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Thursday, Mar 04, 2021

Son of Russian Railways Official Owns European Real Estate Empire

Son of Russian Railways Official Owns European Real Estate Empire

A 33-year-old Russian man who runs no known profitable businesses secretly owns European real estate and other assets worth at least 50 million euros, corporate records from Luxembourg show.

Sergey Toni’s properties, which he holds through seven companies registered in the tiny European country, include a 19th-century neo-Gothic palace near Paris; an apartment between the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe; two villas on the French Riviera; three houses, three apartments, a villa, and land on Spain’s Mediterranean coast; a depot in Germany; and even, apparently, a hotel in Switzerland.

An investment fund registered in Luxembourg — of which Toni is registered as a director — holds an additional 40 million euros of commercial real estate that almost all once belonged to his family, as well as 60 million euros in other assets. The fund’s current owners are unknown, as is any other role the Toni family may play in its investments.

Because Luxembourg records show only a company’s current owner, it is unknown when Toni became associated with these companies and their assets. He was just 15 years old when the first of the properties were purchased. The virtually unknown Toni, who does not have a visible internet presence, did not respond to questions about how he came to possess such wealth.

But his great fortune may have something to do with the fact that his father, Oleg Toni, is a deputy managing director of Russian Railways.

The state monopoly, one of the largest transport companies in the world, is also Russia’s largest employer, with over 700,000 workers and net profits of $829 million. But this pillar of Russian state capitalism is famously corrupt.

In 2014, for example, Reuters reported that Russian Railways granted contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to shell companies allegedly controlled by an old friend and “unpaid adviser” of its longtime head, Vladimir Yakunin.

Yakunin and the elder Toni appear to have had a warm relationship. The Russian Railways boss contributed an introduction to a book Toni wrote about “the fate of modern Russia.” Yakunin also wrote a laudatory blog post (since deleted) in which he praised his subordinate for his work on the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“Toni was the key leader who organized the construction of all of Russian Railways’ Olympic facilities in Sochi,” Yakunin wrote. “Building what we built in just five years from nothing — few could shoulder it.”

In 2010, it was reported two of Toni’s former business partners at a private construction firm received massive contracts from Russian Railways to build Olympics facilities. At the time, Russian Railways said no laws had been violated. Toni did not respond to OCCRP’s questions about this possible conflict of interest.

No specific evidence has emerged linking the Toni family’s real estate to any illicit activity at Russian Railways. But the opaque corporate structures used to acquire the properties, their registration, en masse, to the younger Toni, and the mysterious origins of much of the financing raise questions about what may be happening behind the scenes.

Like his son, Oleg Toni did not respond to requests for comment.

Flats and Villas, Villas and Flats

In total, the Tonis acquired about 7 million euros’ worth of property in 2003 and 2004, the year Oleg Toni joined Russian Railways.

Among their earliest possessions is their most extravagant: the Chateau de Montapot near Paris.

This three-story neo-Gothic palace, built in 1850, has a total area of 990 square meters and 19 bedrooms. The house has an office with a fireplace, a dining room, a billiard room, and two more living rooms with fireplaces.

Тhe property was bought in 2003 by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands whose owners cannot be identified, but whose director was Irina Toni, the elder Toni’s wife and Sergei’s mother. Several years later, the BVI company gave this property to one of the seven Luxembourg companies that now belong to the young Sergey Toni. At the time of purchase, an independent appraiser estimated the palace’s value at 2.5 million euros.

The same scheme was used to acquire three other French properties: A Paris apartment on the glamorous Rue du Faubourg just a quick walk from the Elysee Palace; a small house in the fashionable village of Mougins; and a 3-million-euro villa in the French Riviera town of Le Cannet. By 2007, the value of this last purchase had risen to 4.6 million euros, suggesting that the family had invested further funds to improve it.

In 2011, the Tonis also bought a second villa in Le Cannet, next door to their first.

At least one of these French properties appears to be used by the Tonis themselves: A photograph posted on Instagram by Toni’s wife in 2016 shows a Russian-style lunch being served in the yard of the Chateau de Montapot: potato, herring, and raw onion garnished with a sprig of dill. (Her Instagram page was made private shortly after a version of this story was published in Russian.)

It is unknown whether the family uses the other properties personally. They do not appear on popular rental sites such as Airbnb or booking.com, and Google Maps images show no indication that they are being rented out. The accounts of Lansan Investments, the Luxembourg company that owns them, show steadily accumulating debt, suggesting that the properties do not bring in any income.

Meanwhile, the family moved on to Spain, establishing a separate Luxembourg company, Romal SA, for this purpose. Between 2010 and 2018, Romal purchased a villa, three apartments, three houses, and land in the province of Alicante worth a total of 7.4 million euros. It also registered the right to use a spot in the city’s port. Judging by company records, these properties also bring in no income.

Commercial Secrets

The Toni family used a third Luxembourg-registered company, Slova SA, for commercial real estate investments. Between 2012 and 2013, this firm acquired three properties worth 24 million euros: the Hotel Courtyard Seestern by Mariott in Dusseldorf, the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Maastricht, and a shopping center called Porte di Moncalieri near Turin.

Over the next years, however, the young Sergey Toni sold these assets to an investment fund that was registered in Luxembourg in 2014. The fund is managed by United Financial Group, a wealth management company working in the Russian market since 2005. By the end of 2018, its Luxembourg affiliate had collected assets around Europe worth 100 million euros, of which about 40 million represent real estate formerly owned by or connected to the Toni family.

The names of the fund’s investors are unknown, but Sergey Toni is one of its directors. Neither he nor his father responded when asked about the nature of their involvement. The fund paid out 58 million euros in dividends in 2018 and 2019.


Quote of the Day

Rule No. 1: Never lose money; rule No. 2: Don’t forget rule No. 1.

Warren Buffett
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