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Volgotanker Execs in Criminal Probe

Senior managers of Volgotanker, a former Yukos subsidiary and the country's largest oil-shipping company, are under investigation on suspicion of fraud and money laundering, the Samara region prosector's office said Monday.

Although the prosecutor's office did not confirm media reports that six executives had been slapped with criminal charges, spokeswoman Valentina Kalgatina said that the investigation was connected to "large-scale tax evasion claims" against the company.

If the case goes to trial, it would only be the fourth time that senior managers at a major Russian company face criminal charges. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Yukos empire has been all but bankrupted by towering tax claims, is facing similar charges in a Moscow courtroom. Other high-profile businessmen hit with charges were Media-Most's Vladimir Gusinsky and Sibur's Yakov Goldovsky.

Volgotanker is in the process of appealing a claim of 715 million rubles ($25.7 million) in back taxes and penalties for 2001, which the company received last December.

The authorities' interest in Volgotanker and the looming threat of new legal troubles could help bring down the price of the state's 20 percent stake, which the government has said it will sell this year. Analysts said that structures close to the government that are interested in the stake would benefit from a lower price.

Judges in Samara region, where the oil shipper is registered, are reviewing the case to determine whether arrest warrants will be issued for six executives, Vedomosti and Interfax reported Monday.

Kalgatina declined to identify the managers under investigation and refused to give any more details. The region's prosecutor, Alexander Yefremov, could not be reached Monday for comment.

"Everything, including names of the accused and of suspects, can change in the course of an investigation," she said, speaking from Samara by telephone.

Vedomosti, however, cited an anonymous source at Volgotanker, who said that the shipper had received on Friday subpoenas for board chairman Alexander Alexandrovich and managing vice president Andrei Azarov to arrive in court on March 2.

Judges in Samara reviewed charges against Vladimir Koryakov, managing director of Volgotanker's subsidiary Bashvolgotanker, on Friday, Vedomosti reported, but declined to sanction his arrest because it was unlikely he would flee.

The charges against three more managers will be reviewed this week, Vedomosti reported.

Two Volgotanker employees were notified of criminal charges directly, while four others found out about them indirectly because they were traveling abroad, Interfax reported, citing a source in the regional prosecutor's office.

Volgotanker spokesman Andrei Kleimyonov could not confirm that the shipper's management had received notice of any criminal charges.

"I don't have any information on this," Kleimyonov said. "It seems, as always, that we find out about such things from the media."

Kleimyonov did say that Alexandrovich is abroad conducting negotiations regarding the company's looming default on a $120 million loan from foreign investors. The company warned last month that it may default on a loan because of mounting tax problems.

Kleimyonov did not disclose which managers accompanied Alexandrovich for the negotiations.

While it was unclear Monday exactly what kind of legal troubles await Volgotanker, analysts said the bad publicity will lower the company's capitalization.

"Naturally, the arrest of key managers cannot affect the company's capitalization positively," said Sergei Donskoi, transportation analyst at Troika Dialog.

The maximum penalty for fraud and money laundering carry prison sentences of 10 years and 15 years in prison, respectively.

Offshore companies linked to Volgotanker's management control 75 percent of the company and minority shareholders have 5 percent. The government holds the rest.

"Actions by bureaucrats may not only destroy Volgotanker, but [may also] cause irreversible damage to Russia's transportation industry," Alexandrovich said in an appeal to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov last month to halt the sale of the state's stake.

The "constant threat" of legal action from Samara authorities damages Volgotanker's prestige and financial health, the letter said.

Any potential buyers would benefit from a drop in Volgotanker's capitalization, Donskoi said, adding that it is too early to speculate on their identity.

However, Maria Radina, oil and gas analyst with Finam investment company, said that the same parties that are after Yukos' assets would be interested in Volgotanker.

In its legal battle with the authorities, Yukos has lost its key production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, which was acquired by state-owned Rosneft.

Although Yukos remains among Volgotanker's major clients, the oil company four years ago gave up its controlling stake to managers who in the past have held senior positions in Yukos' former parent company Rosprom.

Volgotanker came under increased scrutiny by tax authorities after media reported that its links to Yukos had not been severed, the shipper has said.

The Yukos connection may explain the government's surprising announcement to sell its Volgotanker stake, Radina said.

"The government's decision to sell its stake in Volgotanker, while the company is facing such turmoil, seems contradictory ... [because tax claims] lower the price of the company's shares," she said.

While the government will not receive the best deal in the sale, structures close to the government may gain control of the company at a discounted price, she said.

The company, which appealed directly to President Vladimir Putin in January, appears to be taking matters into its own hands.

Shareholders controlling the majority stake want to move Volgotanker's registration to Astrakhan.

"The matter concerning the move is virtually decided," Kleimyonov said, adding that the process will take at least three months to complete.

Astrakhan region, where 60 percent of staff is employed, has been most vocal in coming to Volgotanker's defense, Kleimyonov said.

The move should not affect ongoing investigations, said Olga Boltenko, a tax lawyer at Haarmann, Hemmelrath & Partner. But it may make it more complicated for Samara authorities to open new tax cases against Volgotanker, once the company is officially registered in Astrakhan.

(The Moscow Times 01.iii.05)

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