Vatican’s investment funds were vehicles for Italian bank fraud

mincione Raffaele Mincione. | Dave Benett/Getty Images

Two investment funds used by Vatican dicasteries were also used by a major Italian bank to conceal illegal investments for which the bank was eventually closed.

On Friday, Maltese media reported that the IOR, or Vatican Bank, is being sued in turn by Optimum for breach of contract; the firm claims the Vatican's bank owes an additional 24 million euros as an already agreed-upon investment in one of its funds. The IOR has itself sued Optimum Asset Management; trying to recover millions it invested in an Optimum fund alleged to have lost 230 million euros.

Optimum was in 2015 identified by Italian authorities as a fund manager through which Banca Popolare di Vincenza fraudulently funneled money meant for outside investments back into investment in the bank itself.

While the bank was required by European law to maintain a diversified investment portfolio as a hedge against risk, it was found to have used Optimum to fraudulently invest in itself instead, leaving the accounts and investments of customers at a high degree of risk.

The bank also used the same tactic, channeling investment funds back into itself, through the Athena Global Fund, run by Raffaele Mincione.

Italian media have estimated that the fraud involved hundreds of millions of euros in bank funds.

Mincione's Athena Global Fund was also used by the Holy See's Secretariat of State to invest hundreds of millions of Church funds, most notably through the purchase of a luxury property development in London from his own holding company, Time & Life SA.

Through dedicated funds created by Athena in which the Vatican and Banca Popolare were the exclusive investors, Mincione also used funds from both to buy unrated, non-recourse bonds in Time & Life - essentially using investor funds to make no-strings-attached loans to his own holding company.

Time & Life used some of the money raised this way to buy shares in Banca Popolare – meaning that Mincione was returning bank invested funds to the bank through the back door.

By using its own investment funds to purchase its own shares indirectly through Optimum and Mincione's holding company, Banca Popolare secretly consolidated its ownership and evaded regulatory requirements to raise additional equity capital. The scheme inflated the bank's financial returns and concealed its portfolio's exposure to risk at the same time.

When the scheme was discovered by Italian authorities, Banca Popolare was fined, and then closed by a forced sale to Intesa San Paolo, one of Italy's largest lenders, in 2017. 

Mincione and Optimum were paid millions of euros in management fees for redirecting the bank's investment back into itself, while also benefiting by directing the remainder of the bank's investment funds.

According to filings made on the Irish Stock Exchange in 2012 and 2013, Mincione also borrowed tens of millions of euros from his own company Time & Life, in which the Vatican's Secretariat of State was heavily invested, through low-interest loans made to a trust, of which he was the beneficiary, based in the Isle of Jersey – a well-known European tax haven. 
These funds were in turn used by Mincione for other investments in high-risk ventures.

In 2015, Mincione bought a 5% stake in EZTD Ltd, an Israeli-based company providing an online options trading platform to American investors. That investment lost 90% of its value after a 2016 SEC finding that the company had misled investors and violated both the Securities Act and the Securities and Exchanges Act. The SEC found that fewer than three percent of the company's 4,000 U.S. account holders made a profit investing through the company.

While the Vatican spent hundreds of millions buying control of the London property development from Mincione, he also cleared an additional 60 million euros in management and transaction fees, on top of his profits from actually selling shares of the building to the Secretariat of State.

The Holy See's Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said that the Vatican's London investment must be investigated, but has not yet indicated what parties are responsible for the investment, or whether internal investment policies have been violated. Pope Francis said last month that some involved in the investment have done things that seem, to him, "not clean."

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