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Gazeta.ru, October 24, 2003

PR agency searched in YUKOS probe

As part of the YUKOS probe, the Prosecutor General's Office searched on Thursday the offices of a PR agency that provides consulting services to the liberal Yabloko party, the Agency for Strategic Communications (ASK).

A group from the Prosecutor General's Office and the FSB, arrived at the agency's office on Thursday morning, producing a warrant for the seizure of computer servers and the agency's statutory documents, which the prosecutors believe may contain evidence of alleged tax evasion by some of YUKOS's top shareholders.

About 20 men arrived at the office of the Agency for Strategic Communications in central Moscow at 09h00 on Thursday. The men produced ID cards issued in the names of the Prosecutor General's Office and FSB employees, as well as a search warrant and a warrant for the seizure of computer servers containing databases and statutory documents of the agency.

"The warrant read that the search is being conducted as part of the case into tax evasion by entities linked to YUKOS," one of the agency's employees told Gazeta.Ru. "I do not remember the exact wording, but it refers to the investigation into OAO Apatit". To recap, one of the top shareholders in YUKOS, chairman of Menatep Group Platon Lebedev, arrested in July this year, has been charged with tax evasion and the embezzlement of budget funds during the 1994 privatisation of the country's leading fertiliser plant Apatit.

ASK's employees told Gazeta.Ru that during the search they were all ordered to go to the conference room, which they were not allowed to leave. In the meantime, investigators searched their work desks. The search was conducted in the absence of lawyers.

ASK specializes in the development and implementation of projects in the mass media, public relations, political analysis and consulting services. According to a statement on the agency's web site, "The main goal of the agency's operations is to provideprofessional services in communication technology."

The agency offers services to political parties, government agencies, intergovernmental organizations, Russian and foreign businesses and public organizations.

Some time later, State Duma deputies and Yabloko's members, Sergei Mitrokhin and Alexei Melnikov, arrived at ASK's offices.

The deputies urged investigators to stop the search and wait for lawyers to arrive. However, that had no effect, as the officials ignored the request from the deputies. Instead, with the help of experts from the Emergencies Ministry, they broke open two of the company's three safes where the statutory documents were stored. According to ASK employees, FSB representatives were checking the contents of computer software on the laptops they had brought with them.

Director of the agency, Vadim Malkin, told Gazeta.Ru that ASK had no connection whatsoever with YUKOS's archives. "Such assertions are sheer nonsense," Malkin said. He confirmed that the agency was providing consulting services to Yabloko in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.

Commenting on Thursday's raid, the chief spokesman for YUKOS, Alexander Shadrin, also said that the Agency for Strategic Communications had no connection with YUKOS. Shadrin said the prosecutors' hopes to find "some mythical database of companies controlled by YUKOS" in the ASK offices "is, at the very least, strange".

Shadrin also said that the "list of affiliated companies of YUKOS is published on the first page of the company's web site, www.yukos.ru. It seems perplexing that the date available from open sources is being sought in the office of a company that is unrelated to us. With equal luck the data could also be sought in a zoo, circus or asylum."

To recap, similar searches have been conducted over the past two weeks in a YUKOS-sponsored orphanage and boarding school in the village of Koralovo near Moscow, in the offices of the State Duma deputy Vladimir Dubov, and the Menatep lawyer Anton Drel.

The Prosecutor General's Office on Thursday confirmed that a search had been conducted at ASK's offices as part of the YUKOS case.

"An investigation is being carried out as part of a criminal investigation into theft and tax evasion by several structures, controlled by YUKOS," the Prosecutor General's Office information directorate said on Thursday. "Investigators are interested in databases and financial documents of the company. The investigation is being carried out in strict compliance with the law, and in the presence of witnesses."

The Yabloko party said that a number of documents and electronic media owned by the party had been confiscated during the search at the Agency for Strategic Communications, that began at 9am and continued until 7pm Thursday.

"The Prosecutor-General's Office and the Federal Security Service have confiscated documents and electronic information media, linked to the election campaign and owned by the Yabloko party." This comes from a statement issued by the party leader Grigory Yavlinsky. The document notes that the agency was carrying out political consultative work for the Yabloko election campaign.

The statement notes: "Immediately after the search the leaders of the Prosecutor-General's Office were warned that the documents being taken away belonged to the Yabloko party, and that confiscation of these documents hampered the party's election campaign." According to Yavlinsky, the FSB staff and prosecutors were preventing deputies from Yabloko's State Duma faction, Sergey Mitrokhin and Alexei Melnikov, from leaving the building.

On completion of the search, the prosecutor's office said: "a great pile of documents were seized during the search, including in electronic form. They are related to the case of embezzlement and tax evasion by a number of companies controlled by YUKOS". In addition over 700,000 dollars were seized. None of the company's staff, or those present during the search acknowledged that the money belonged to them.

"They all disassociated themselves from the amount," the Prosecutor-General's Office said.

ASK director Vadim Malkin told Gazeta.Ru that the safe had never contained such a large amount of money. "I am surprises that the investigators did not find a shaft with a ballistic missle in the courtyard," Malkin said.

He added: "Prior to the statement from the Prosecutor General's Office, I still retained some hope that the searches were attributable to some mistake, but now those hopes have gone. This is an astronomical amount. Naturally, we do not have such an amount."


See also:

State Duma election 2003

Gazeta.ru, October 24, 2003

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