A senior member of the Kinahan crime gang set up a membership subscription website owned by offshore companies with the help of the controversial Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, leaked files show.
The man, who US authorities have said is involved in money-laundering for the drug-trafficking gang, travelled to Panama to set up a bank account that would receive money from the website, and was met at the airport by a Mossack Fonseca courtesy car.
The extraordinary story of how, more than 10 years ago, John Francis Morrissey, who was described by the US authorities earlier this month as an enforcer, drug trafficker and money launderer, set up the offshore structure, is contained in documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which shared them with The Irish Times.
The leaked documents come from Mossack Fonseca, which was one of the world’s top suppliers of offshore services until 2016, when an ICIJ project centred on its activities, the Panama Papers, created global controversy. Two years later the firm announced it was to close.
Documents contained in the files outline how Morrissey, who was then and still is based in Malaga, used a law firm in Gibraltar to set up two offshore companies and then travelled to Panama to meet with lawyers from Mossack Fonseca as well as accountants and bankers in order to open a bank account.
He and a female partner were picked up at the airport by the law firm and brought to the Hotel Veneto Wyndham Grand Hotel in Panama City, where they stayed for a week.
Critics of the site at the time pointed to the fact that it tended to ignore drug trafficking
The offshore companies were the legal owners of an “uncensored” name-and-shame website, theratbook.com, which operated in 2009 and 2010 and had a focus on crime in the UK.
Critics of the site at the time pointed to the fact that while it hosted huge numbers of media reports on such issues as terrorist crime, murder and paedophilia, it tended to ignore drug trafficking.
As well as being based on a paid membership business model, the website also had a “donate” button and was set up to take credit card payments over the internet.
“Do you want to find the rats in your neighbourhood?” a note on the website read before it went live. “See if there are serious criminals, rogue traders, pervy priests etc around you? This is the site for you!”
Earlier this month the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that Morrissey (62), Christopher Kinahan, Christopher Kinahan jnr, Daniel Kinahan and senior Kinahan gang members Bernard Patrick Clancy, Ian Thomas Dixon and Sean Gerard McGovern were being put on the US sanctions list.
In relation to Morrissey, OFAC said: "John Morrissey has worked for [the Kinahan group] for several years, including as an enforcer, and facilitates international drug shipments for the organisation from South America. John Morrissey is also involved in money laundering."
‘Talk to me’
The address in Malaga given for Morrissey is the same as the one he used when dealing with Mossack Fonseca.
OFAC also imposed sanctions on Nero Drinks Company Ltd, of the UK, Spain and Dubai, which the US authorities said Morrissey operated and controlled through his wife.
It said Morrissey had given a “significant proportion of the business to Daniel Kinahan to compensate for loads of drugs seized by law enforcement”.
The Panama Papers show that in August 2008 solicitor Marc X Ellul, the managing director of Ellul & Co, of Gibraltar, emailed Julie Tann-Morgan of the Mossack Fonseca office in Gibraltar and asked that she reserve the shelf company Northcote Development Holdings SA, of the British Virgin Islands, for him, and send him a list of shelf companies in Panama.
Ellul sent the email on behalf of two clients based in Malaga. Morrissey was one; the other was a British national based in Malaga who is not being named for legal reasons.
The Panama company was going to be owned by the BVI company, and his clients were to be given a general power of attorney over the Panama company, Ellul said.
"My clients would also like to open a bank account in Panama in the name of the Panama company," said the Gibraltar lawyer, who is vice-chairman of the Gibraltar Finance Centre Council.
The man who answered the phone when The Irish Times rang the mobile number given for Morrissey said "Digame" ["talk to me"] with an accent that didn't sound Spanish
Ellul filled out a Mossack Fonseca form for the opening of a bank account in which he gave the names and addresses in Malaga, and phone and email contact details for Morrissey and the British national. Both men “work from home”, the form said.
The man who answered the phone when The Irish Times rang the mobile number given for Morrissey said “Digame” [“talk to me”] with an accent that didn’t sound Spanish, before hanging up when told who was calling.
When filling out the Mossack Fonseca bank account form, Ellul wrote that the purpose of the company that would own the bank account would be “to own www.theratbook.com, a members’ subscription site where rogue traders and practitioners can be named and shamed”.
The purpose of the bank account would be “to receive subscriptions from members of the theratbook.com”.
Ellul said the money would come mainly from the UK and the EU, that members would pay a subscription of £15 (€18) per quarter and that dividends paid from the account would go to the UK and Spain.
As to the expected amount of money that would be transferred into the account, the lawyer said it could not be predicted how many members would sign up to the website but that the estimate was “50,000-100,000 in the first year” (100,000 members would create an annual income of £6 million).
The lawyer said that the income would “come from a credit card processing company”, but did not name this company.
Change of plan
A Panama shelf company called Holmhurst SA was purchased by Ellul for his clients and used to hold the shares in Northcote, the BVI company. Powers of attorney in relation to Holmhurst were issued to the lawyer's two clients in January 2009.
However, that same month there was a change of plan and the English man living in Malaga resigned from Northcote and transferred his shares to Morrissey, who became the sole owner of the offshore structure.
A woman working for Morrissey [Ms A] was appointed as a director of both Northcote and Holmhurst, while a female associate [Ms B] was appointed as a director of Holmhurst. The two women are not being named for legal reasons.
Mossack Fonseca in Panama began to make arrangements for a visit to the Central American country by Morrissey, lining up meetings for him with a Panamanian bank, Bank Banvivienda, as well as with an accountant.
Morrissey met with the lawyers in the Gibraltar offices of Ellul & Co, after which a member of the firm emailed Mossack Fonseca and mentioned the opening of the bank account in Panama.
“Mr Morrissey is happy to go to Panama to meet the bank and arrange for the bank account opening personally,” the email said. “If possible, please find out whether Mr Morrissey can credit some cash into the account when he visits them. I believe he mentioned he would like to credit approximately £50,000 GBP.”
The emails show that Morrissey visited the Mossack Fonseca office in Panama, where he said he wanted to open two bank accounts, personal and business
In late March, Ms A emailed the Panama law firm to say Morrissey and Ms B would be visiting the country for seven days, beginning April 21st, but that she would not be travelling with them. The website was due to go live in June and everyone was very busy, she said.
On April 16th, Mossack Fonseca emailed Ms A about the planned visit by Morrissey and Ms B and confirmed that the firm, as a courtesy, would be “more than happy to pick them up at the airport and take them to their lodging”.
The emails show that on April 22nd, Morrissey visited the Mossack Fonseca office in Panama, where he said he wanted to open two bank accounts, personal and business.
“He told us that he will pay the invoice during his stay,” the law firm told Ellul & Co the next day by email. “We quoted him $2,200 for the two openings.”
A letter to Morrissey from Mossack Fonseca dated April 23rd noted that among the documents he had brought to the meeting were a nondisclosure agreement with First Atlantic Commerce, and a commercial licence agreement with the American software company Telligent. First Atlantic Commerce is a Bermuda-based credit card payments processing service.
There is nothing in the leaked documents confirming that a bank account was opened, or giving any information about money being transferred to Panama. When it was operating, the terms and conditions section on the Ratbook website said any legal disputes would be settled under Panamanian law.
On March 1st, 2011, Julie Tann-Morgan from the Mossack office in Panama sent an email to Ellul & Co in Gibraltar in relation to the anti-money-laundering and financial terrorism codes, and asked for documents and information about Northcote.
The reply came on the same day and read: “Morning Julie. Unfortunately we have lost contact with these clients and have fees outstanding. Therefore we’ll be unable to provide the required documents.”
Northcote was struck off the BVI register in October 2010, the leaked files show. The status of Holmhurst changed from "current" to "suspended" in 2019, according to the Open Corporates database. Mr Ellul did not respond to an emailed request for a comment.