After years of hiding from public sight, a hard-partying Englishman alleged to be central to the Wirecard fraud is about to be forced into the limelight by a criminal case in Singapore.
James Henry O’Sullivan’s name is already familiar from the trial of former Wirecard executives taking place on the other side of the world. Though he has not been charged in Germany, prosecutors in the Munich trial examining one of Europe’s biggest accounting frauds allege companies O’Sullivan controlled extracted hundreds of millions of euros from the payments group before it crashed into insolvency in June 2020.
In Singapore, the 48-year-old faces charges of abetting the falsification of documents, including papers that helped persuade Wirecard’s auditors at EY that the company had extensive cash reserves until it was forced to announce that €1.9bn recorded in its accounts did not exist.
If convicted in the trial, which is scheduled for July, O’Sullivan faces up to a decade in prison. It is a bleak prospect for a man who lived the high life in an arc that mirrored the fortunes of the company where he was an adviser, and close confidant of Jan Marsalek, Wirecard’s fugitive second-in-command.
In Monaco in the noughties, O’Sullivan did business from his yacht, facilitating payments for online gambling groups that put his company on the radar of US prosecutors investigating potential money laundering by Wirecard for its clients.
In 2015, the Eastern District of New York court examined alleged “transaction laundering” by Wirecard, with payments for online gambling miscoded as other forms of commerce. No prosecutions resulted.
Later, during a drunken weekend of pheasant shooting in Yorkshire, O’Sullivan is said to have boasted that he was thrown out of Monaco and could not travel to the US. A fellow guest dubbed him “the rudest man I’ve ever met”.
His career as a Wirecard business partner took him to Asia as it expanded with a series of suspicious takeovers. In India, working closely with Marsalek, O’Sullivan masterminded in 2015 the group’s largest and most controversial deal, earning hundreds of millions of euros for supposed investors in Singapore.
Flush with cash, he moved to Singapore in 2016 as Wirecard entered a final phase, where it began to inflate its reported sales and profits by claiming it was paid large commissions by three outsourcing partners. This is the period in focus for German prosecutors who have described O’Sullivan as a central actor in the fraud.
In charges against former Wirecard chief executive Markus Braun and two other senior executives, prosecutors allege that O’Sullivan controlled an opaque network of companies in Singapore, the Isle of Man and Lithuania that were used to inflate Wirecard’s sales and profits, and to siphon off more than €200mn in fraudulent loans.
According to prosecutors, some of that cash found its way back to Marsalek and Braun through companies controlled by O’Sullivan. But his absence from the trial in Germany has complicated attempts to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
After he was arrested in Singapore in 2021 and released on S$150,000 bail, authorities there passed on his testimony to their German counterparts. This has not been shared with the court in Munich, prompting Braun’s defence lawyer to accuse German prosecutors of withholding information.
However, Singapore officials told the Financial Times that it would be illegal under the country’s laws to use the testimony in foreign court proceedings. They added that Munich prosecutors had not made any extradition requests.
This means the five judges weighing evidence in the highly complex German trial lack testimony from three central protagonists. Marsalek is thought to be hiding in Russia; a suspect who ran a partner business in Manila was reported dead shortly after Wirecard’s collapse; and O’Sullivan remains in Singapore.
The Munich court and criminal prosecutors declined to comment. Lawyers for O’Sullivan said they were unable to respond because they had not been instructed to do so.
The invisible Englishman
In some circles he went by Henry, in others James. When accountants from KPMG tried to interview O’Sullivan for their special audit of Wirecard in the months before its collapse, he asked to be kept out of any records if he did so, and Wirecard then suggested that he should be called “Corinna Müller” if he did. In the end, he did not.
O’Sullivan was by that point well practised at shielding his business activities from the public eye, using layers of shell companies that were often registered in other people’s names.
Most important of these to Wirecard was Singapore-based Senjo Group. It was one of three Asian outsourcing partners reported by Wirecard as generating half of its sales and all of its operating profits from 2016 onwards, arrangements that prosecutors say were a fiction.
On paper Senjo was controlled by two other people. In practice senior Wirecard staff understood O’Sullivan called the shots. Both Braun and Oliver Bellenhaus, the former head of a Wirecard subsidiary who is also on trial but has turned chief witness, told the Munich court that O’Sullivan was “in control” of Senjo.
“His role was clear to everyone and did not need to be discussed,” Bellenhaus said.
According to internal communication from the time that was reviewed by the FT, O’Sullivan was already “a long time Wirecard business partner which we are co-operating with in various fields” by 2014. In his Monaco days, he spent an F1 race weekend entertaining Wirecard’s then chief financial officer, Burkhard Ley.
Marsalek was a more frequent drinking companion, flying to Mozambique with his girlfriend and two other senior Wirecard managers to celebrate O’Sullivan’s 40th birthday in November 2014. It was a typically lavish affair, taking over the $950-per-night Azura resort on Mozambique’s Benguerra Island for a long weekend.
When it came to business, Wirecard helped O’Sullivan with loans: $13mn for an experiment in crude oil trading, and €11mn for a company trying to offer mobile payments services to merchants in India.
Munich prosecutors also assert that O’Sullivan controlled Ocap and Ruprecht, two Singapore-based companies that received more than €250mn in payments from Wirecard, the bulk of it just months before the company collapsed. Prosecutors allege these payments were not for genuine business purposes.
Some of the cash was channelled back to Marsalek and Braun through a Lithuania-based payments company Finolita, prosecutors allege. Finolita was owned by Senjo and until 2021 had an e-money licence from the Lithuanian central bank. The licence was revoked after the FT reported prosecutor suspicions that the company was used to loot Wirecard weeks before it collapsed.
Braun, who denies all the charges and claims he was a victim of his protégé Marsalek, told the Munich judges that he had “no relationship whatsoever” with O’Sullivan, adding that he remembers shaking his hand twice: once at Oktoberfest and once at a different corporate event.
Marsalek and O’Sullivan’s closest collaboration was Wirecard’s most costly and controversial M&A transaction, the €340mn purchase of three Indian payments companies announced in October 2015.
Wirecard bought the businesses from an opaque Mauritius-based fund that had acquired them just weeks earlier for a fraction of the price. In subsequent internal and external investigations, Wirecard said it did not know who controlled the fund.
According to whistleblowers and documents reviewed by the FT, it was O’Sullivan who pulled the strings. He oversaw the Mauritius fund and masterminded its dealmaking with Marsalek.
In messages, O’Sullivan encouraged and cajoled his team at the fund, conscious of the “storyline” and “attempting to keep our heads under the parapet”.
The India deal was so important that he cancelled a hunting weekend in Northumberland with Marsalek and others, writing: “there are very few things that would cause me to miss shooting (and spending time with such a fine group of friends and family) but I fear I must accept my responsibility and look to do twice as much shooting next year”.
With the transaction complete, he moved to Singapore. He and Marsalek shared business interests, tailors and tastes in extravagant wines. For a while they both sported large beards, and boasted of investments in Libyan cement plants, friends and associates said, while money from the Mauritius fund paid for Marsalek’s personal power base in Munich: a palace opposite the Russian consulate.
Marsalek ultimately vanished but O’Sullivan settled in Singapore with a white Rolls-Royce and a shark-filled aquarium at his home in a private gated community. When a US reporter knocked on the door in 2019, he called the police.
The trial this year will finally cast a light on his life and way of doing business. The challenge of trying to get to the truth about O’Sullivan, warned one friend, is that he is so much fun that stories about him had to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The friend recounted one memory, of the time O’Sullivan swaggered into a Mayfair hotel bar and slapped down a thick wad of £50 notes with a cry that now seems prophetic: “game’s over losers, I have all the money”.