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Fugitive's trail exposes Red Bull co-owners' offshore deals

Martha Mendoza, AP National Writer

FILE - In this April 15, 2017, file photo, Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya, whose grandfather co-founded energy drink company Red Bull, walks to get in a car as he leaves a house in London. The Bangkok billionaire family uses offshore companies to cloak purchases of jets and luxury properties, including the posh London home where the clan’s fugitive son was last seen. The Yoovidhya family’s efforts to hide assets show how easily major global financial players can routinely - and, usually, legally - move billions of dollars with little or no oversight. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

The Bangkok billionaire family that co-founded Red Bull, the world's leading energy drink, uses offshore companies to cloak purchases of jets and luxury properties, including the posh London home where the clan's fugitive son was last seen.

The Yoovidhya family's efforts to hide assets show how easily major global financial players can routinely — and, usually, legally — move billions of dollars with little or no oversight.

The family's confidential deals were inadvertently exposed by the jet-setting son Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya, who has attracted cries of impunity in Thailand after repeatedly failing to show up in court for allegedly racing away in his Ferrari after a deadly accident with a motorcycle cop almost five years ago. More than 120 Instagram and Facebook postings by friends and family led The Associated Press earlier this year to the Yoovidhyas' London vacation home, where Vorayuth refused to comment.

Thai authorities revoked his passport and issued an arrest warrant, but say they don't know where he is.

Now the investigation into Vorayuth's whereabouts has led to the Panama Papers, a collection of 11 million secret financial documents that illustrate how the world's wealthiest families hide their money, including some of the Yoovidhya family's financial arrangements.

The Panama Papers leak first was obtained by the German newspaper Sudeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which began publishing collaborative reports with news organizations in 2016, putting wealthy and powerful people in more than 70 countries under scrutiny.

Since then, political leaders have been ousted, an estimated $135 billion was wiped off the value of nearly 400 companies, and governments are cracking down on offshore tax havens. Founders of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which owned the leaked documents, were charged earlier this year with money-laundering.

The Yoovidhya family's network of offshore companies — set up by Mossack Fonseca — was so complex that, until now, the family name and Red Bull brand had not been exposed. But the Panama Papers shared with the AP show the family has used at least a half-dozen anonymous companies in tax havens for more than two decades.

The Yoovidhyas, who share ownership of Red Bull with Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz, did not respond to requests for comment. Red Bull said in a statement that Vorayuth's legal situation "is not a matter for Red Bull" and that the company's financial matters are private.

Vorayuth was last seen in public in April, outside his family's London home.

The five-story brick house is the address Vorayuth's father, Chalerm Yoovidhya, provided when incorporating Thai Siam Winery Ltd. in the U.K. in 2002, and that his mother, Daranee Yoovidhya, used when opening a food-related business there in 2006.

The listed owner of the home, and at least four other multimillion-dollar properties in London, isn't the Yoovidhyas — it's Karnforth Investments Ltd., incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, according to the Panama Papers.

Even though the Yoovidhyas and Mateschitz own Red Bull, the main shareholder of the energy drink's United Kingdom business is another British Virgin Islands company called Jerrard Company Ltd.

Here's where it gets complicated:

Karnforth has just one shareholder: Jerrard. And Jerrard is held by a third offshore company, which controls a fourth, JK Fly. Who owns JK Fly? Karnforth.

The Yoovidhyas' offshore companies overlap with stand-in brokers, secretaries, directors and officers — people legally paid small amounts to sign forms and attend directors meetings in lieu of the true owners, whose names remain confidential.

For years, money has flowed between the various entities, documents show.

For example, in 2005, Jerrard loaned Karnforth $6.5 million to buy two London properties. In 2012, Jerrard canceled the mortgages, giving Karnforth ownership. Since 2010, JK Fly has owed Karnforth, its sole shareholder, about $14 million in an interest-free loan to purchase aircraft.

"Anonymous money transfers? Those are pretty common in illegal schemes, but they're also common in legal schemes," said Australia's Griffith University professor Jason Sharman, who researches financial corruption.

What matters, Sharman said, is that the agents moving the money know who the true owners are.

And that has not always happened.

In 2010, and again in 2013, auditors at Mossack Fonseca's head offices raised concerns about Karnforth and Jerrard, noting that documents verifying the true owners were missing.

"Failure to keep such files up to date will result in high administrative and statutory fines," Mossack Fonseca auditors warned. AP could not determine whether full documentation was ever provided.

In a separate case, when Mossack Fonseca's Panama office asked their own agent in Thailand to provide due diligence on a prominent Bangkok billionaire, he flat-out refused.

"This is a CROCK. Any rich person here knows someone or is related to someone in politics," Steve Wagner in Bangkok's Mossack Fonseca office responded when asked to supply certified passport copies, names of owners and reference letters.

Wagner did not respond to AP's requests for comment.

Thailand doesn't meet basic international frameworks to combat money-laundering and terrorist financing, said Sumaporn Manason, a legal expert at the Thai Ministry of Finance. And tax avoidance — that is, keeping money anonymously in offshore accounts — is legal and common.

As a result, she said, Thailand misses out on much-needed revenues that could build bridges, highways and schools.

"Here we call it tax planning," she said.