Business

‘They tried to destroy me’: Wirecard’s reluctant whistleblower tells his story

Pav Gill thanks his mother for many things. Sokhbir Kaur raised him alone in Singapore’s subsidised housing, pushed him through the city’s best schools — and, when the time came, forced him to become the whistleblower who would bring Wirecard’s global fraud crashing down.

“It wasn’t me, to be clear. I was just trying to look for another job, and she was busy trying to find ways to expose the company from my sofa in the living room,” the lawyer said from Bangkok, where he is building a new life.

In October 2018 Gill had just been forced out of Wirecard, after senior executives stonewalled an internal investigation into fraud allegations. His mother’s efforts to contact the Financial Times set in motion a chain of events that exposed the German company as a house of cards, forced reform of the country’s humiliated institutions and shattered the reputation of audit firm EY.

When she arranged a first meeting with the FT at Changi Airport, however, Gill remembers simply thinking: “Oh my god, what have you done now?”

Gill agreed to reveal his identity ahead of a Sky documentary centred on the Wirecard whistleblowers, but he still struggles with the label. “I don’t like the term whistleblower, honestly. I think it has some stigma, or negative connotations attached to it. It implies you are going against the company which is feeding you, it involves a breach of trust.”

Sokhbir Kaur and Pav Gill. Kaur’s efforts to contact the FT set in motion a chain of events that exposed the German company as a house of cards © Handout

Back in 2018, the reluctant Gill decided that for the fraud to be properly exposed, he had to be involved. In a series of encounters in out-of-the way coffee shops and Singapore hotel lobbies, he explained to the FT what had happened to him. Kaur, an experienced banker and a first-generation Sikh immigrant with a strong moral code, came along for support — and to insist he be protected.

A magic circle specialist in financial services, Gill was hired in September 2017 as Wirecard’s first in-house lawyer responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, reporting directly to Munich.

Within months he was approached by two Wirecard employees who accused colleagues of cooking the books. An investigation was launched, codenamed Project Tiger, that focused on a young Indonesian, Edo Kurniawan, whom Gill described as Wirecard’s “third most important finance and accounting employee globally”.

Gill found it odd that someone with as little experience as Kurniawan held such an important job.

He recalls that Kurniawan regularly flew to Munich for meetings, but at the time Gill’s focus was on Asia. “I don’t think anyone at the initial stage thought the entire company was diseased,” he said.

An outside law firm, Rajah & Tann, was hired to investigate and, in a crucial moment, copies were taken of Kurniawan’s email inbox on the authority of Daniel Steinhoff, then Wirecard’s deputy general counsel responsible for compliance.

In that trove of data lay evidence of the fake customers behind Wirecard’s facade. “Nothing would have happened if we hadn’t had the go-ahead by Steinhoff,” Gill said.

The Wirecard headquarters in Germany
German payments group Wirecard collapsed into insolvency in June 2020 © Imago Images/Sven Simon via Reuters

Project Tiger quickly uncovered misconduct. Staff were emailing themselves logos, faking contracts and invoices. However, Wirecard’s top brass took no action against the suspected perpetrators. Instead, Jan Marsalek, then chief operating officer and responsible for the Asian business, seized control of the investigation.

Gill was shocked. “Any normal company, especially a listed company, would have suspended these people even if it was just for show.” As the months progressed, his job became untenable.

In September he was presented with a choice: to resign with a positive reference or be fired. Gill lacked the strength or resources to fight, and felt out of options.

“If the company for three months is showing a tendency to discredit and destroy, then the only way to protect yourself is to do what I did: take some incriminating data just as a shield.”

Even then, Wirecard might have repaired the situation, as he was willing to start a new job elsewhere and forget about the whole affair. Instead, Gill said, “they tried to destroy me, manfully, professionally, emotionally”.

He suspected he was being followed. Neighbours reported strange men taking an interest in his apartment. Bad references put paid to job prospects. Some job interviews felt like traps to lure him into breaking his non-disclosure agreements, with an excessive focus on the reasons he left Wirecard.

Until his mother approached the FT and the Wall Street Journal, whose response she did not find encouraging, Gill had not known what to do with the material he had.

“If Wirecard’s modus operandi is to create fake documents, then you know there is nothing stopping them creating something about you as well,” he said. “If you go to the police and say ‘this company is trying to destroy me’, it sounds like a very fanciful tale.”

One lesson he learnt was that employees who spot potential misconduct, then realise their employer is not properly investigating, have few good options.

“A lot of times people don’t have the full picture, they have a suspicion but are not in a position to provide irrefutable evidence.” He suggests governments create official whistleblowing agencies outside of the police. “It can be like suspicious transaction reporting agencies. Individual employees need some agency they can go to and say: ‘I’m really scared, this is what I think my company is doing. Don’t use it against me or my company, just tell me what I should do’.”

For Gill, the FT played that role. “It felt like a burden was lifted. It’s no longer you who carries the weight of that information,” he said, although the first story took nerve-racking months to appear.

When it did, Wirecard dismissed it as “another inaccurate, misleading and defamatory media report”. A few days later, then chief executive Markus Braun changed tack, admitting the gist but attacking the source. “We have substantial doubt about this whistleblower’s story,” he told analysts on a conference call, suggesting documents were leaked by “somebody with malicious intent”.

Gill did not sit idly by. He joined Twitter anonymously to expose Wirecard’s lies. He also worked with the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, helping it write critical stories from within Germany.

Some of the Twitter flame wars got out of hand. “I regret insulting decent genuine investors in, say, Germany,” he said, describing Wirecard’s collapse in June 2020 as a wake-up call. “You suddenly put yourself in the mindset of how you would be as a normal retail investor, seeing this company you’ve invested in and has already given you returns, their products are fine. You would think — what is this nonsense about it being a scam.”

As for blame, Gill said many people inside and outside Wirecard faced a karmic debt for their role: “EY were the external enablers along with the flailing regulatory agencies in Germany.”

Braun is now in police custody, protesting his innocence. Gill said: “A CEO can’t be that much of a dense dupe, right? If you try to present yourself as some sort of Elizabeth Holmes visionary, you need to have some sense of what is going on in your company. You can’t now blame it on the guy who ran away. For all we know that was the plan all along; Marsalek is missing and everyone else is a victim.”

Gill now works as chief legal officer for Zipmex, a digital assets platform. “It’s been so long since I found a place that I can call home professionally, it’s been a very exciting time,” he said.

His journey, as he calls it, was not without cost. He would get anxious whenever his building’s lift passed his floor, making the door rattle. “I always used to get scared. Just hearing that door move would not allow me to sleep . . . I would know it was not particularly rational, but it still happens.”

Gill is keen to share out the credit — “there are many heroes in this story” — and is conscious it lacks a happy ending.

“What is the meaning of doing the right thing? It always comes at a cost, including for the vast majority of Wirecard employees who were innocent. I always used to take the train from Munich city centre out to Aschheim and you’ll see the whole campus around Wirecard would be full of IT, admin, engineering people — and now [most] of them have lost their jobs. It was just a big nothing which only benefited a few criminals.”


Source link

Related Articles

Back to top button