Road to nowhere: Vatican made 7m investment in fake US highway 

News: Vatican finance

A now-indicted senior investment manager at the Vatican Secretariat of State duped the Holy See into investing millions with a fake proposal to fund a highway in North Carolina, according to Vatican prosecutors.

Enrico Crasso is one of 10 individuals indicted by Vatican prosecutors July 3 for financial crimes. Crasso, who for years oversaw the investment of millions of euros in Church funds, is charged with multiple crimes, including embezzlement, corruption, extortion, money laundering, fraud, abuse of office, and forgery. A 488-page indictment released last week contains details of the charges against him and other Vatican figures.

One accusation against Crasso is that the investment manager secured a 7 million euro Vatican bond investment by pitching an investment proposal which had been falsified: While it purported to be a bond raising money to finance the construction of a highway in North Carolina, the money was actually used to fund an equity stake in three Italian companies.

Prosecutors also allege that the bond, not actually for highway construction, was sold by a U.S. based company Crasso owned, HP Finance, and that Crasso never disclosed that fact to Vatican officials.

During searches of both the secretariat’s offices and Crasso’s homes and other offices, investigators found two versions of a bond investment proposal, with the one presented to the Vatican bearing “substantial differences” from the original.

“Pages 1 to 3 of the Offering Memorandum, which describes the investments envisaged to be made with the funding collected through the issue of the bonds, have been replaced, by an unidentified person, in such a way as to prevent understanding of the purpose of the operation,” prosecutors concluded.

With a prospectus pitching investment in North Carolina highway construction, Crasso secured a  7 million euro Vatican commitment, which was approved by the secretariat’s then sostituto, Cardinal Angelo Becciu. 

But prosecutors found an alternative prospectus for the same bond in emails between Crasso and an officer at BSI, an Swiss bank used by the Secretariat of State until 2017, when it was shut down by banking authorities for serial money laundering violations.

In the Crasso-BSI prospectus, the funds raised by sales of the HP Finance bond were slated to fund equity investments in three Italian companies: Piana Clerico 1582, a textile company, Natural SRL, a pesticides company, and EGO Airways.

Prosecutors concluded that the Secretariat of State was “induced to authorize a loan of over 6 million euros on the basis of a false representation, because the sums in question were never allocated [by the Vatican] to the three initiatives, but to support the highway in North Carolina.”

The bonds were eventually sold for a loss at 5 million euros in 2018.

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It is not clear that Crasso himself actually falsified the investment prospectus. While he was being interrogated in 2020, the investment manager told Vatican prosecutors he had “never heard of North Carolina.”

After examining bank records acquired during their investigation, prosecutors also allege “that Crasso has carried out various financial movements over the years between personal and corporate bank accounts [of] HP Finance and other entities related to him.” The Promoter of Justice’s indictment lists two specific personal accounts of Crasso’s held at UBS branches in the United States, one in Miami, Florida, and the other in Stamford, Connecticut. 

“On the basis of these elements, this office believes it can charge Crosso with the crime of aggravated fraud,” the prosecutors concluded. 

While several Vatican officials involved with approving the investment, including Cardinal Becciu and Fabrizio Tirabassi, are also facing criminal charges, in the specific instance of the HP Finance bond, prosecutors found no evidence against secretariat officials.

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Crasso’s stewardship of Church funds has been the subject of years of media scrutiny. 

Through Sogenel, a company he founded, Crasso was the manager of the Centurion Global Fund, in which the Vatican invested tens of millions of euros, including money from Peter’s Pence, the annual worldwide collection to support the ministry of the pope. The fund famously invested in several Hollywood films, including Rocketman, the Elton John biopic. 

Previous reporting has established that all the fund’s investments were held through a small Swiss bank in Lugano, Banca Zarattini. In 2018, U.S. prosecutors named that bank in indictments during a $1 billion money laundering case related to both the Venezualen national oil company PDVSA and Nicholas Maduro. Funds held at the bank were identified for seizure in the case.

In December 2019, Pope Francis ordered the fund liquidated after media reports on its investments.

Crasso also first introduced the Secretariat of State to Raffaele Mincione, the businessman who went on to sell them a London building, the purchase of which kicked off the investigation which led to the indictments handed down on July 3. 

Mincione has been charged with embezzlement, abuse of office, fraud, and self-laundering. He is currently suing in the Secretariat of State in a U.K. court.

Crasso is also reportedly the one who introduced the Vatican to Gianluigi Torzi, who acted as middleman for the final sale of the building and was later arrested for money laundering and extortion.

Crasso was present at a meeting with Torzi in a Roman hotel in 2018, during the final stage of the sale of the London building, at which point Torzi is alleged to have extorted the Vatican for control of the holding company which owned the building.

According to a reported recording of the meeting, Torzi can be heard soliciting an investment of millions of euros in Vatican funds in a bond he had to sell in order to meet a legal settlement with an Italian insurance company.

In October 2020, a Swiss court granted Vatican investigators full access to banking documentation related to Crasso, including those held by Az Swiss & Partners, which owns Crasso’s company Sogenel, which managed the Centurion fund.

The Vatican City trial of Crasso and the nine others indicted for financial crimes is slated to begin on July 27.