It was a secret meeting but the police were there. On March 8, Antonio Banús Ferré — the namesake nephew of the real estate tycoon who baptized Marbella’s Puerto Banús resort after himself — drove to Madrid’s Mirasierra Suites Hotel in his Bentley Continental for an important meeting.
In the lobby, he greeted a middle-aged woman, kissed her affectionately, and the two withdrew to a private meeting room inside the hotel. After 15 minutes, they said their goodbyes and both went their separate ways.
According to court records, investigators believe that Banús received some 100,000 euros in cash — just one of the many transactions conducted by Chinese businessman Gao Ping and his associates, who were allegedly laundering up to 300 million euros a year before they were busted in a major operation on October 16.
The woman, police believe, was Malka Maman, a key figure within Spain’s Israeli community who helped Gao secretly transfer millions of euros to China.
Before the meeting at the hotel, Banús had sent 100,000 euros plus a commission from an account in an offshore tax haven containing his own undeclared money to accounts held by members of Gao’s organization outside Spain, police said. After the transaction was completed, Banús used a SWIFT international transfer number to confirm that the operation was successful so he could get reimbursed by Gao’s group in Spain, according to statements contained in the Operation Emperor court case file.
Police believe that Malka Maman acted as a go-between and paid back the 100,000 euros to Banús that day.
The list of well-known people who reportedly used Gao’s alleged money-laundering network to obtain money from abroad reads like a who’s who of the gossip press. Names of well-known businessmen, high society figures and even some members of the extended Spanish Royal Family appear in the file. They would go to Malka for help to secretly bring back money they had stashed away in tax havens long ago.
Police believe that the 36-year-old Gao, who is facing an array of charges but had to be released from preventive custody on a legal technicality, also laundered millions through the sale of cheap import products at discount Chinese-owned shops throughout Spain.
In a recent television interview, Gao denied all the charges that he is facing, including ever having met Spanish porn star Nacho Vidal, who was among the nearly 100 people arrested in the Operation Emperor sweep. Vidal and his sister have been charged with helping Gao by issuing false receipts from their movie production company.
But the names of more famous personalities linked to the Gao inquiry — although they have not been charged — have begun to surface. Among them is former banker Enrique Lasarte, who served on the board at Banesto and was charged along with then-CEO Mario Conde in the 3.6-billion-euro embezzlement scandal in the 1990s. Not only do the police believe that Lasarte was one of Malka Maman’s clients, but also that he served as a middleman for Gao’s operations.
In one phone surveillance conversation, police noticed that Lasarte was nervous when he explained to Malka that one of “his clients” hadn’t received the money that he was expecting from the Bank of China. She says over and over again that the deposit “never arrived.” Lasarte then tells Malka that they should have used a bank in Hong Kong, like HSBC, and explains how he has vast experience in the banking industry.
The late son of Cuqui Fierro, one of Madrid’s top socialites, was also recorded on two occasions while conducting transactions in his home — one for the sum of a million euros. José Manuel Torrontegui Fierro, who died last April, was not only in contact with Gao’s alleged gang through Malka but also through Gregorio Abelló, the nephew of financier Juan Abelló. The nephew was also arrested in the sweep in October.
“This family of individuals already appears in prior reports as one of the clients receiving capital, and with whom Abelló worked most regularly,” reads one report by the UDEF Economic and Tax Crimes Squad.
Police are reported to have surveillance photos of different meetings between Malka and her clients at her home in Madrid’s Salamanca district.
Three distant relatives of King Juan Carlos are also mentioned in the court file. Phone taps show that María Margarita Borbón-Dos Sicilias and her sister María Inmaculada were in touch with the organization through the latter’s daughter, businesswoman María Illia García de Sáez Borbón-Dos Sicilias.
Police also have evidence linking the Marquis of Revilla, Francisco de Borja Otero y Zuleta de los Reales with the organization. A businessman who has made his fortune in the food industry, the marquis sold his properties on Sálvora Island off the coast of Galicia to the Spanish government in 2007 for 8.5 million euros.