NICOSIA — The now-defunct Golden Visa scheme on Cyprus that was staunchly defended by Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades – whose family's law firm was a broker for them – granted at least 770 residency permits and European Union passports to people not eligible for them.
That was the preliminary finding of a report by a four-member panel appointed by the government to look into the scandal that saw the end of the program in November, 2020 and the EU also investigating.
The report also said service providers involved in the application process used political connections to apply pressure to the finance and interior ministrie, and even Anastasiades to approve them.
The report said the government also unlawfully gave 3,500 passports to the relatives of wealthy foreign investors in the scheme that brought in almost $9.6 billion and lined the pockets of companies and individuals who aided it.
The program appealed to rich foreigners because of the EU passport it came with that allowed visa-free travel within the 27-member bloc but the report indicated it was a profit mechanism that ignored the country's laws.
It said that the government wasn't authorized to give passports to relatives of investors but did it anyway and so far no one has been prosecuted for any wrongdoing although a former parliament speaker was caught on an Al Jazeera videotape appearing to offer to help a Chinese investor who said he had a criminal record.
The Golden Visa idea was open to money laundering and criminal activity, the EU said, and the panel and other critics said that applicants weren't properly vetted because the main intention was to get as much money as possible.
Cyprus has long been fighting a reputation as being a haven for dirty money and a place for criminals to hide their cash in banks and governments that look the other way although it's a member of the EU.
The Associated Press and Newsweek reported on the panel's findings that were another shot at the government although Anastasiades, who recused himself from his family's law firm's dealings with investors, repeatedly said there was nothing wrong.
He authorized the investigation by the panel that's led by a former senior judge that found serious problems with the visa scheme, issuing a 515-page report that said just over half of the 6,779 passports that successive governments issued under the program over 13 years were given to investors' adult family members, even though there was no law in place to authorize that.
The Cypriot Parliament passed legislation allowing the government to grant those residency permits and passports to family members only a few months before the program was scrapped last year in apparent retroactive protection for the government.
The report also said that another erroneous legal interpretation allowed the Cabinet to issue passports to senior executives of foreign and Cypriot companies, without them having made a personal investment in Cyprus and for which they weren't eligible at all. Committee members said the executives couldn't be considered investors because they didn't own the companies.
The committee also faulted the government for potentially "inadequate vetting" of investors' applications as well as violating the "basic tenets of natural justice and good governance."
Neither the presidents nor politicians holding two key Cabinet posts involved in the process recused themselves from granting visas even when they had apparent conflicts of interest with applications handled by law firms or other companies that they were directly or indirectly connected to.
The overwhelming number of citizenships were granted under Anastasiades' Presidency but there was no report whether the findings included his family's law firm for its role in helping approve the visas.
The report also pointed to serious shortcomings in how the Interior Ministry processed applications, including the "complete lack" of a data base to properly vet the applicants.
It said the Finance Ministry was also at fault for "green lighting" certain applications that didn't fulfill all the criteria, due to the size of the investment in another open violation of its own procedures.
The interim report was redacted so as not to affect ongoing legal cases against certain applicants and block the release of identities. No date was given when the final report would be issued nor whether anyone would be prosecuted for anything despite the reported unlawful activities.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)