason Bush and Catherine Evans

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