A place in the Calabrian sun
Irish investors in a holiday development in southern Italy learned this week of alleged mafia and IRA involvment in the scheme, which remains unfinished
Róisín Adams and her husband invested in two apartments in Calabria, Italy, in 2007. They hoped it would ensure they had the finances to send the youngest of their three children, then 10, to university when the time came.
The investment turned into a nightmare, however, that this week was further compounded with accusations of involvement of the Mafia and the IRA in the property scheme. The fallout from the investment has had a hugely negative effect on Róisín Adams, who has had many sleepless nights as a result.
It all began with an advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph about a planned development in southern Italy on the edge of the Mediterranean. The estate agent involved was the well-established Ulster Property Sales group. The couple made their decision carefully: they went to Calabria in March 2007 to see the site of the proposed Jewel in the Sea (Gioiello Del Mare) development. “It was absolutely beautiful, stunning. The apartments were to be built on an elevated site overlooking the sea, in a totally unspoiled area. At the time we visited it was just meadows and wild flowers.”
Adams says they took comfort from the fact that the promoter involved, VFI Property, was run by a man from Northern Ireland, Harry Fitzsimons. He had an office in Calabria, and her husband spoke with him on the phone. A woman from Manchester who was working with VFI at the time met the couple and brought them to the site and told them about the development.
Upon their return to Belfast they met the solicitor who had been recommended to them, Gabriele Giambrone, who was based in London.
By June they had remortgaged their home and paid a ¤110,000 deposit, half the value of the property they were buying. “We were told a large deposit was standard in that part of Italy.”
By 2008 there were difficulties with the development due to planning permission. There were other “stops and starts”; by 2009 they began to fear they’d made a mistake. In early 2010 they engaged solicitor Simon Chambers, based in Newtownards, Co Down. They had seen him on TV in relation to his work with people who had sued Giambrone over another Calabrian development.
Chambers now represents 60 other clients who invested in the Jewel in the Sea project, which was to include 680 apartments but is still only a shell. Documents discovered to Chambers as part of an action against Giambrone, indicate that 62 per cent of the money deposited by these clients was forwarded to VFI, the rest to a property development company, RDV.
The VFI Overseas Property website says the group has offices in Dublin, London, Stockholm, Moscow, St Petersburg, Kharkiv in the Ukraine, and Yasmine Hammamet in Tunisia. It says it has attended international property exhibitions around the world, including Ireland.
While trying to sell the development in 2007, Fitzsimons told The Irish Times : “Calabria is an emerging market . . .Up until now it has been the poorest part of the country, but it still has the charm and romance of all things Italian," he says. "I bought the first plot of land 18 months ago and prices have gone up since then by 10 to 15 per cent.” At the time, Jewel of the Sea prices ranged from ¤85,000 for one-bed apartments, to ¤320,000 for three-bedroom, four bathroom villas.
The latest accounts for VFI Overseas Properties Real Estate Agent Ltd, an Irish company, are for 2010. By this time, according to the accounts, the business was being wound down. It paid a ¤4 million dividend to its shareholders that year, and had ¤10.6 million on deposit.
Fitzsimons and an Italian man named this week by the Italian police as a Mafia member, Antonio Velardo, were the directors and shareholders. The two men moved their equal shareholdings from personal ownership to a company in Cyprus during 2010, indicating the dividend may have gone to Cyprus.
In 1973 Fitzsimons was jailed for nine years for his role as the leader of an IRA attack on the Colin Glen bacon factory in Dunmurry. The six-member gang stole the factory payroll before blowing up the building and escaping in a stolen van.
Fitzsimons did not respond to a request for an interview this week but his solicitor, Dan McGuinness, speaking on his client’s behalf, said Fitzsimons contends he has had no involvement with the IRA since his release from prison in 1981.
He said that after his release Fitzsimons became involved in a number of small building projects in the Twinbrook and Poleglass areas of Belfast. He also owned a petrol station in Belfast, which he sold in 2006 for more than £2 million.
Fitzsimons no longer lives in Belfast and one of the filings in the Dublin Companies Office shows him using an address in Yasmine Hammamet in Tunisia. VFI has a registered address in a business centre in Camden Row, Dublin, but a woman there said it is used by the company simply as a mailing address. Fitzsimons has said he was carrying on a legitimate business in Calabria. “He believes that the suggestion that he was laundering money on behalf of the IRA is ludicrous as he has had no involvement with that organisation for over 30 years,” McGuinness said on his behalf.
Adams says nothing she has seen over the years makes her suspect Fitzsimons was laundering money for the IRA.
But the detention warrant issued last week by the public prosecutor’s office in Reggio, Calabria tells a different story. It states unequivocally that Fitzsimons (through VFI Overseas Properties) was involved with the Calabrian mafia family, Morabito, in money-laundering activities. The warrant also concludes that the provenance of the huge sums of money available to Fitzsimons is linked to his former involvement in the Provisional IRA.
The formal accusation against Fitzsimons states that along with two Italians, his partner Antonio Velardo and Antonio Cuppari who worked for the Morabito family, he was involved from July 2007 in the building of the Jewel Of The Sea holiday village in Brancaleone, Calabria.
The Reggio investigators term this development a “criminal operation” based on criminal money that had both a foreign (Ireland and Spain) source as well as a local one.
The arrest warrant states: “. . . all the monies involved in this operation came from crime, both from unclear and non-violent crimes (most probably committed abroad, in particular in Ireland) and from crimes carried out by organised crime, specifically the local (Mafia or ’Ndrangheta) working in Africo and Brancaleone, with their money coming from mafia activity and drug trafficking.”
The investigators also conclude that Fitzsimons was in possession of a “stupefying” amount of money, stating: “It is absolutely undeniable that Fitzsimons possesses a stupefying quantity of money, so much so that through the offices of his partner, Velardo, he can buy hundreds of acres of building land as well as villas and apartments, all of them by the sea in tourist resorts, both in Italy and all over Europe.
“He also thinks of buying a hotel in Venice, a ceramics factory in Rome, paintings and passenger planes in order to start up his own airline . . .”
The investigators draw their own conclusions about Velardo’s sudden wealth, writing: “The above information highlights the role of Velardo, Antonio, who starting off from a very modest economic base becomes a multimillionaire exclusively through the economic support of his partner Fitzsimons, whose close links with Irish terrorism have already been indicated.”
Those “indications” in reality came from enquiries made to both British and Irish police forces.
The investigators conclude that the Jewel of the Sea operation saw a synthesis of two criminal designs: one run by Antonio Cuppari, from the Morabito ’Ndrangheta family and based on Mafia drugs money; and the other run by Fitzsimons, based “on illegal funds coming from terrorist activity and from other crimes”.
Both Fitzsimons and Velardo “knew perfectly well that they were dealing with local organised crime exponents”.
This particular place in the sun turns out to have been very hot indeed.