Headhunter sues bank linked to 1MDB saga

Executive search firm Mancano and Associates is suing Swiss private bank BSI, claiming that it has not been paid millions in headhunting fees for referring 23 employees, including private banker Yak Yew Chee, who is caught up in the 1MDB probe.
Executive search firm Mancano and Associates is suing Swiss private bank BSI, claiming that it has not been paid millions in headhunting fees for referring 23 employees, including private banker Yak Yew Chee, who is caught up in the 1MDB probe.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It seeks $7m from BSI for referring banker involved in probe, 22 others

A legal sidelight has emerged involving key players in Singapore's money laundering probe over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Swiss private bank BSI, the employer of private banker Yak Yew Chee, who is caught up in the probe, has been sued here over claims it did not pay headhunting fees.

Executive search firm Mancano and Associates filed a lawsuit in the High Court last August seeking $7.1 million in fees from BSI for helping it recruit 23 staff in 2009.

Mr Yak, who later handled the controversial 1MDB account at BSI, was one of the 23 that Mancano said it had referred to the Swiss bank.

He was working as the market head for Malaysia for another private bank, RBS Coutts, at that time, according to a research report reproduced in the court papers.

The headhunter's fees are 28 per cent of an employee's first-year remuneration package.

For Mr Yak, a senior banker with a base salary of $500,000, joining fee of $350,000 and target bonus of $350,000, the fees totalled about $336,000, said Mancano in the court papers.

But BSI has countered that there was no binding agreement between the search firm and the bank. And there was "no accepted practice and/or common understanding" between Mr Hanspeter Brunner, BSI's chief executive, and Mr Michael Mancano, the search firm's managing director. The efforts Mr Mancano had claimed to have put in were a precursor to a possible subsequent engagement by the bank, BSI has said in the court papers.

In 2013, BSI rejected the headhunter's bill for $38 million for its search work, which included the recruitment of the 23 bankers. Despite the lack of a binding pact, the bank had paid Mancano $250,000 at the end of 2009 for related administrative costs, but no more payment was outstanding, BSI has said.

Mr Mancano said in court papers that he had known Mr Brunner since 1997 and they had worked together to recruit bankers for Mr Brunner's former employer Coutts Bank, later RBS Coutts. They had a common understanding, and even when search assignments were done without a signed agreement, Mr Brunner always ensured his then employer would pay Mr Mancano.

Mr Brunner left RBS Coutts for BSI in 2009, and some 70 staff later joined him. Mr Yak has emerged as the only named figure here in the money laundering probe linked to Malaysia's state investor 1MDB.

Last November, Mr Yak applied to the Singapore High Court to release funds from his accounts seized by the Singapore authorities to pay some $1.36 million owed to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, as well as to pay for legal fees and basic expenses.

His lawyer later withdrew the application after the prosecutor raised no objection to Mr Yak transferring $1.76 million from his overseas bank accounts to pay for his expenses. Mr Yak had 12 bank accounts with about $9.71 million seized by the authorities last September.

This was part of the investigations into whether his huge bonuses - which jumped from $649,000 in 2011 to $10.5 million in 2014 - were the fruit of criminal conduct.

BSI's legal challenges are not limited to Singapore. Last March, it agreed to pay US$211 million (S$296 million) to settle an outstanding dispute with the US authorities after admitting it had for decades helped thousands of US clients to open accounts in Switzerland to evade taxes in the US.

Meanwhile, BSI's parent Grupo BTG Pactual is struggling to stay afloat after its founder Andre Esteves was arrested last November in connection with a graft probe involving Brazil's state-run oil producer Petrobras. Despite just having acquired BSI for 1.25 billion Swiss francs (S$1.8 billion) last September, the Brazilian bank is putting it up for sale to boost liquidity and shore up investor confidence.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Headhunter sues bank linked to 1MDB saga'. Print Edition | Subscribe