Mark Tolentino: the flamboyant lawyer involved in the Wirecard scandal
A week before Wirecard collapsed in June 2020, the search for € 1.9 billion in cash seemed to be accelerating.
Payments group auditor EY had demanded cast proof of Wirecard’s claim that it held the amount with two Filipino lenders, Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) and BDO Unibank.
Tangible proof that the money existed was the biggest hurdle between Wirecard and EY’s clean health check, a potential lifeline for the group then besieged by its accounts.
As shareholders waited for approval of Wirecard’s annual results, group COO Jan Marsalek engaged in a series of frantic exchanges with an email account named after a Mark Tolentino, who is the name of a Manila-based lawyer who the German company told EY it was its trustee in the Philippines, overseeing liquidity in local bank accounts on its behalf.
On June 17, 2020, an email from the account read: “I am currently driving at BPI headquarters. . .[and am] on the phone with the bank. “
Marsalek retaliated 24 hours later: “Frankly, the current situation is extremely baffling! Please call me!”
Flamboyant lawyer, businessman, early supporter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and unlikely YouTube star, Tolentino denies having been the trustee of Wirecard.
His Manila office also serves as a studio, where he provides legal advice on a channel popular enough to have earned him a plaque the California-based company awards to anyone reaching 100,000 subscribers.
Days after Marsalek’s emails, Wirecard filed for insolvency after revealing that the € 1.9 billion in cash did not exist. Corporate fraud is currently under investigation by prosecutors in Munich and at the center of an investigation by the German parliament.
Prosecutors believe Marsalek was one of its architects, suggesting his emails were written knowing that $ 1.9 billion was imaginary. An attorney for Marsalek declined to comment.
“This is not my e-mail address”
The email exchanges, which were submitted by the Wirecard administrator for parliamentary inquiry and seen by the Financial Times, show how the Philippines suddenly came to center stage during the agony of a company that for years has been championed as a rare German technological success.
They also raise questions about Tolentino’s role. When the FT visited Tolentino at its Manila offices at the end of February, he described himself as a “victim” in the Wirecard scandal. Showing the email exchanges with Marsalek, he said, “This is the first time I’ve seen them. This is not my e-mail address. “
A video uploaded to his YouTube channel, however, features the email address, [email protected], which appears in conversations with Marsalek. Tolentino did not respond to a request for comment on the email address appearing in the video.
On the only other occasion that he spoke to the FT shortly after the failure of Wirecard last year, Tolentino said he was “not the trustee of Wirecard”, had “never signed no documents “with the group and accused the disgraced company of” identity theft. “
This account contradicts KPMG’s special audit in Wirecard. The results, released in April 2020, increased pressure on EY to find irrefutable proof that € 1.9 billion was real.
The annex to the audit, which remains unpublished but was seen by the FT, details a meeting at the Tolentino office in March 2020 with representatives of KPMG, EY and Wirecard in which the lawyer allegedly stated that his firm had opened bank accounts with BPI and BDO. on behalf of the payment group.
Tolentino told the FT he met “potential clients” who spoke German – including someone he described as “the boss” and people he believed to be his accountants – in February or March 2020 after lining up in front of his desk. He declined to give details, citing attorney-client privilege.
From seafood to Covid vaccines
Almost a year after the fall of Wirecard, Tolentino is expanding his own eclectic portfolio of roles.
“I am 20% lawyer and 80% businessman,” Tolentino told the FT in his office. His business interests include exporting seafood and what he said is the upcoming release of a hand sanitizer.
He recently became managing director of MKG Universal Drugs Trading, which he says will be the exclusive business-to-business distributor of the Chinese Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine in the Philippines once the vaccine obtains the necessary clearance.
The vaccine was at the center of controversy after some Duterte security staff received doses last year from a consignment smuggled into the country.
Fury appears to have done little to cool Tolentino’s political ambitions, which center on a new organization linked to Manny Pacquiao, a national boxing hero who is now a senator.
It is in his capacity as a lawyer that Tolentino appears in the last frantic months of Wirecard’s existence.
Until the end of 2019, the alleged € 1.9 billion was reportedly held in accounts at OCBC, Singapore’s second-largest bank, with a local company, Citadelle Corporate Services, apparently acting as a trustee and providing EY with confirmations of the existence of the money.
A change of trustee
According to the annex to the special audit, Tolentino told KPMG that in November 2019 he signed a contract with Citadelle transferring to him the fiduciary responsibilities for Wirecard. Citadelle had recommended it to the payments group, the annex says.
Citadel director R Shanmugaratnam has been charged with forgery of accounts in Singapore and has yet to file a plea. Through his lawyer, he declined to comment, citing the lawsuits against him.
OCBC did not have a banking relationship with Wirecard and Citadelle did not have an escrow account, according to a person familiar with the matter. OCBC declined to comment.
In March 2020, BDO and BPI received requests for balance confirmation on “MK Tolentino Law Office” letterhead, according to documents viewed by the FT.
When shown the documents, Tolentino declined to say whether his law firm sent them, but confirmed that the signature on them matched his own. “Either way, it has no legal significance as it is a scanned copy,” Tolentino said. “It’s just a request [for documents]. “
As a result of this request, EY received what appeared to be confirmations that the € 1.9 billion was in the banks, according to a Big Four audit report seen by the FT.
But in June, with KPMG’s special audit stepping up the pressure, EY demanded the Philippine banks themselves that the money existed. In the week of June 15, EY received its response: BDO and BPI said previous alleged confirmations of the existence of the money were “false.”
Battle with the banks
Email exchanges with Marsalek in the days that followed include that of the “Tolentino” account which appears to show that intense efforts are underway to resolve the situation.
A member of BPI’s legal team had been called and said the bank’s board would launch an investigation into an employee who contacted EY, according to an email. The email also claimed that a meeting with a BDO board member had been arranged.
BDO told the FT that it was not aware of the emails or any “alleged” meetings with a board member. She and BPI, who did not respond to requests for comment, previously said they had no relationship with Wirecard.
Shortly after the fall of Wirecard, authorities in the Philippines launched an investigation into the German group’s business partners and local agents. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told FT last year that Tolentino was summoned “to shed light” on the matter. Tolentino and the banks are also involved in legal battles.
The elusive 1.9 billion euros was not Wirecard’s only link to the Philippines. It housed a payment processor, PayEasy Solutions, which was operated by a former Wirecard employee and later exposed as a sham.
Tolentino is no stranger to government affairs. He was backed by Duterte – with whom he shares an alma mater and college fraternity – when he ran for mayor in 2016, and lost, in a town in Mindanao, the two men’s south island. Most recently, he had a brief stint as Assistant Secretary at the Department of Transport.
As authorities investigate Wirecard’s downfall, Tolentino has been caught in a Sinopharm vaccine storm. He told the FT that authorities questioned him about the smuggled punches and inspected his fishing company’s crab containers, but found nothing. It was, he said, a “waste of [his] time”.
Duterte himself apologized this month for receiving an unauthorized Sinopharm jab of a special batch donated by Beijing that had been approved for “compassionate use.”
Whether or not Covid is a hot issue in Philippine politics next year, Tolentino wants to be involved. “Political beliefs” are the subject of one of its three Facebook pages, alongside free legal advice and “jokes”.
The lawyer said he was set to be the first on the list of candidates for a political organization linked to Pacquiao, who is considered one of the first serious candidates to run for president in the year. next.
The legendary boxer’s victory could yet see Tolentino win a seat in the country’s House of Representatives.