Zac Goldsmith faces new questions about his involvement in a multi-million pound tax evasion scheme in Spain after a family friend was secretly hired in an attempt to recruit a police officer to help “solve” the case.
The family friend, businesswoman Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, the ex-lover of Spain’s former King Juan Carlos, was arrested and told the senior police officer that the Conservative politician’s career would be “dead” if details of the case became public.
The Guardian has received a copy of the recording, which was made in April 2015, when Goldsmith campaigned in the general election to retain his seat as MP.
At the time, the police officer, José Manuel Villarejo, combined his official duties with a now infamous ancillary company that provided secret services to wealthy and powerful private clients in Spain.
The secret recording captures Villarejo and suggests to Sayn-Wittgenstein that he would be “happy” to help Zac Goldsmith and his brother, Ben, in their dispute with the IRS.
A Spanish judge, who later reviewed the recording in a separate case unrelated to Goldsmith’s legal issues, concluded that there was no evidence that Villarejo undertook any work on behalf of the Goldsmith brothers. Ben Goldsmith said they did not ask Sayn-Wittgenstein to contact Villarejo.
However, the secret recording sheds new light on the Spanish tax dispute and is likely to put further pressure on Goldsmith to resolve the case, which involves land attached to his family’s extensive Costa del Sol estate where Boris Johnson and his wife, Carrie, resided. on holiday in October.
The Guardian revealed last year that Spanish courts had ruled that real estate companies owned by Goldsmith and his brother were involved in a € 24 million tax evasion scheme.
Zac Goldsmith, a close ally of Johnson, has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the scheme, which the courts have ruled constituted a deliberate effort to evade taxes and a “serious” violation of the law.
Documents suggest that by the end of 2021 companies affiliated with Zac and Ben Goldsmith owed as much as € 26m (£ 21m) to the Spanish state in unpaid taxes and fines.
At the time of filming – which Villarejo secretly made during a £ 3.2 million visit to Sayn-Wittgenstein’s £ 3.2m apartment in Belgravia – the tax case wound through Spain’s lower courts, potentially threatening Zac Goldsmith’s political career. Just a few months later, he announced his bid to become London’s mayor.
A friend of Sayn-Wittgenstein is believed to have arranged the meeting with Villarejo due to concerns about her family’s safety after the end of her relationship with Juan Carlos.
By sipping green tea, Villarejo explained to Sayn-Wittgenstein that, in parallel with his police duties, he worked for private clients, boasting that he had “a better intelligence service” than the Spanish government.
“I have the infrastructure, I have electronic things, I have hackers and all that,” he told her. “I have tough people, serious people and people who do not exist.”
Villarejo agreed to help Sayn-Wittgenstein through his secret law firm, Stuart & Mckenzie, and told her there was “zero risk” in using his law firm, as its operators – including “former members of the CIA and FBI” – never knew the identities of his clients.
After nearly an hour, Sayn-Wittgenstein and his friend, who were also present at the meeting, took up another subject: the goldsmiths.
Sayn-Wittgenstein told Villarejo that Ben Goldsmith had visited her two days earlier and was worried that the tax case could harm his brother politically.
“What is his concern? His brother, Zac, is a Conservative MP,” Sayn-Wittgenstein told Villarejo. If the newspapers discovered the case, she added, “He is dead. Company in the Cayman Islands, blah, blah, blah. ”
Sayn-Wittgenstein’s mention of the Cayman Islands seems to be a reference to the offshore trust structure which, according to the documents, the Goldsmith family used to possess their property interests in Spain.
When asked to explain how Villarejo could help, Sayn-Wittgenstein and her staff told Villarejo that Ben Goldsmith “reassessed the situation” in the wake of a recent court ruling in favor of the Goldsmith brothers.
To explain that Ben Goldsmith had asked to wait a few days, Sayn-Wittgenstein added, “Then he will come to us to see if we can help him resolve the matter.”
Villarejo suggested to Sayn-Wittgenstein that the brothers contact his law firm. A source close to Sayn-Wittgenstein, a longtime friend of the Goldsmith family, said: “Ben never returned to Corinna on the issue because he was not interested, so that was the end of it.”
In a statement, Ben Goldsmith said neither he nor his brother, Zac, contacted Villarejo or his law firm. “We have never approached any of the people you mention, nor have we ever asked Corinna Sayn-Wittgenstein to do so.”
He said he once mentioned the tax case for Sayn-Wittgenstein at a social dinner. “It was only a number of years later that I found out from an article in the Spanish press that Corinna had undertaken, without telling me, to find out more about our case and see if she could help.”
Villarejo is now at the center of a widespread corruption scandal in Spain and is currently being prosecuted for charges including bribery and influence smuggling. He has denied any wrongdoing but did not respond to requests for comment.
His secret recording provides fresh insight into the tax dispute that captured the two firms owned by the Tory minister and his brother. Sayn-Wittgenstein explained to Villarejo that the problems began when the two brothers “bought some land” from their family. “They’ve done a financial operation to make a development,” she said.
On paper, the land was transferred in 2008 – two years before Zac Goldsmith became MP – from one Goldsmith-owned company to another.
Legal documents and land registers indicate that the land was separated from a large tract of land that forms part of the Goldsmith family’s extensive property in the hills around the mountain village of Benahavís near Marbella.
In 2013, the Spanish tax agency ordered the two Goldsmith-owned companies involved in the property transfer to pay a total of € 24 million. in unpaid taxes, interest and fines.
A Swiss lawyer for one of the companies involved previously denied that the case constituted “tax evasion”. Ben Goldsmith described the Spanish tax agency’s case as absurd and based on “a single and wrong” valuation of land.
Inspectors claimed that the companies had significantly underestimated the value of the land when it was transferred between them, and failed to state the economic gains arising from the transaction by submitting inaccurate tax returns.
The Goldsmith companies appealed, but successive Spanish civil courts have found the deal allowed companies to evade millions in taxes. Subsequent attempts to appeal to the Spanish Supreme Court failed in 2019.
Additional reporting by Pablo Gutiérrez.