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Georgian former defence minister accused of running ‘billion-dollar scam’

13 April 2023
Davit Kezerashvili, bottom right, and four of the individuals implicated in the BBC investigation. Top left: Rati Chelidze, top right: Mikhail Benimini, centre: Joseph Mgeladze, bottom left: David Todua. Image: BBC

A BBC investigation has accused Davit Kezerashvili, a Georgian former defence minister and opposition media owner of being behind an international ‘billion-dollar’ scam network. Kezerashvili denies the allegations. 

The investigation into call centres in Georgia and Ukraine that defrauded people through fake investment schemes reportedly lasted more than a year, and focused on a group of call centres reportedly linked to Georgian former defence minister Davit Kezerashvili. 

Kezerashvili served as head of Georgia’s financial police between 2004 and 2006, and then as minister of defence, a position he resigned from four months after the August 2008 war, under the United National Movement (UNM)-led government. Kezerashvili is also the founder and owner of the Georgian pro-opposition TV channel Formula.

After Georgian Dream took power in 2012, several criminal cases were launched against Kezerashvili. In 2021, he was found guilty of embezzling €5 million ($5.2 million) in 2008 while serving as Georgia’s defence minister, and sentenced to ten years in prison in absentia. 

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian Dream vs Kezerashvili: the end of Formula TV?]

While Georgia and Germany have previously collaborated on investigating scam call centres in Georgia, which the BBC investigation claims have defrauded European and British citizens of ‘billions of dollars’, this is the first time that the centres have been so firmly associated with Kezerashvili. 

‘At the centre of the network’

According to the BBC investigation, their journalists used publicly available corporate documents to determine the connection between the ‘hundreds’ of investment brands involved in the defrauding schemes, which the report refers to collectively as the Milton group. 

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That search identified five people as being behind the network, including four with Georgian surnames: Michael Benimini, David Todua, Rati Chelidze, Guram Gogeshvili, and Joseph Mgeladze, who were listed as directors of companies within the scamming network. 

The names of Chelidze, Gogeshvili, Mgeladze, and Benimini were also reportedly found in the Panama Papers, where they were listed as directors and senior figures of offshore companies and their subsidiaries. According to the BBC, many of those companies could be traced back to Kezerashvili, who was listed as a founder or initial shareholder. 

While no publicly available information directly connects Kezerashvili to the Milton group, the BBC report claims that he extensively promoted the scam trading platforms on social media, owns buildings, branding, and web domains connected to these companies, and appears from social media to have close social ties to those involved in the scams. 

‘Several former employees of Milton-linked companies told us confidentially that they had had direct dealings with Kezerashvili and knew him to be involved in the Milton group’, the report states. ‘Behind the scenes, Kezerashvili appeared to be at the centre of that network.’

The article notes that Kezerashvili denies any involvement with the group, but states that one of the listed companies is, to his knowledge, ‘a legitimate business’, adding that the BBC’s findings ‘proved nothing’. 

Conflicting reactions

Several hours after the investigation was published, Kezerashvili wrote on social media that he had no connection to the call centres described in the investigation. 

‘I declare with absolute responsibility that I have never participated in such schemes, so I am not going to ignore the harm that this material causes me’, wrote Kezerashvili.

‘I will use all legal leverage to prove both the inaccuracy of the facts and the false assumptions made as a result of their misinterpretation in the material aired on the British public broadcasting platform, and it will not take long’, he added. 

Earlier on Wednesday, a journalist on Formula, the TV channel founded and owned by Kezerashvili, reported that the BBC ‘could not find […] direct evidence’ of Kezerashvili’s connection to the call centres, in footage that was later taken down by the channel. 

However, Georgia’s parliamentary speaker, Shalva Papuashvili, suggested that Kezerashvili was being ‘sheltered’ by Europe, and was planning to cause unrest in Georgia. 

‘I hope that European countries will look at this issue seriously and Davit Kezerashvili will be handed over to Georgia so that he can serve the punishment for the crime he committed’, said Papuashvili.

Georgia’s first parliamentary vice-speaker, Gia Volski, added that the report’s conclusions were unsurprising. 

‘The topic of “call centers” has been revolving around Kezerashvili’s name for a long time, but this scheme has never been presented so clearly’, said Volski.

He added that while he did not want to violate the presumption of innocence, Kezerashvili’s having ‘stolen a considerable amount of money from the Georgian army’ had already been investigated. 

‘He didn’t have any resources and after that he became one of the richest persons in the world who manages political processes in Georgia’, stated Volski. 

US Ambassador Kelly Degnan told Netgazeti that while she was not familiar with the details of the investigation, it seemed to be a reminder of the value of investigative journalism and ‘independent investigative competent authorities’.