This has been an international enigma for the past two years: Who actually owns the lavish Vancouver mansion, where Prince Harry and Megan spent the winter in 2020, as they reportedly revealed their plan to retire from official royal duties?
Is the Russian-born billionaire a few media connected to the property? Is Canadian mining tycoon Frank Justra, as (erroneously) reported from the sixth page of the New York Post?
The CBC and Radio-Canada found the answer, and it did involve a Russian, but it wasn’t easy – it required an international leak from tax havens, access to the company’s internal records and intensive research. All this, experts say, shows once again how opaque Canada is when it comes to assets such as real estate and who owns them.
“It’s very easy for criminals around the world to launder their dirty money in Canada and buy real estate,” said Kevin Como, a lawyer and financial transparency expert. “And we can’t know who they are or [the] ability to pursue their money. “
From BC to the Caribbean to the Channel Islands
There is no suspicion of crime around the Mille Fleurs mansion in North Saanich, about 30 km upstream from Victoria Island. But it certainly protects its owner well.
For starters, unlike most properties in British Columbia, you can’t find it in the provincial land registry.
This is because the mansion is not registered as a single property, but is part of a plot of land on the oceanfront of the Saanich Peninsula, owned by a corporation called the Towner Bay Country Club. Each landowner has shares in the village club corresponding to their plot.
The club’s records are not public. But CBC / Radio-Canada was able to view an internal spreadsheet that tracks the property tax on club owners. It lists a company in the British Virgin Islands called JEMC Management as the owner of Mille Fleurs.
Mille Fleurs, as the manor is known, is located in Towner Bay in North Saanich. It was announced for $ 18 million the last time it was put up for sale. (Sotheby’s)
The corporate records of the British Virgin Islands do not disclose the company’s shareholders. So the trail of property would usually stop cold here, but luckily: Pandora’s documents – The huge cash leak of tax haven records obtained from the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with CBC / Radio-Canada – shows that JEMC Management is owned by another Bahamas-registered company called Orland Properties.
Orlando, for its part, is owned by a trust called the Andromeda Trust, set up under the laws of the Bailiwick of Jersey, a small tax haven off the coast of France. The trustee is a company whose sole employee lives in Cyprus.
But whose money is behind it?
The connection with Andromeda
Two years ago, after speculation about who really hosted Harry and Megan broke out in a fever, a name that kept popping up was venture capital billionaire Yuri Milner, arguably Russia’s most famous Silicon Valley-born investor.
It was reported to Milner spend time with celebrities on the superyacht – a boat also called Andromeda – and he knows Canadian music producer David Foster, whose wife has known Megan Markle since their school days.
Foster, a 16-time Grammy winner, even gave an interview to The British Daily Mail for the mansion in 2020where he said he had been friends with the manor owner for years. The music producer said that although Milner was not the owner, he helped Milner rent the house “about five or six years ago … for a short time.”
Music producer David Foster, on the right, arranged for the royal couple to stay in the secluded mansion. His wife, singer Catherine McPhee, in the center, is a longtime friend of Megan Markle. Trust set up by billionaire technology investor Yuri Milner, left, to buy the mansion in 2013 (Kelly Sullivan / Getty)
Milner-managed investment funds took early positions on Facebook and Twitter before these companies went public, units that generated mega profits. But as reporters revealed in 2017, about half of the capital for his company’s investment in Twitter comes from VTB Bank, Russia’s No. 2 bank, which is majority owned by the state.
“This is probably one of the two banks that finance the most connected civil servants and oligarchs,” said Jamieson Firestone, who has practiced business law in Moscow for nearly two decades and has become a leading figure in Russia’s global anti-corruption campaign. . He called VTB a “rain fund” for the Russian government.
Milner’s Facebook game, meanwhile, was partly fueled by money from a company that itself has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned energy company Gazprom. showed the same media investigation. An oligarch named Alisher Usmanov ran Gazprom’s subsidiary and eventually received a stake in Milner’s Facebook investment.
Milner said he was just doing business, looking for money and making investments. While VTB Bank and Gazprom are under sanctions in Canada, the United States and the EU, this did not begin until 2014, three years after he raised the money.
A spokesman for Milner told CBC that VTB’s funding was returned in the same year and that Milner had not raised capital from Russian investors since 2011. Usmanov was only added to Canada’s sanctions list this March. Milner has never been sanctioned and is generally not considered an oligarch.
In early April, the CBC asked Milner if he owned, directly or indirectly, the mansion where the royalty spent Christmas and New Year in 2019-2020.
The answer came from Alice McGillian of the New York-based reputation management company Rubenstein: “We can officially confirm, as we have done consistently [in] the past that neither Yuri Milner, nor any member of the family, nor any legal entity related to him or his family, owns the Mille Fleurs estate on Vancouver Island or any other property in Canada. “McGillian refers CBC to the interview , given by music producer Foster.
However, documents found by CBC News at the end of Pandora’s leak revealed that the Andromeda Trust, a Jersey-based legal entity at the top of the Mille Fleurs-owned chain of offshore companies, did not always bear that name.
Until February 2016, it was called the Yury Milner Trust (variations in the English spelling of Russian names are common).
A letter written by Milner’s lawyer in 2018, found in the leak, explains the origin of the trust: “The person who provided the assets” is said to be “Yuri Milner”.
The letter continued: “Potential beneficiaries of the Andromeda Trust include Yuri Milner’s charities, relatives and friends.
Another record says that before 2015, “Yuri Milner exercised control” over a number of companies, including JEMC Management, which bought the Mille Fleurs mansion.
CBC News returned to Milner with these findings. This time the answer was quite different.
McGillian sent another statement asking for it to be attributed to an unnamed “spokesman for the trust.”
The statement acknowledged that Milner’s trust, funded by him, bought the mansion in 2013. It acknowledged that Milner himself was in fact the beneficiary of the trust at the time. Once again, it is stated that the stay of Prince Harry and Megan was arranged by David Foster.
The statement explains all this, but says that Milner and his wife decided in 2013 to commit to donating most of their wealth to charity. The following year, Milner himself was removed as a beneficiary of the trust he had created in favor of newly formed charitable foundations, which are not mentioned in the statement. In 2018, all his relatives were also eliminated as possible beneficiaries, the statement added.
Therefore, he is no longer “connected” to the mansion, the statement said.
It also confirmed that Milner has a similar trust agreement for the 107-meter superyacht Andromeda, a vessel he has so far denied owning but has skill for being spotted partying and vacation On. The statement said he was also not “connected” to the yacht.
Firestone, a former Moscow lawyer, said it was a legal distinction without much distinction.
“If you have the exclusive use of something, you basically have all the advantages of owning it without having to own it legally,” he said. “So, yes, he may not be the owner, but he may be the ultimate beneficiary, which is essentially the same thing for all these things.”
WATCH Check out the BC property where Harry and Megan stayed in 2020:
Megan Markle’s hideout? It is believed that this property is the place where the royalty are
Mille Fleurs, a mansion in northern Saanich, British Columbia, is believed to have been where Prince Harry and Megan rested and where the Duchess is currently 0:35
“We don’t have the tools at the moment”
The mystery of the Vancouver mansion shows how difficult it can be to find out who really owns a property in Canada, which can make it extremely difficult to confront the scourge of money laundering in Canadian real estate, or to confiscate the wealth of Russian oligarchs, said transparency expert Como.
“We do not currently have the tools to find, let alone seize, these assets. You can’t confiscate them until you identify them and reconnect them with these Russian oligarchs. “
Initially, in Canada, BC introduced a public transparency database for properties that should be fully operational in November.
Meanwhile, federal and provincial governments have been discussing since 2019 the creation of registers to track real owners behind corporate entities such as companies and partnerships. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals initially promised it by 2025, but amid the new urgency of unprecedented sanctions against Russia and a number of oligarchs, Finance Minister Christie Freeland promised in his budget speech last week to increase it to 2023, at least for federally registered companies.
In response to a question from Radio-Canada …