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A war of detectives

They had known each other for 13 years. Their relationship was intense, at least in financial terms, generating two billion francs in transactions. One made his fortune on the back of the other, but in return he assembled one of the world’s finest art collections. Yves Bouvier’s arrest in Monaco on 25 February 2015, though, has sparked all-out war. Or rather: wars. The first was a surface conflict, played out in front of courts in Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, Geneva and New York. The second was subterranean, with detectives hired by both sides as the foot soldiers. Their objective: to destroy the enemy, no holds barred. Yves Bouvier was quickest on the draw.

Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for
Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for

Late morning on 25 February 2015, the lawyer Alexandre Camoletti rushes to 36 Rue de Montchoisy in Geneva, the offices of Alp Services SA, an investigative agency run by a detective called Mario Brero. “What should we do? What are we going to do?” one of the company’s former employee recalls the then 43-year-old lawyer shouting.

At 10 o’clock that morning, Yves Bouvier was arrested by the Monaco police in the lobby of the luxury La Belle Époque building (see Episode 1). The officers do, however, allow him to phone a lawyer. Alexandre Camoletti should have been the first to know, but as he didn’t answer straight away, it is the court-appointed lawyer, the Monegasque Charles Lecuyer, who informs Camoletti of the arrest that sets off an epic battle in Geneva and around the world.

Mario Brero is undaunted. A few months previously, this legendary Genevan detective, always impeccably turned out in a three-piece suit, extricated himself all by himself from a sticky situation, having been accused of spying on the former boss of Areva, Anne Lauvergeon, and her husband, Olivier Fric. All by himself because it was a Friday and his lawyer, David Bitton, had left at 3 p.m. for the sabbath. When Alexandre Camoletti enters his office that 25 February, Mario Brero quickly realizes that this could be the one last big case with which to call time on his career (he is 68 at the time).

An alliance with Madame

The detective is on familiar ground. He has worked for Yves Bouvier several times before and has known and liked the businessman since the late 1990s. Quite apart from that, he has already analysed Dmitry Rybolovlev during the Russian couple’s divorce on behalf of the lawyer Marc Bonnant, for whom he sometimes “strong-arms” people. It was Alp Services that patiently pieced together a map of all the oligarch’s assets. Hundreds of companies, offshore and otherwise, in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Panama, along with his properties and banking relationships. That enabled the wife, Elena Rybolovleva, Bonnant’s client, to win a CHF 4 billion settlement at the end of the first trial in May 2014 — the divorce of the century.

One of Yves Bouvier’s first steps when he is released from custody in Monaco is to make an alliance with Elena’s camp. Through his intermediary, the lawyer David Bitton, he drafts a secret agreement with Marc Bonnant on 17 March. “Your client will furthermore provide Mrs Elena Rybolovleva with all the elements required to locate the paintings sold to Dmitry Rybolovlev,” stipulates the agreement, which is signed two months later on 29 May. In return, the former wife promises not to sue the Genevan for the role he played in the trap laid for her in Cyprus (see Episode 4).

A graduate of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Mario Brero founded Alp Services in 1989 and quickly became an important player in the European economic intelligence market. His agency employs about 20 staff — IT engineers, geopolitics specialists and former police officers — and offers a wide range of services including surveillance, cybercrime, economic crime and wealth surveys.

A 27-strong legal team

However, Brero’s first reflex that 25 February has nothing to do with his usual services. He decides instead to hire a lawyer — the criminal barrister Luc Brossollet, who agrees to travel to Monaco without delay. Mr Camoletti joins him there the same evening and the next day receives a retainer of 150,000 Swiss francs in his account on behalf of Yves Bouvier to allow him to commence emergency action. Three days later, the two lawyers obtain bail on Yves Bouvier’s behalf for a sum of €10 million, but the businessman still needs other lawyers to cover different jurisdictions and areas of expertise. “I assembled his defence team in 48 hours,” the detective later says.

By the time the Genevan businessman returns drained from Monaco on the evening of Saturday 28 February after being chauffeured back in the car his friend Mario sent for him, he has a fine legal team raring to go. It includes, in particular, the Parisian star lawyer Francis Szpiner and the former French minister François Barouin, as well as David Bitton and Yves Klein in Geneva, not forgetting the tax specialist Pierre-Alain Guillaume.

These many lawyers need to coordinate their actions. A first meeting takes place in late March 2015 at the Hôtel Métropole in Geneva, bringing together fifteen lawyers who charge between 700 and 1,000 francs per hour and do not hesitate to bill their sleep to Yves Bouvier, as criminal lawyer Ron Soffer did for his 12-hour flight to Singapore. Le Temps newspaper reported an anecdote that the Nice-based lawyer Dominique Salvia invoiced Yves Bouvier to the tune of tens of thousands of euros for reading nothing more challenging than press reviews.

A second and even more spectacular meeting take place at Geneva’s Hotel Beau-Rivage on 13-14 January 2015, with 25 of Yves Bouvier’s 27 legal representatives in attendance. Counting the participants’ travel expenses and fees, the bill comes to almost one million francs. The staff of Alp Services are shocked by this “excessive” gathering and by the lawyers, whom they compare to “leeches”. Their retainers and fees will several times drive their friend Yves Bouvier to the brink of tears.

The Genevan is subjected to a rolling barrage of legal actions brought by the Rybolovlev clan, who have not waited for their opponent’s release from prison before launching their attacks.

“The law’s nuclear weapon”

On 11 March 2015, the police search two premises in Geneva simultaneously: the headquarters of Natural Le Coultre in Avenue de Sécheron, and the Freeport, in particular the Nelombos gallery run by Jean-Marc Peretti, Yves Bouvier’s business associate. The following day, the Russian camp pulls off a spectacular coup in Singapore by obtaining a “Mareva injunction”, which Anglo-American legal texts describe as “the law’s nuclear weapon”. This is a legal procedure authorizing the near-instantaneous freezing of Yves Bouvier’s and Tania Rappo’s worldwide assets.

This “Mareva” is later judged abusive and lifted by the Singaporean courts, but for now, as he is battered from all sides, Yves Bouvier knows he can rely on Mario Brero. It is Brero from whom he borrows several tens of thousands of francs to pay his bills, and it is in the detective’s office that he spends most of his time.

“Yves Bouvier spent between five and six hours per day in my office” Mario Brero later tells the Genevan courts.

“He would even sleep on Mario’s couch,” a former colleague recalls.

Practically every lunchtime, the two friends eat together at La Tosca restaurant, 300 yards from the Alp Services offices and, ironically, opposite the imposing building from which the Lalive SA law firm now defends Dmitry Rybolovlev.

The operation that Alp Services has launched to save Yves Bouvier is on a grand scale. Most of the agency’s staff work on the case seven days a week and leave no stone unturned in their search for elements that are likely to damage Dmitry Rybolovlev’s reputation. They also get their hands on an affidavit used during the Rybolovlevs’ divorce proceedings. In it, his ex-wife Elena testifies to her husband’s repeated infidelities and a Croatian cruise in June 2008 during which he brought young virgins onto his yacht, having “organized everything on an industrial scale”.

As a result, in the two years from March 2015 to summer 2017, Alp Services’s fees swell to nearly 6 million Swiss francs, including payment for subcontractors, informers in Switzerland and abroad, private investigators, translators and drivers, not forgetting the advances made to Yves Bouvier each time he was broke.

The former director of the French domestic intelligence agency

The Russians are not to be outdone.

On 10 October 2015, Elena and Dmitry’s divorce agreement is settled out of court for an estimated one billion francs. The Russian businessman is now free to concentrate all his fire on his former supplier of paintings.

Month by month, one detective agency after another comes on board: Seeclop and Sideris in Geneva, belonging to the former police officers Christian Sideris and Daniel Pernet; Diligence Global Business Intelligence SA, also based in Geneva and run by the former British MI6 spy Nicholas Day; and finally Charles Carr, who used to work for  K2 Intelligence in London before striking out on his own. These three agencies, and maybe others, take a fine-toothed comb to every single one of Yves Bouvier’s companies in Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong, and also make a detailed list of his archipelago of 170 offshore firms (many of which have since been wound up). Factsheets are compiled on each of his associates, some of whom have less-than-unblemished criminal records. The detectives also dig through his many and varied investments between 2008 and 2012, especially the ones in Angola.

That’s not the end of it, though. Dmitry Rybolovlev also calls in a supercop, a man called Bernard Squarcini, the former director of the French domestic intelligence agency who now takes on private clients. According to Bouvier’s team, his services are beyond the means of most mortals, costing around €1 million per month.

Squarcini is reportedly responsible for hiring the Israeli company Arcanum Global, which had appointed the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, in 2012. Several clues suggest that Arcanum might have been behind a large-scale cyber attack in spring 2016 when hackers tried to break into Alp Services’ computers and, at the same time, those of all the lawyers arrayed around Yves Bouvier.

“Most notably, we received an email that was the perfect likeness of one sent by the New York lawyer Dan Levy, with an attached file to be opened that perfectly matched the case,” Yves Bouvier explains.

All’s fair in love and war

The Russian camp has indeed identified Mario Brero and Alp Services as the powerhouse of Yves Bouvier’s defence. Over the months, a number of suits are filed against the detective in Geneva, Monaco, Nice and Paris in the hope of wearing him down. Some result in convictions, including one in Geneva in July 2015 for insubordination to authority. Believing himself in danger, Brero had therefore changed his habits and travel plans. Unfortunately for him, he happened to mention this to one of his lawyers, who unwisely divulged it to the opposition, who then reported it to the police immediately after hanging. Mario Brero subsequently refused to name his sources to the courts.

All’s fair in love and war . . . As often happens in cases of this kind, there are constantly new fronts to fight on. Yves Bouvier opens a new case within the case by presenting to the Genevan state prosecutor, in September 2015, a troubling envelope that has been sealed by Alp Services beforehand and then subjected to expert analysis. Inside is a list of judges scheduled to consider the oligarch’s appeal against the divorce verdict pronounced in May 2014 which granted 4 billion francs to his future ex-wife.

According to the Genevan businessman, the Rybolovlev camp — or, to be more precise, the lawyer Tetiana Bersheda — gave him this list in St Tropez in August 2014 and asked him “to find the weak spots of all the judges involved […] financial, sexual or other. It was about finding a way of influencing them. The budget was unlimited.” The state prosecutor opens an investigation against Dmitry Rybolovlev and Tetiana Bersheda, only to drop the case three years later. The Genevan courts “give substantial credence to Yves Bouvier’s declarations” and conclude that the Russian side were seeking from the Genevan actions “associated with bribery or pressure to ensure the success of the appeal” against the divorce verdict, without going into any detail about what these actions might have been. However, since Yves Bouvier had not begun to carry them out, the attempt is not an offence.

“I work with the best journalists in France”

For his part, Mario Brero achieves in September and October 2016 the result he has long been striving for — a series of three long articles in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is hostile to Dmitry Rybolovlev. Entitled “The art of investing in power”, “Rybolovlev sheds his scales” (ryba is the Russian word for “fish”) and “Cash from the abyss”, they look back over his lifestyle and his partying with Leonardo DiCaprio, his supposed influence in Cyprus and Monaco, his past history in Perm, the murder of Evgeny Panteleymonov (see Episode 3) for which Rybolovlev served 11 months in jail before being acquitted, and the collapse of the Berezniki mine (see Episode 4). Alp Services had sent several of its investigators to Russia, made use of decently remunerated Russian sources and hosted Andrey Sukhotin, a Novaya Gazeta journalist, in Geneva for over a week.

This hits the Russian camp hard because the articles are translated and copied on many different blogs and websites in several different languages. Yves Bouvier is winning the media war because he is approachable and amiable, expresses himself in simple terms and uses his detailed knowledge of the facts to convince other people.

However, another character is trying to claim this victory as his own — the incomparable Marc Francelet in Paris, a former journalist and paparazzo who has forged a second career in business. “I work with the best journalists in France,” he says, “including investigative reporters from Le Monde. We’ve done amazing work over the past five years. We managed to get over 100 positive articles about Yves Bouvier, a wonderful man. Write that I’m defending him tooth and nail! French journalists have sided with him because of my credibility, because I was friends with Johnny [Hallyday] and Belmondo for over 20 years. Those lawyers in Geneva did nothing. I was the one who got the arrest in Monaco quashed. I don’t want to come across as pretentious, but a PR agency estimated the value of my work and the press coverage at 8 million euros. If it wasn’t for me, Rybolovlev would have swallowed Yves up like a little frog.”

Fish and frog. Fox and crow. There’s a decidedly animalistic theme to this affair. Which, as we’ll see, is far from having run its course…