‘Pirate of Prague’ reflects on Aspen, bribery allegations
The U.S. government is offering $22 million in proceeds from its sale of the Peak House in Aspen — which it seized in 2001 from a man accused of stealing more than $1 billion from investors — to Czech Republic shareholders as restitution, media in Prague reported Tuesday.
On March 28, an appeals court in Britain affirmed the extradition decision by a Bahamas court regarding the home’s former owner, Viktor Kozeny. The lower court refused the U.S. government’s request that Kozeny be extradited to face charges of money laundering, lying to the FBI and violating federal foreign corruption laws.
Kozeny, in an email from Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, confirmed the development. U.S. authorities are “soliciting litigation from the [Czech Republic] against my mom so that they do not have to release the Aspen proceeds to her,” he said. Kozeny, who bought the Peak House in her name, called the effort a “clearly political” persecution.
With the British extradition ruling, the Prague-based newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes reported that U.S. authorities have until May 25 to return to Kozeny’s mother the $22 million from the Peak House sale. That is, unless officials from the Czech mutual funds make a claim on it, which at least one plans to do, the paper reported.
Petra Hruba, spokeswoman for the Czech Justice Ministry, told Mlada fronta Dnes that “we have received from the U.S. authorities information on the possibility to claim the money seized in connection with the criminal proceedings against Kozeny” in the United States. Hruba did not return an email seeking comment.
The so-called “Pirate of Prague” has lived in the Caribbean since 1999, when authorities say he fled the United States with $182 million swindled from investors from Aspen and elsewhere, and $1.1 billion more that was allegedly embezzled from mutual funds in the Czech Republic.
Kozeny, 48, bought the nearly 22,000-square-foot home, the highest residence on Red Mountain, in 1997 for $19.7 million, which was then a record for a real estate sale in the state.
Authorities believe Kozeny used the residence to woo investors for his $450 million plan to control the oil industry of Azerbaijan. The home was eventually seized and sold under a court order to Priceline founder Richard S. Braddock in 2001, who continues to own it.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
The Peak House, located at 2137 Red Mountain Road.
Among the tactics to lure investors, who included former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell: a lavish Christmas party in 1997 at the Peak House at which Natalie Cole sang and at which the Azerbaijan scheme was allegedly hatched.
Investors were apparently told that their money would be going to Kozeny’s Oily Rock and Minaret companies, which were to buy energy vouchers for the state oil company as Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, looked to privatized industries in the late 1990s.
Instead, federal prosecutors contend Kozeny used his jets to fly in suitcases filled with millions of dollars to bribe Azerbaijan officials. The nation’s oil industry was never privatized.
Kozeny said he doubts the plan was discussed at the Christmas party.
“As to business we all know that’s never discussed at parties in Aspen as everyone is wasted and half of [the] town [is] on cocaine, which is one of the reasons why I prefer Europe where the drug problem is not so severe,” he wrote.
He denied the allegations that led to the 2009 conviction of his then-business partner and neighbor on Red Mountain Road, Frederic Bourke, for conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and lying to the FBI. Bourke, head of the high-end handbag maker Dooney & Bourke, was sentenced to one year and a day in prison and a $1 million fine. He remains free after appealing the conviction to the Court of Appeals in New York and has maintained that he was ignorant of the bribery scheme.
Kozeny was sued by insurance conglomerate AIG, which reportedly invested $15 million into the plan, and a Wall Street hedge fund for $423 million after the plan fell apart. Kozeny said he has “won everything, including all civil litigations,” though that could not be verified Tuesday.
“Everyone litigates in the U.S., and that in my view is one thing that is destroying the country,” he wrote. “To go and make up things and file fake [legal] claims has became too much the way of life in the U.S. [and] is an easy way to escape responsibility ...
“Going to church more is what I would recommend to those who do that.”
Jerika Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office which has charged Kozeny, said she could not confirm that the money is available because it’s an ongoing case.
“We’re aware of that report, but have no comment,” she said.
Kozeny said Tuesday he doesn’t miss Aspen all that much; the skiing’s better in Austria and Switzerland.
But Kozeny doesn’t have to worry about what he dislikes about Aspen because he’s likely never coming back.
Information first reported by Bloomberg News was used in this article.