Black Cube - a "Mossad-style" business intelligence co

Zisser, Ben-Moshe, Tchenguiz, Levy
Zisser, Ben-Moshe, Tchenguiz, Levy

"Globes" investigates the secretive methods of the Israeli company that has become an international leader in business intelligence.

Among the transcripts and the affidavits related to legal battle by Bank Hapoalim (TASE: POLI) against the heirs of the late businessman Motti Zisser, there is one story that would fits neatly into a spy novel. This story can be found in the response filed by a Swiss-Jewish attorney called Philippe Maier to a motion filed by Bank Hapoalim in the bankruptcy proceeding of Zisser, against Maier and others, to limit the latter’s use of assets of the estate. Maier, who is the in the process of immigrating to Israel, was the late Zisser’s partner in several of his business ventures in Europe (companies he owned guaranteed some of Zisser’s debts). In his response to the court, Maier claims that in February 2016, he received a call from a European attorney and long-standing acquaintance. The attorney suggested a meeting and at the meeting, so Maier stated, the attorney claimed that a Mossad representative had asked him to recommend Jews around the world who might assist in in the organization’s efforts. Maier expressed interest, contacted the Mossad representative, and met with him in Israel.

The representative, so Maier claims, wished to learn details about him and his professional activities, and stated that the organization occasionally needs people like him for the operations in finance, especially in transferring funds up to tens of millions of euros, so Maier stated. Maier answered that he didn’t believe that he could be of assistance, in view of the rules of compliance, but the representative allegedly was not discouraged and proposed setting up a second meeting with an expert from the organization who would explain matters. They agreed to remain in contact and speak the next time Maier was in Israel, but there has been no trace of the representative since then.

This story may sound larger than life but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility - business people around the world have been used by intelligence services - but Maier’s story does not end there. “To the best of my knowledge,” Maier’s response claims, the representative “is a former Mossad agent who was employed by a private investigation firm that conducted an investigation of Maier on behalf of the petitioner, Bank Hapoalim.” To the best of the undersigned’s knowledge the firm is Black Cube.

Black Cube vehemently refutes this story. “Groundless allegations,” they told "Globes" G Magazine. “The man in question is not any person who works for Black Cube either in or outside Israel. It should also be stressed that neither the person in question, nor any Black Cube employee ever impersonated a Mossad agent. Such a meeting, if it took place, had nothing to do with the firm.”

In any event, this is an opportunity to gain a glimpse into the operations of the firm, whose name has popped up from time to time in major lawsuits involving key financial personalities in Israel (and sometimes overseas, too). A partial list: Nochi Dankner versus Motti Ben-Moshe, Rami Levy versus Eyal Ravid, Alstom and Afcon versus the light rail electrification tender, and others. The list of its board members is impressive, including Prof. Asher Tishler, Dean of the School of Business Administration of Tel Aviv University; Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Golan Malka, former VP of Marketing and Business at NICE Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: NICE; TASE: NICE); and Brigadier General (res.) Mati Leshem, recipient of the Israel Defense Prize. The late Meir Dagan, former Mossad director served as the company’s president until his death a year ago.

The Old Boys’ Club of the IDF Military Intelligence

Black Cube was founded in 2011 by Dan Zorella, originally from Haifa, who served in an elite unit in the IDF Military Intelligence and Dr. Avi Yanus - both in their early thirties. The two met when they studied for their BA in management and economics at the Technion. Zorella continued to graduate studies in Business Administration at Tel Aviv University, while Yanus completed his doctorate; He currently lives in London and handles the investigations in Europe. Based on his background in IDF intelligence, among other things, Zorella managed to attract some big names to the firms, especially the late Meir Dagan. Pundits note that “giving your name to a company for a fee” is entirely conventional behavior, but sources close to Black Cube claim that “the late Meir Dagan was involved in Black Cube’s business and advised the firm since its founding. He advised Black Cube on complex issues that required his extensive specialization; he met with Black Cube clients who benefited from his vast experience. The late Meir Dagan also gave Black Cube the benefit of his worldwide connections. Later, after he became familiar with all aspects of the firm’s operations and in view of the firm’s high standards of professionalism, Meir Dagan became the firm’s honorary president.”

Black Cube’s first significant client was the Jewish-British billionaire Vincent Tchenguiz, who learned of the firm through a mutual acquaintance. Tchenguiz recounted the story in an interview to G’s Shachar Samooha last October. According to Tchenguiz, dozens of investigators from the British Serious Fraud Office (SFO) raided his house and his brother Robert's house in March 2011 and arrested them on suspicion of a complex deception that led to the collapse of Iceland's Kaupthing Bank. Both brothers were released the same day and immediately claimed that the information that led to their arrest was untrue. They hired the services of Black Cube and managed to prove their case. Subsequently, Robert also sued the SFO, Kaupthing, and the Grant Thornton accounting firm, whose materials were used as the foundation for the charges. He reached a settlement with the SFO, in which he received an apology and £3 million.

The work that Black Cube carried out for Tchenguiz gave the firm exposure in the global business market, and cases began to flow. The next case that shone a spotlight on the firm was their work (jointly with forensic auditor CPA Yehuda Barlev) for Nochi Dankner, who had lost control of IDB and sought information about Motti Ben Moshe who had seized control of the IDB Group together with Eduardo Elsztain. Forbes described Black Cube's actions as follows:

“First, Black Cube’s study focused on Ben-Moshe’s businesses, online, in an effort to plot the business and social network of this private businessman. Next, the team attempted to locate people who work or had worked with Ben-Moshe in the past, from secretaries to accountants.

Since Ben-Moshe has a complicated structure of companies, this involved dozens of people that had to be checked in a short time. The next stage in Black Cube’s work was to travel overseas to see some of the dozens of companies in Ben-Moshe’s complex organization, and conduct scheduled and unscheduled meetings with people who had worked with Ben-Moshe in the past. For example, the firm’s investigative teams went to Cyprus where, at a company’s address of record, they found an office building that was almost completely empty. An old man sat at the reception. This was the address of dozens of companies, but there was no sign or indication of any of these companies’ names on any door. The same thing was discovered in another of Ben-Moshe’s companies in Luxembourg.”

At the press conference that Ben-Moshe held at the time, in response to the report containing the findings against him, he presented evidence that the prosecution in Germany found no justification to initiate any investigation against him. He also presented confirmation from the bank through which the alleged money laundering had been conducted, that Ben Moshe did not have an account at that bank. On the other hand, Black Cube presented the results of a polygraph test, confirming that the individual who spoke of the money laundering was telling the truth. In any case, the findings against Ben-Moshe were never really reviewed by a court, and the team acting for the Israeli authorities approved Ben-Moshe as a buyer, which he eventually became (ultimately Ben-Moshe exited the company after a dispute with his former partner Eduardo Elsztain).

An affidavit submitted to the court by Yanus in this case reveals several more aspects of the firm’s modus operandi and its profile: Yanus describes how “Black Cube is based on a group of former Israeli intelligence agents, skilled intelligence professionals with backgrounds in finance and law. Over 50 investigators work for the firm [since then, Black Cube states that the number has risen to 100], including attorneys, economists, and financial professionals, who blend intelligence work and business experience. The firm also has a staff of experienced advisors who are highly experienced in business, law, banking, the academic world, and technology, and who consult on the projects that the firm is involved in - some are international experts in the financial markets and risk management, and others are former members of the Israeli intelligence community.”

Yanus continued, “The firm provides services to a small circle of high-quality clients,“ and here comes a rather important sentence: “Since it has no competitors with comparable abilities, the firm was certified as the exclusive supplier to major organizations and government ministries.” Black Cube refuses to comment on the above, but pundits say that the company has performed work for the Mossad from time to time but no longer does so today.

Over time, Black Cube also handled low-profile cases, for example a class action against Tara, which allegedly used preservatives in its products despite declarations to the contrary. “The findings simply came to us,“ said attorney Assaf Pink, counsel for the plaintiff in this case, to G this week.

Didn’t you ask who ordered the information?

“No. I accept any information as long as it serves the public interest. But I did demand an affidavit to confirm it, so that it would be legally acceptable. I received a recording and a photocopy of a piece of paper from the factory, and that was accompanied by an affidavit that described how the information was obtained.”

Don’t you know who paid them?

“No. Actually, had I known, it would have been a handicap. As long as the information was obtained legally, it doesn’t interest me so much.”

Could the party responsible for getting the information be a competitor?

“That’s an option, but there are other options as well. I intentionally did not go into that.”

Snafu in Romania

Another spotlight focused on Black Cube’s methods of operation lately, when items appeared in the press on the firm’s commission by Rami Levy, owner of Rami Levy Chain Stores Hashikma Marketing 2006 Ltd. (TASE:RMLI), who suspected that his competitor, Eyal Ravid, owner of the Victory chain, was leading a smear campaign against him, together with farmers. According to the items in the media, an employee on behalf of Black Cube was sent to induce Gal Bayseberg, Ravid’s publicist, to speak freely with her. She presented herself as the representative of a foreign press company that was considering entering the Israeli market and was interested in commissioning Bayseberg’s services. In a recording of that conversation, we can hear Bayseberg bragging “how we kicked Rami Levy in the ass.” These findings led to Levy’s lawsuit against Ravid, which recently ended in a settlement, after Bayseberg gave Levy a letter of apology.

According to sources involved in Black Cube’s operations, this is their most common method: sending employees to pose as representatives of foreign businesses, and to make it seem credible, they also describe fictitious companies. These sources claim that these agents will frequently prefer to conduct meetings abroad, where they are not restricted in their operations (in contrast to Israel, where you cannot impersonate another person without a private investigator’s license; According to the Ministry of Justice, Black Cube does not hold such a license). Black Cube stresses that the firm operates in compliance with all the rules and laws in each country.

On this point it is interesting to recount an incident in Romania in which the firm was involved a year ago - when two of its employees were arrested on suspicion of operating against Laura Kovesi, chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate. Dan Zorella himself was never arrested or charged, but he was deposed in Israel as part of the investigation. According to Romanian newspaper EVZ, which purported to publish leaks from the deposition, Zorella recounted that he has been asked to come to Romania by a former SRI agent named Daniel Dragomir, who commissioned an investigation from the company about suspicions of corruption against Kovesi.

According to the story published in EVZ, Dragomir convinced Zorella that he was supported by the president and the chief of the SRI (Romania’s intelligence service) and even suggested that Black Cube’s people work with SRI cellular devices. According to EVZ, Black Cube had several tasks: To check whether Kovesi’s statements about her financial situation were true; to investigate suspicions that she was motivated by a desire to avenge her predecessor; to investigate suspicions that her father took bribes on her behalf; and to investigate whether she has bank accounts in Switzerland and Cyprus.

In the end, the two employees (represented by Adv. Eitan Maoz) reached an understanding with the Romanian authorities and returned to Israel several months ago.

In response to publications, Black Cube then stated to the press and news agencies: “Black Cube is an international elite group of more than 100 former Israeli intelligence agents, which operates in many places around the world, and is supported by professional legal consultants in each country in which it operates. In recent weeks, the firm conducted a project for government officials in Romania to gather evidence on serious corruption in Romanian government systems. In this project, two of the firm’s employees, who made significant achievements, were arrested. The employees were acting according to local laws, and the suspicions against them are wrong. We are confident that the truth will come to light in the next few days and the two will be released to return home.”

“That was an incident that didn’t do them any good,” admits a source familiar with the firm, “but don’t Mossad agents ever get caught in the middle of an operation overseas? It happens. And here, they were misled. They were misled into thinking that it was something official, and it turned out not to be.”

Madrid, Barcelona, and New Delhi

Black Cube’s name was also recently linked to a case that is now being heard in the Supreme Court - in an appeal filed by Afcon, an Israeli company, and Alstom, a French company, which bid jointly in the light rail electrification tender, against the results that awarded the tender to Semi, a Spanish company (represented by Advs. Dror Harpaz and Eyal Oren). According to transcripts of the hearings in the Tel Aviv District Court, Black Cube employees once again posed as representatives of foreign companies in order to elicit information - this time the goal was to discover any possible flaws in the electrification tender. According to the description in the ruling, Black Cube approached the project managers, posing as representatives of a company seeking a project manager in Asia. In Yanus’ affidavit in that case, he claimed that the investigation included the interrogation of no less than 11 individuals in meetings that took place in Madrid, Vienna, Barcelona, New Delhi, and Ahmedabad in western India.

District Court Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen was not impressed and she rejected the appeal, which was later filed with the Supreme Court. She wrote, “This appeal began with great fanfare, like a chapter taken from a thriller or spy novel, and included surveillance and undercover investigations by Black Cube of senior members of the Israel Railways tender evaluation team and senior officials in the companies that won the tender … the appeal ended in a whimper, and ultimately nothing remains of the grave allegations that were made.”

The Judge also noted that “the investigators who made the tapes made shameless attempts to put into the targets’ mouths problematic statements that might serve Alstom and Afcon … In effect, they tried to pry statements out of them according to which the change in the points awarded to Semi’s bid (Semi is the Spanish company that won the tender - HM) originated in corruption and payments…actions that included spying against a business competitor while making a misrepresentation in an effort to extract incriminating information in order to discredit the winner is a contemptuous act and justifies denying the appeal. The evidence was based on partial sentences and statements taken out of context, and everything was done while hiding behind Yanus’ affidavit.”

This story again twists in favor of Black Cube at the end. At the Supreme Court hearing on the appeal, the judges supported Black Cube’s operations and instructed the parties to settle the dispute in a manner that includes Alstom and Afcon in the tender; so from the point of view of sources surrounding Black Cube, despite Agmon-Gonen’s criticism, the firm “delivered the goods.”

Another recent Black Cube case led to a NIS 60 million lawsuit by minority shareholders in cCam Biotherapeutics (Gefen Biomed Investments and Meytav Technology Incubators, represented by Adv. Guy Gissin) against company owners Mori Arkin, Ran Nusbaum, and its directors, who allegedly misled minority shareholders and caused them to sell their shares for a tiny sum, while concealing word of a planned exit deal that the company conducted a year later. The defendants’ attorneys claimed in response that the allegations are groundless.

Sources familiar with Black Cube state that the firm is convinced that “there is no other company with comparable abilities, and therefore they don’t consider other firms to be their competitors. Because, from their point of view, no other company does what it does: finds the ‘smoking gun’ that brings down rivals.”

“All in all,” summarizes another source that knows the company well, “They have a very diverse range of human capabilities: accountants, attorneys, linguists, former Mossad employees. Actually I was not impressed by their technological capabilities. It is my impression - that they sometimes are so enthusiastic that they operate on the edge.”

The late Motti Zisser’s asset portfolio

In the trial that Bank Hapoalim is conducting to collect the debts of the late tycoon, one of the defendants argued that a person who identified himself as a Mossad agent tried to “recruit” him. In his response to the court the defendant stated that “to the best of his knowledge, this was a “former Mossad agent who was employed by a private investigations firm that was conducting an investigation for Hapoalim. To the best of the undersigned’s knowledge, the firm was Black Cube.” The firm denies this.

The Motti Ben-Moshe file

According to information published last January in Forbes Israel and elsewhere, Black Cube worked in the service of Nochi Dankner to uncover information about Motti Ben Moshe, who took control over IDB together with Eduardo Elsztain. According to the item in Forbes, the investigation was conducted in a number of countries.

The Victor Tchenguiz file

In March 2011, the Jewish-British billionaire and his brother were suspected of a sophisticated fraud. Black Cube’s findings helped the brothers prove that the suspicions against them were groundless. Later the brother also sued the SFO unit that arrested them as well as the accounting firm whose findings were used as the foundation for the charges against them.

The Rami Levy File

The firm was hired by Rami Levy, owner of Rami Levy Chain Stores Hashikma Marketing 2006 Ltd. (TASE:RMLI) who suspected that a smear campaign was being conducted against him by his competitor Eyal Ravid. Black Cube’s investigation found, among other things, a recording in which publicist Gal Baysberg was heard to boast “boy did we kick Rami Levy in the ass.” As a result of these findings, Rami Levy sued Eyal Ravid; the lawsuit recently ended in a settlement after Baysberg submitted a formal apology to Rami Levy.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on April 2, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

Zisser, Ben-Moshe, Tchenguiz, Levy
Zisser, Ben-Moshe, Tchenguiz, Levy
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