Recent developments make it fair to ask if we’re doing enough to protect and uphold Vanuatu’s reputation in the international financial community.
At the beginning of the year, two internationally-known companies were finally struck off the company registry here in Vanuatu. The raft of complaints and notices surrounding both MPG Invest and Sakura FX raised serious questions about the integrity of Vanuatu’s finance centre.
And recently, the appointment letter for an expatriate Trade Commissioner was revoked by the Minister of Foreign Affairs after it was discovered that there was no evidence of due diligence in its processing.
There have been a long string of expats over the years with decidedly mixed pedigrees who have been quick to tout themselves as champions of investment in Vanuatu, many of which were more dream than detail.
One of the more noticeable among these is ‘Lord’ Geoffrey Bond, who made headlines internationally when he claimed that Vanuatu would be the first nation in the world to accept payment for its passports in Bitcoin.
This claim was quickly walked back when the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu issued a statement ‘strongly advising’ companies to avoid using or trading in bitcoin. The Bank stated that it was “very concerned of its reputational risks on Vanuatu’s image as a whole, itself as the sole authority responsible for the issuance of Vatu currencies and in terms of ‘Know Your Customer’ requirements.”
Mr Bond alleged that he had been appointed Honorary Consul to Vietnam, but it was not clear at the time whether his credentials were ever accepted by Vietnamese authorities.
Foreign Ministry sources initially told the Daily Post that Mr Bond's consulship letter had been revoked. Two days after this story was published, however, they informed the newspaper that this was not the case, but re-stated that Vietnam had yet to accept his credentials.
The Daily Post reported at length on Bond, whose LinkedIn profile still lists his employer as the Government of Vanuatu VERP programme. Further down, his title is “Official Government Representative Agent for the VERP Program at Government of Vanuatu VERP Program [sic]”.
Citizenship officials have assured the Daily Post that only Ni Vanuatu are permitted to act as agents for the Development Support Programme, which is not the same as the VERP.
Lawyer Bill Bani, who is a registered DSP agent, reportedly contracted with Mr Bond to act on his behalf.
Now, Mr Bond, along with another colourful character, has purchased a defunct resort on Aore island. The former owner’s company had been liquidated, and the property was sold by a bank. One prospectus listed an asking price between AU $1.5 - 2 million. It is believed that the actual sale price was less than that.
Due diligence was conducted by reputable local law firms representing each party. There is no indication that there was anything untoward in the acquisition process itself.
The property was subsequently renamed the XO Resort + Residences, and a flashy website created. There’s lots of sizzle there, but not much steak. An artist’s rendering shows an idyllic piece of shoreline with a seaplane sidling up to one of two jetties, and what appear to be nearly 300 rooms of accommodation in a series of buildings rounding a restaurant and other facilities. At least three swimming pools are present in the drawing.
Their plans look worryingly unrealistic, and it’s not clear if potential investors are getting a clear idea of the challenges a development like this faces. According to the website, “XO Resort + Residences is one of Vanuatu’s foremost property development and resort management brands, led and managed by chairman Geoffrey Bond. The British businessman has almost 30 years’ experience developing and managing highly successful construction and real estate projects in [sic] all over the world.”
Last year the Daily Post reported that Bond’s “Twitter profile lists him as partner in the Wolf Grill & Wine Bar, a now-defunct Bangkok night-spot once owned by Pleasure Worldwide Company. If their promotional
video is to be believed, is a warm and welcoming place indeed. It features numerous shots of alluring women— guests and staff, apparently—acting extremely friendly with one another, and with the camera.”
“It was alleged” the report continued, “that in addition to the restaurant, Mr Bond was involved in other investment plans, one involving an elite ‘art’ club for gentlemen. This club, to be named Spanks, never materialised, it seems.”
Bond’s LinkedIn profile lists no experience as a resort developer. The XO website continues, “Bird Eye View has gone on to win numerous honors at the prestigious International Property Awards including ‘Best Apartment in the World’ and ‘Best Development Marketing’ surpassing all other entries from 110 countries in each case.”
The Daily Post was unable to find any reference to ‘Bird Eye View’ at the International Property awards website, or anything that relates recent winners in the ‘Best International Interior Design Apartment’ category to this resort or those involved in it. There is no ‘Best Apartment in the World’ category.
Whatever one may think of the legitimacy of the plan, the logistical assumptions being made are questionable at best. The artist’s rendering is optimistic, to say the least.
Ignoring the fact that there are no sea planes operating in Vanuatu at present, the issue of supplying and supporting up to 500 guests on an island off another island is daunting.
Simply supplying enough milk and eggs for a busy brunch would be a challenge. Offering quick access to and from Luganville, the nearest airport, let alone transiting them through Santo would be nightmare enough for many. Most worrying of all, however, is Mr Bond’s choice of business partner. He is listed as a 50% shareholder in XO Ltd with Sebastian Greenwood. Pop that name into your web browser, and you’ll see dozens of links associating Mr Greenwood with something called OneCoin.
OneCoin is well known enough to merit its own Wikipedia page. The page states unequivocally that it is a Ponzi scheme. OneCoin and partner company OneLife are awash in allegations, including fraud and money laundering.
In May last year, the Atlantic magazine wrote that Indian authorities raided a OneCoin meeting, “jailing 18 OneCoin representatives and ultimately seizing more than $2 million in investor funds. Multiple national authorities have now described OneCoin, which pitched itself as the next Bitcoin, as a Ponzi scheme; by the time of the Mumbai bust, it had already moved at least $350 million in allegedly scammed funds through a payment processor in Germany.”
In January this year, The Mirror announced that OneCoin “faces collapse” with “50 people questioned by police” in relation to what it called a “get rich quick scheme”.
The article reported, “Companies associated with OneCoin have now been investigated in the UK, United States, Ireland, Italy, Canada and the Ukraine.
A website created to raise awareness about concerns relating to the operations lists dozens of warnings, investigation notices and findings from 28 countries.
The Mirror adds, “Its computer servers are in Sofia, Bulgaria, home of the founder Ruja Ignatova, and authorities there raided offices and confiscated documents on Friday.”
Later, it stated, “Three men have been arrested in Ilford, East London, Glamorgan in South Wales, and Walsall, West Midlands, on suspicion of fraud and money laundering. An address in Bradford was also searched.”
No evidence exists at this stage that the money used to purchase the Calypso resort came from OneCoin or OneLife. OneLife issued a press release responding to this and dozens of other media reports, denying any wrongdoing.
But it’s worth asking: In light of recent legislation requiring all companies to ‘Know Your Customer’, are we doing enough to vet incoming investors?
When the original reports surfaced concerning Geoffrey Bond and the Vanuatu Information Centre, Parliamentary Secretary (now Minister) Andrew Napuat was quick to defend him, and to cast aspersions on the British investigative reporter who first brought Mr Bond’s adventures to light.
Now, in spite of numerous questions concerning the man, the way he represents himself and the company he keeps, he is still welcomed with open arms by influential members of society. Last month, it was announced that he would be funding a new Farea for the Vaturisu council of chiefs.
Who made the introduction? Who continues to vouch for investors who at best have few if any successes to show?
It appears that an expedited process was used to approve Bond's application for honorary consulship. On what basis was this provided?
There are more questions than answers to this story, but what little we know does not reflect well on our leaders’ commitment to improve the nation’s financial transparency and reputability.
It’s worth asking how the people evaluating Vanuatu’s status on the FATF financial grey list will view circumstances such as these.
CORRECTION: In the print edition of this article, it was stated that Geoffrey Bond’s honorary consulship to Vietnam had been revoked.
This statement was made based on repeated verbal assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that this was the case.
The Daily Post requested formal notification of the circumstances of the revocation, but in the interim published the report in good faith. On Monday, after the article was published, the same source contacted the Daily Post, stating that there had been no revocation, but that Vietnam had yet to accredit Mr Bond. We regret the confusion.