Panama Papers: Hungarian billionaires’s offshore secrets revealed

Some of Hungary’s wealthiest people also appear in the leaked documents known as the Panama Papers. A new article by Direkt36 shows the links to offshore companies of Sándor Csányi, Hungary’s richest man, Zoltán Spéder, another wealthy banker, György Gattyán, an internet entrepreneur, and Gábor Kovács, a former banker and art collector.

Tamás Szemerey, a cousin of Hungarian central bank governor György Matolcsy, also had shares in an offshore company. This is especially remarkable because after the Panama Papers scandal had broken out, the central bank even issued a statement saying that „György Matolcsy and members of his family did not and do not have any offshore interests, companies or investments.”

The full story is available in the new issue of Forbes’ Hungarian edition.

The Panama Papers documents were obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 370 journalists from 76 countries worked on it in a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. From Hungary, Direkt36 was the only journalism organization participating in the project.

Simply owning or using offshore companies is not illegal or immoral, and nothing suggests that the businessmen mentioned in this article used offshore companies or services for improper purposes. But, thanks to the secrecy of the offshore world, their offshore activities have not been known to the public while details of their other business interests – for example, that of their Hungarian companies – are accessible for everybody. Their involvement in the Panama Papers also shows that the use of offshore companies is prevalent in the circles of the Hungarian business elite even as governments around the world – including Hungary – take serious efforsts to make the offshore world more transparent.

Matolcsy did not know

In May 2009, Szemerey became the director and shareholder of Sunjoy Development, a company incorporated on the British Virgin Islands. The documents do not reveal the activities of Sunjoy and Szemerey claims that in fact it did not do any meaningful work during his ownership. In a written statement, he said he set up Sunjoy Development because he needed a foreign company for a technological innovation project outside Europe. A year later he quit the company because, according to his statement, he realized that his existing Hungarian businesses do not give him enough time to start a new venture overseas.

Szemerey said that during his ownership, Sunjoy Development did not even have a bank account. He also said that he did not tell about it to his cousin, György Matolcsy, who in the meantime became a member of the government after Orbán’s election victory in 2010.

Csányi’s boat

Csányi was connected to one of the offshore companies exposed in the Panama Papers through his wife. According to the leaked documents, a British Virgins Islands company  called Durion Services was registered under the name of Erika Csányi in 2014, with the purpose of „providing contracts to crew members of a yacht”.

As Csányi confirmed, he owns a boat through a Maltese company. The offshore documents refer to the boat as a „yacht” but the banker described it as a catamaran sailboat.

Csányi said that it is common to use offshore companies for running a boat since the crew members might come from outside the European Union and the boats also ship on waters outside the EU’s territory.

The Durion Services is not in operation any more. According to Csányi, last April they hired a professional boat management company. Durion Services was dissolved and struck from the register, he said.

Spéder’s businesses

Zoltán Spéder had links to two offshore companies through power of attorney documents that gave him wide authority to conduct business on behalf of the companies.

Whitestone International, one of the offshore companies played an important role in the history of a publishing company called CEMP. CEMP runs Hungary’s biggest news site,, now owned by Spéder.

In 2008, the majority of Whitestone International’s shares were purchased by a Seychelless firm. As the Panama Papers show, he had been in contact with Whitestone even earlier. He was granted a power of attorney back in September 2007. At the time, Spéder was already a board member and minority owner of CEMP.

Spéder claimed, through a written statement, that he never was the owner of Whitestone. He did not answer the questions on the company’s ownership and on how he got in contact with the firm. He only said that no transaction took place with the use of the Power of Attorney he had.

Spéder had similar link to another offshore company. According to the leaked documents, he was given a Power of Attorney for a Novum Asset Management, a company registered on the British Virgin Islands.

Spéder said that he did not own the company and claimed that no transaction took place with the use of his Power of Attorney. He did not answer any other questions concerning the company.

Gattyán’s house

György Gattyán, a billionaire who built his business empire on running porn sites, got in contact with Mossack Fonseca through another law firm in late 2013. Then he was already living in Los Angeles as he disclosed this in an interview that year with Hungarian daily Népszabadság. The Panama Papers reveal that the same year he also took steps to immigrate to the United States.

As part of this process he initiated the creation of a trust, with the goal – according to Tamás Nemes, the communications director of his companies – „to take care of his family and his loved ones in the present and in the future when he will no longer be around.”

These documents also show that at the time of the procedure Gattyán had a company that owned his 24 million dollar home in Los Angeles. Nemes did not confirm the value but said that Gattyán still owns the company and the property as well. He also said that Gattyán’s immigration process has not finished yet. The billionaire lives in the US as a resident, using a visa, Nemes added.

The art collector

Gábor Kovács, a former banker whose art foundation receives substantial donations from the government, is also implicated in the Panama Papers through some of his companies. Four of his firms – Bankár Zrt., Kogart Park Kft., Kogart Ház Kft. and P-Agárd Kft. – became shareholders of Trewfield Corporation, a Seychelless company in December 2012.

The documents do not contain any information about Trewfield’s activities. Kovács, through one of his colleagues, said that he does not want to talk about what the company is doing. He did not answer other questions about the offshore company either.

The scandal

The first Panama Papers stories were published early April, having a powerful impact around the world.

In Hungary, the first stories exposed the hidden offshore interests of two politicians. Zsolt Horváth, a former politician of the governing party Fidesz, became a director of an offshore company while he was still a member of parliament. László Boldvai, a prominent member of the socialist opposition party, was connected to an offshore company with a Swiss bank account through his wife.

Fidesz condemned Horváth’s offshore activities. Boldvai suspended his party membership, effectively ending his political career. At the request of Hungary’s prime minister, the tax authorities launched an investigation on the Hungarian offshore links exposed by the Panama Papers project. No result has been announced of this probe.

  • András Pethő

    András is a co-founder, editor and executive director of Direkt36. Previously, he was a senior editor for leading Hungarian news site Origo before it had been transformed into the government’s propaganda outlet. He also worked for the BBC World Service in London and was a reporter at the investigative unit of The Washington Post. He has contributed to several international reporting projects, including The Panama Papers. He twice won the Soma Prize, the prestigious annual award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary. He was a World Press Institute fellow in 2008, a Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in 2012/13, and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 2019/20. András has taught journalism courses at Hungarian universities.