Omnia Strategy, a legal consultancy firm chaired by Cherie Blair, the wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, was paid more than £200,000 by a company implicated in the Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal, The Daily Mail has revealed.
Citing leaked invoices and bank records, the paper reported that Omnia had billed Abdulla Ziyath, former managing director of the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, in August last year for £210,000 – half of its fee for a six-month contract signed with the Maldivian government in mid-2015.
But the payment was made on September 18 by a local textiles importer called MC Maldives Pvt Ltd.
The company’s owner, Abdulla Rafiu, told the Daily Mail that he wired the money as a favour to Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho,’ the owner of SOF Pvt Ltd.
Rafiu wired the money from an account at the Bank of Ceylon branch in Malé as SOF was unable to make an international payment on the eve of the Eid holidays.
Rafiu said Latheef deposited the funds into his account and asked him to transfer it to an HSBC account in London. He did not know the money was a payment to Omnia.
“When I found out I was very unhappy,” Rafiu was quoted as saying.
“‘I am a businessman. I don’t want any connection with political things. I asked my friend for an explanation, and he said he would get back to me but never did.”
According to a damning special audit of the MMPRC, US$70 million was siphoned off into SOF’s bank account.
Following the audit report’s release, the company said it provided a brokerage service to the MMPRC and distributed the funds as requested to the first couple, the ruling party, and prominent politicians.
President Abdulla Yameen has denied any involvement in the MMPRC corruption scandal and vowed to recover the stolen funds.
Latheef – the lead singer of a popular local band called Scores of Flair and a close associate of detained former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb – was among eight suspects wanted in connection with an alleged attempt to assassinate the president with a bomb on his speedboat.
An Interpol red notice issued for his arrest states that he is wanted for “threatening catastrophe, criminal property damage, use of dangerous weapons during an offence, trafficking, manufacture, sale, or possession of catastrophic agents or firearms, terrorism, and corruption.”
Adeeb and Ziyath – who were initially arrested in connection with the September 28 blast on the president’s speedboat – are now on trial for corruption over the embezzlement of nearly US$80 million from the state-owned tourism promotion agency.
According to the audit report, resort lease payments worth millions of dollars were deposited to SOF’s account after Ziyath signed and endorsed the cheques made out to the MMPRC.
Omnia has said in a statement that it is “taking this matter very seriously” and “reviewing the suggestion that our client was not in control of the referenced bank account.”
Omnia said it terminated its six-month contract early “following the unpredictable domestic events that occurred in the Maldives in October and November 2015” and is “no longer instructed” by either the government or the MMPRC.
The Daily Mail suggested that Omnia could become the subject of an anti-corruption investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office as well as the US government. The firm is “regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which requires members to follow detailed guidelines designed to avoid them being paid from the proceeds of money laundering, crime and corruption.”
Omnia was employed for an undisclosed fee in June last year to advise the Maldivian government on “democracy consolidation.”
However, secret documents obtained by the Daily Mail shows the firm was hired to advise on “strategic diplomacy, media training, international media relations, and the management of international coverage” of the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed and former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim last year.
Omnia said in a statement to the Daily Mail that it did advise the government on “legislative and institutional reform” under a separate contract that has “also concluded.”
In addition to Omnia, the Maldivian government in September hired Washington’s most prominent lobbyist firm, Podesta Group, for a sum of US$300,000.
In November, the government also hired London-based PR firm BTP Advisers, whose clients have included the governments of Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Azerbaijan.
The Maldives Independent meanwhile learned that the government spent a total of MVR297,510.88 (US$19,293.83) on visits by Omnia Strategy’s barrister, Toby Cadman, between June and September.
Omnia Strategy had also helped the government submit a 110-page response to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention after Nasheed petitioned the specialised agency to declare his imprisonment illegal.
In September, the UN WGAD said Nasheed’s terrorism conviction was politically motivated and in violation of the Maldives’ obligations under international law.