Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mystery Over the Sale of Royal Home

ON paper it had seemed like a straightforward transaction when Sunninghill Park, Prince Andrew’s former marital home, was sold to an offshore company for £15m.

However, the new owner, or owners, are from Kazakhstan, the oil and gas-rich central Asian state where little is ever as it seems.

The estate was called “South-York” when Andrew lived there with his wife, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, a nickname coined from Southfork, the home of the Texan Ewing oil family in the television series Dallas.

Now an investigation into the purchase has uncovered a cast of characters just as powerful, glamorous and flirtatious as any in the soap.

In May The Sunday Times revealed that the foreign buyer had paid £3m more than the guide price on the property, even though there were no other bidders and it had been languishing unsold on the market for five years.

Now it has emerged that the Kazakh who negotiated to buy Sunninghill Park may not be the real owner of the property, which in less than a year has become neglected and semi-derelict with doors left unlocked.

Close family members of the man who negotiated the sale were also under investigation for suspected money laundering at the time of the sale, which took place last year.

What is not in doubt is that the true buyer of Sunninghill Park is personally known to Andrew, who has a number of links to Kazakhstan, both professional and personal. He has visited the country many times on official business in his capacity as a roving amabassador for British trade and also on discreet private trips.

On one of his most recent visits, in May, he is understood to have spent a weekend on a goose-shooting excursion with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan.

A spokesmen for the prince said that the sale of Sunninghill Park was a private matter, as no public money had been involved. But the Duke of York’s public role, for which he last year received £436,000 to cover his expenses, makes it essential that all his dealings are seen to be above board.

The Sunday Times has established that Kenes Rakishev, a wealthy 29-year-old Kazakh businessman, negotiated the purchase. He was said by a source close to the deal to have orchestrated it with the help of Imangali Tasmagambetov, his father-in-law, who is the mayor of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Andrew, who knows both Rakishev and Tasmagambetov, has refused to comment on the identity of the owner of his former home, which was a gift from the Queen at the time of his marriage to Ferguson.

Both Kazakhs have now denied that they are the ultimate owners of Sunninghill Park. Rakishev said that he had negotiated with Andrew over the purchase but refused to say who the actual “owner” was.

However, two even more prominent member of Kazakh society, both much closer to Andrew than Rakishev or his father-in-law, are being linked to the property.

Gaukhar “Goga” Ashkenazi, a 28-year-old Kazakh business-woman who is often seen with Andrew, is said to have told friends that she is the owner of Sunninghill Park and intends to knock it down and build something new.

No planning applications have been lodged, and this weekend a spokeswoman for Ashkenazi, who last year bought a house in Holland Park, west London, for £27.5m, denied that she is connected to Sunninghill Park.

The other person who is thought to be the owner of Sunninghill Park is one of the most powerful men in Kazakhstan. Outstanding water bills for the property have been sent to a woman who works for him.

Timur Kulibayev, 41, is a billionaire oil and gas tycoon who is known to Andrew, not least through their attendance at hunting parties thrown by Nazarbayev. Sometimes, according to sources, the president has been known to shoot bears.

Kulibayev is married to Dinara, Nazarbayev’s daughter, but he has apparently been conducting an affair with Goga Ashkenazi, who named him as the father of the baby boy that she gave birth to at the Portland hospital in central London last December.

Did Kulibayev buy Sunninghill Park, perhaps as a present for his mistress, who is such a close friend of Andrew’s that last year at Royal Ascot he introduced her to the Queen?

Kulibayev’s connection to Sunninghill Park is well hidden. But the Crown Estate, which runs Windsor Great Park in which Sunninghill Park is sited, has been attempting to send invoices for outstanding water bills at the property to a woman called Olga Aristova, who works for Kulibayev in Kazakhstan.

Rakishev said that Aristova worked for the billionaire as a manager. She refused to comment when contacted. At the same time, a debt collection agency working for the power company E.ON has been pursuing Rakishev for electricity bills of more than £4,000 for Sunninghill Park.

Rakishev, who describes Andrew as a “friend”, is adamant, however, that he is not financially connected to Sunninghill Park.

He was asked who the owner was. He had dealt with the negotiations, after all. Rakishev, whose conglomerate Sat&Co is, according to sources, part-owned by Kulibayev, replied: “If you want to ask about this - Mr Kulibayev, call to him.”

Kulibayev is by far the more senior of the two. One Kazakh politician described Rakishev as Kulibayev’s “bell boy”.

Kulibayev, who is a former vice-president of KazMunaiGas (KMG), the state oil and gas company, and now chairman of KazEnergy, the industry’s umbrella organisation, repeatedly failed to respond to questions put to him.

Although on paper Kulibayev is no longer connected to KMG, his tentacles in the oil industry are still far-reaching. They will undoubtedly have brought him into contact with the prince whose official task for the government is to help to broker deals between British firms and foreign interests.

According to one politician in Kazakhstan, the prince met representatives of KMG in May at the time of one of his most recent private trips. Witnesses also report seeing the prince in the country on a private visit in November, shortly after an official visit.

On that occasion Andrew was seen at a bar called Soho in the city of Almaty. Again, he was said to be in the company of senior executives from KMG while also enjoying the attentions of a brunette.

One witness said: “Andrew seemed to be really enjoying himself and spent most of the evening talking to this striking, Russian-looking woman with long black hair. He was totally engrossed. I was surprised to see him there, as Soho can be very sleazy at night.”

Kulibayev has also been busy inviting VIPs, reportedly including the prince, to regular hunting meets hosted by the Kazakh president. The events involve hospitality of every conceivable kind.

Major-General Alnur Musa-yev, a former head of Nazarbayev’s KNB special service (a descendant of the Soviet-era KGB), who is now living in exile in Austria, said: “On one trip Nazarbayev was boasting that he killed 200 geese. I had to order helicopters to drive them towards the guns.”

Nazarbayev’s financial dealings are being exposed to unfavourable scrutiny. He is facing embarrassment in the United States over a pending court case involving James Giffen, an American businessman who is accused of paying Nazarbayev $78m in bribes from oil companies in return for contracts.

Nazarbayev and other Kazakhs who are linked to people involved in the purchase of Sunninghill Park were, at the same time, being investigated by prosecutors in Liechtenstein over suspicions of money laundering via a company called the Walisa Foundation.

Among the 10 people involved in the “preliminary investigation” were Tasmagambetov, who has denied any connection to the prince’s house sale, his daughter Asel, who is married to Rakishev, and Dinara Kulibayeva.

According to Interpol transmissions between Liechtenstein and the United States, Tasmagambetov, Nazarbayev and Dinara were being investigated over a suspicion of money laundering, while Asel was described as also “involved in this case”. Rakishev was not involved.

Robert Wallner, the Liechtenstein prosecutor, said: “We never made a formal allegation. The reason why we looked into this was because of the position that some of the people held in their home countries.”

Wallner said the inquiry, which began in 2002, ended this year. No charges have been brought. At the time of the sale of Sunninghill Park, however, it was a live investigation.

A spokesman for the prince said that the sale of Sunninghill Park was a straightforward transaction with no side deals.

The extra money from the sale will have come in handy. After leaving Sunninghill Park, Andrew, whose only known personal income is a £249,000 annuity from his mother, moved into Royal Lodge, the Queen Mother’s former Windsor residence.

He borrowed money from the Queen to fund a £7m refur-bishment on the understanding that he would pay her back from the sale of Sunninghill. Thanks to the Kazakhs he can easily afford to pay his debts.

The main players

- Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan

- Timur Kulibayev, Nazarbayev’s billionaire son-in-law, married to Dinara

- Dinara Kulibayev, shares many business concerns with Timur

- Imangali Tasmagambetov, mayor of the capital Astana; ally of Nazarbayev and Timur Kulibayev

- Asel Rakishev, Tasmagambetov’s daughter, married to Kenes

- Kenes Rakishev, young business tycoon, said to be close to Kulibayev

- Goga Ashkenazi, rich, beautiful socialite by whom Kulibayev fathered love-child in London

- Olga Aristova, said to work for Kulibayev

The three phases of Sunninghill Park

Sunninghill Park was designed by Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith and paid for by the Queen as a gift to Andrew and Sarah Ferguson following their wedding in 1986. An 18th-century house on the plot bearing the same name burnt down

The property, which boasts 12-bedrooms, extensive gardens and a swimming pool, was mocked for its resemblance to a Tesco-style supermarket. Following his divorce Andrew put the house on the market in 2002

When a buyer was ?nally found last year the introduction came from Andrew himself. The buyer has hidden their identity behind an offshore trust, while the property has been left to fall into disrepair

[Via Times Online]

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