It is autumn 2017, and the war between the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev and the Genevan businessman Yves Bouvier has been going on for nearly three years. Dozens of millions of francs and euros have been gobbled up by dozens of lawyers and detectives. It could go on and on — neither of the two adversaries is showing any signs of fatigue. And yet, like an arm wrestle that has lasted for many long minutes and finally inches one way or the other, several shifts in alliances, large and small, imperceptibly tilt the balance of fate in the Russian’s favour. The Genevan hasn’t had his final word in the matter. He has an unwavering optimism about him and even wins an important legal battle in Monaco in December 2019.
But let us return to autumn 2017, starting with the most unlikely agent in Bouvier’s team — the former escort Sarah (not her real name), whom he recruited as a spy after she had denounced his Parisian orgies to the press. During one of their conversations that year, Sarah utters these premonitory words to Yves Bouvier: “You know, a tree makes millions of matches, but a match can destroy thousands of trees. Never underestimate little people, because they have the least to lose.”
Since she started working for Yves Bouvier in June 2015, one of Sarah’s jobs has been to steal mail from the letterboxes of enemies of the boss of Natural Le Coultre. These people don’t live in the working-class areas of Geneva, and so Sarah can’t resist peeking into the other letterboxes nearby. Which leads her to the interesting discovery that credit card companies very often send out the card first and then the code to use it a few days after. This, she realizes, will enable her to top up her income whenever the Genevan businessman stops paying her.
Searched and seized by the taxman
This is not her headline assignment for Yves Bouvier in September 2017. The main operation’s codename is “kidney” due to Sarah’s wish to donate an organ one day “to save someone’s life”. Her mission consists of attending a conference in Yverdon, just over 50 miles northeast of Geneva, and seducing one of the participants, whom we shall call Martin. He is a senior official in the Criminal Affairs and Investigations Department of the federal tax administration in Berne.
Taxes are a new theatre in the war Yves Bouvier is fighting on all fronts. In March 2017, Ueli Maurer, the federal finance minister, gave the green light for a “special investigation” into the former shipper, authorizing the federal tax administration to proceed with searches and seize assets in April. Since it considers Yves Bouvier a Swiss resident despite his address in Singapore, and because it has identified that two of his offshore companies have generated revenues in Switzerland, the Swiss tax administration is demanding 165 million francs, not counting fines and interest on arrears. On 4 September, a Federal Criminal Court decision confirms the seizure of a building in Avenue de Sécheron belonging to one of Yves Bouvier’s companies. He needs to fight back.
And so Sarah goes to the Grand-Hôtel des Bains in Yverdon from 27-29 September on a booking made by the WTA agency for the princely sum of 1,400 francs, and there she attracts Martin’s attention, with whom she begins to exchange texts and emails. She makes full use of her charms, of course, but she also suggests to Martin that she has some bank statements and other documents that might be of professional interest to him. The federal official doesn’t bat an eyelid as he accepts this material she has stolen from letterboxes, and merely stipulates, in writing, on 12 October: “In view of our inability to identify how you came into possession of these documents, it is preferable that you send them to us electronically, as you did this time.”
When Heidi.news contacted them, neither Martin nor his superior Emmanuel Lauber wished to comment on this information for reasons of official secrecy.
A major conversation
Over the next few days, she sends him a batch of documents relating to a company whose boss, Christian B., is apparently close to the Rybolovlev camp as well as one of Sarah’s former lovers who treated her particularly badly. Further documents follow on 19 October. Martin confirms he has received them and thanks his personal informant, making it clear that she will not be kept abreast of any investigations resulting from the elements she has passed to him for reasons of fiscal confidentiality. Sarah is well aware of this.
A few weeks later, at 3 p.m. on 21 November 2017, Yves Bouvier and Sarah had a significant conversation at The Little Kitchen café in Geneva, according to a text message we have seen. This conversation was recorded and we have been able to listen to it and transcribe it. The café is just behind the headquarters of the Genevan cantonal bank (BCGe) on the Quai de l’Île, and the businessman was due to drop in.
She tells him about her stay in Yverdon and presents her plans for entrapping the senior official in Paris in order to block the investigation into Bouvier’s affairs.
Sarah: He [Martin] is lovely. What will you do if I fall in love with him?
Bouvier: That’s fine. Two birds with one stone.
Sarah: His boss isn’t lovely, though. Lauber [Emmanuel Lauber, head of the Criminal Affairs and Investigations department at the Federal Tax Administration, and the brother of the Swiss attorney general, Michael Lauber].
Bouvier: Not at all. He’s the one who signed off on my things. He’s filth.
Sarah: Lauber gave me bad looks. Everyone glared at me, but not him [Martin]. It’s weird.
Bouvier: The one you saw is the weak link. Lauber will be too suspicious.
Sarah: Is a photo enough?
The plan is as follows: Sarah is supposed to lure Martin to one of Yves Bouvier’s flats in Paris where he will be photographed.
Bouvier: It’s enough. H’s not allowed to. We’ll trap him, definitely […].
Sarah: So you’re going to attack the Swiss state?
Bouvier: Not attack, no. We’ll just say that there’s a procedural flaw and that’ll do the trick. Fiscal law says that the Swiss tax authorities aren’t allowed to investigate abroad. They can [only] look on the internet to see what you have abroad. So if he’s in Paris, reading in a thing of documents [sic], anything to do with me, it’s a breach of his investigation, and the investigation will be dead in the water! […]
Sarah: If our plan works, I’ll have to disappear afterwards. The same way I did with Le Point. I’ll have to leave Planet Earth.
Bouvier: I’ll trap him, take photos and all of that. But I’m not going to blow it all up straight away, so I’ll let a little time go by.
Sarah: When should I invite him for? December?
Bouvier: January, February, there’s no hurry. My investigation is going to go on for five years.
The two of them then talk about their phones [Sarah has a special SIM card for Martin, and he’s the only one who knows the number] and their conversations on WhatsApp. Yves Bouvier is worried. If Sarah is arrested because of the money she withdrew on the stolen credit cards, won’t the police find out they were working together? Sarah reassures him by noting that she deletes everything. “I’m not stupid,” she says. Whereas, in fact, she keeps everything.
Sarah: I’ll be in Gstaad in early December. Do you want me to do some research on Dmitry [Rybolovlev]?
Bouvier: I want to finish him off, Dmitry. Financially. He owes me money. I sold him things, and he hasn’t finished paying me. He says I swindled him. He has to prove it, whereas I have the invoices.
Sarah: For how much?
Bouvier: A billion. It’s a criminal case, I can’t just vanish. I’m not a mafioso. I don’t need to.
The two of them discuss Tetiana Bersheda’s [the Russian’s oligarch’s lawyer and close colleague] phone in which the Monegasque judge Édouard Levrault found elements on 13 July 2017 to support his theory of influence peddling between the Principality’s courts and the Rybolovlev clan. One of these was the confirmation of a trip to Gstaad by the justice minister Philippe Narmino the weekend before Yves Bouvier was arrested in Monaco. The conversation then returns to the logistics that will be necessary once Sarah has lured Martin to Paris.
Sarah: How long should I court him? He’s going to want to go to bed with me after a while . . .
Bouvier: What kind of man is he? A farmer who looks at women like this? What type of man?
Sarah: A nice one.
Bouvier: He told you he lived in Fribourg? That he rides a motorbike? […]
Sarah: I told him the truth. That I was an escort. He’s very intrigued . . .
Bouvier: You mustn’t go to bed with him the first night. You have to tell him: “I’m not an escort with you, I want to take my time.”
Their conversation is interrupted again when Yves Bouvier receives a phone call.
Sarah: If, one day, he [Martin] tells me “I’m going to Paris”, can I call someone to open your flat for me?
Bouvier: I’ll have to arrange the cameras.
Sarah: I can do it myself, don’t worry.
Bouvier: I’ll do it with José next week.
Sarah: Men like him have one time slot per day. They get all horny and they say, “Tonight’s the night.”
Bouvier: You have to get him when he’s horny.
Sarah: I’ve a feeling I’m going to end up in jail, I know it.
Apart from Sarah’s last premonitory remark, nothing goes as planned.
That’s because a few days earlier, on Monday 6 November, unbeknownst to Yves Bouvier, Sarah sent an email to Tetiana Bershda to pledge her allegiance to the Russian camp. “Please kindly pass forward this message to DR. I might be your lucky card,” she writes, referring to Dmitry Rybolovlev. The Russian oligarch’s lawyer passes it on to a man called Robert Mayhem who presents himself as a corporate lawyer. Our investigations have revealed that he is in fact Charlie Carr, a British private detective based in Milan. However, when we contacted him, he refused to comment.
On Thursday 9 November, Yves Bouvier tries again. “How’s your kidney?” he writes to Sarah in a message we have seen. She answers, “He’s going to Geneva for a conference on the 16th. I’m thinking about what to do.” That conference, which is also about taxation issues, is at 1.30 p.m. in Le Chef restaurant at Geneva airport. Sarah has indeed thought a lot about things. She does indeed ask to see Martin, but this time accompanied by his boss, Emmanuel Lauber. They agree to meet at 10.30 am at Al Volo café in the airport’s shopping arcade.
She confesses everything to the two men who have come to meet her. Her method of stealing the documents in people’s letterboxes, and the broad outlines of the trap she’s supposed to set for Martin in Paris. The two officials are stunned.
Nevertheless, she continues to send them mail she has lifted from Genevan letterboxes. On 22 November Martin confirms that he has received some new documents and thanks her. That same day, she sends him the recording of the previous day’s conversation with Yves Bouvier, from which we quoted extracts above.
These exchanges between the spy and the tax investigator last for several more months. On 8 February 2018 she writes to him to confirm that she has completely broken off contact withYves Bouvier. On 26 April 2018 Martin asks her not to use his official address for private messages and thanks her for sending him a memory stick containing various documents.
Sarah had a strange foreboding the previous autumn during her conversation with Yves Bouvier about the trap in Paris. She had said: “I’m scared. I’ve got a feeling the circle is closing in and I’m going to be arrested.”
Forgotten in Champ-Dollon
On 26 May 2018, she is in the act of extracting some envelopes from a letterbox in an upmarket part of Geneva when the concierge catches her red-handed and calls the police. Rather than making a run for it, she walks away slowly. The police arrest her 100 yards further up the street.
“I could’ve escaped. I had two 1,000-franc notes in my pocket,” she tells us later.
She is accused of theft, using a computer to commit fraud, money laundering and instigation to conceal and forge certificates, and is only granted the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer.
She explains to the public prosecutor Patrick Udry that her work has been used by the federal tax administration and mentions Martin. Despite the fact that she sent him a last batch of stolen letters on 22 May, he only replies four days after her arrest, on 30 May, in a standoffish tone that is in total contrast to his previous messages, and copying in his boss, Emmanuel Lauber. “Dear Mrs XXX, we confirm that we received your envelope. However, since we do not know how these documents were obtained, our officials cannot use them in their current condition. The same will apply to any documents you might produce in the future.”
Both the tone and the timing of the message are surprising. Was Martin aware of Sarah’s arrest? Was he trying to cover his back? Under questioning, Sarah also mentions her assignments for Yves Bouvier and Alp Services, the investigative agency. The public prosecutor is unimpressed. Neither the tax office nor the detective and certainly not the former shipper will be questioned.
Sarah recalls bitterly: “The only thing the prosecutor [Patrick Udry] told me was that he knew Yves Bouvier well, they had been at secondary school together and that he used to call him ‘la boule’ [literally: ‘the ball’].”
She is imprisoned for 12 months with an additional two-year suspended sentence. She is forgotten about in Champ-Dollon prison, serves 16 months instead of twelve, and is finally released in October 2019. How to explain the lack of interest the Genevan judicial system showed in shedding light on the ins and outs of this particular case? The state prosecutor’s office did not wish to comment when we contacted them.
Did Yves Bouvier underestimate a little person, a match capable of setting fire to thousands of trees? Maybe. When we brought up the subject of Sarah with him, he stated that he had never entrusted a single task to this person and added that, in his opinion, she had been paid and manipulated by his Russian opponent. One of his Parisian lawyers, Philippe Valent, says the same thing. In a press release in late February, after Sarah had spoken to several French journalists, Valent wrote: “We have long been aware of this testimony with zero credibility. […] It reeks of repulsive old Russian methods.”