BERLIN • The plot thickens in the spectacular collapse of payments provider Wirecard: The Austrian man at large over Germany's worst financial fraud scandal may also have had links to secret services.
Wirecard's former chief operating officer (COO) Jan Marsalek has vanished since the technology company was busted for what accountants described as an "elaborate and sophisticated fraud".
Once a darling of the fintech scene, the payments provider filed for insolvency last month after being forced to admit that €1.9 billion (S$3 billion) missing from its accounts likely did not exist.
Wirecard's former chief executive and founder Markus Braun turned himself in to the police, but Mr Marsalek remains at large.
Last Friday, the Financial Times (FT) and Austrian daily Die Presse in separate reports said Mr Marsalek had access to highly confidential information, suggesting he had links to secret services.
Mr Marsalek passed on confidential information from Austria's secret services and interior ministry to the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), said Die Presse. The exchange took place through a middle man identified as Florian S., who was reportedly close to the FPOe.
The information allegedly fuelled the FPOe's mistrust of its then coalition partner, culminating in controversial police raids of the intelligence services in 2018.
Mr Marsalek also flaunted his access to secret information in Britain, according to a report in the FT.
In an attempt to impress business associates, he is said to have shown them documents containing the recipe for the nerve agent Novichok, used to poison Russian-born former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018.
According to the FT, Mr Marsalek bragged about his links to secret services in a bid to impress members of the London financial services sector - possibly as part of efforts to identify speculators betting against the Wirecard share price.
Sources interviewed by the FT said Mr Marsalek had an association with individuals or networks linked to Russia's military intelligence directorate, the GRU, which Britain has blamed for the poison attack.
Also in 2018, he is said to have unveiled a plan at his lavish home in Munich to recruit 15,000 Libyan militiamen - in a country under growing influence from Russia and the GRU.
This project apparently had a humanitarian pretext, but its true purpose remains unclear, according to sources cited by the FT.
Founded in 1999, the Bavarian start-up Wirecard rose from a company piping cash to porn and gambling sites to a respectable electronic payments provider that edged traditional lender Commerzbank out of the DAX 30 index.
It boasted a market valuation of more than €23 billion at the time - outweighing even Deutsche Bank.
Since the scam unravelled last month, Germany's BaFin financial watchdog has come under scrutiny for failing to prevent the scandal, while German shareholders' association SdK has launched legal action against accountancy firm EY.
An international arrest warrant has been issued for Mr Marsalek, with his whereabouts still unknown.
The trail had briefly led to the Philippines, whose authorities said immigration records showed him arriving in the archipelago on June 23 - the day after he was fired - before leaving for China on June 24.
But CCTV footage, airline manifests and other records show no trace of him being in the country on those dates. The authorities have since accused immigration employees of falsifying records about his movements.