ROME – Just weeks after being indicted by the Vatican on charges of abuse of office over a shady London real estate deal, Swiss lawyer René Brülhart has resigned from his post on the board of a Swiss bank.
However, Brülhart has insisted that his decision has nothing to do with the Vatican trial, but was made for other reasons.
In a statement earlier this month, the Hypothekarbank Lenzburg AG bank announced that “for private reasons,” Brülhart decided to step down from the board of directors “with immediate effect.”
“René Brülhart has been a member of the Board of Directors since 2016 and, particularly in his role as Chairman of the Audit and Risk Committee, has made a significant contribution to successfully setting the course for the future of the bank,” the statement said.
According to the statement, the bank’s board “respects his personal decision and thanks him for the trusting and competent cooperation.”
“Hypothekarbank Lenzburg AG regrets his resignation and wishes René Brülhart all the best for the future,” it said.
In light of the decision, many have speculated that Brülhart’s resignation from Hypothekarbank Lenzburg AG is a direct result of his Vatican troubles, given that it comes just weeks after the charges against him were announced.
However, reached by Crux, Brülhart said he has nothing further to add other than what was said in the statement and insisted his decision to step down was for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the Vatican trial.
Brülhart, 49, was indicted by the Vatican seven weeks ago for abuse of office in a mega-trial featuring 10 defendants, including Brülhart and Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who served as sostituto, or “substitute,” meaning the number two official in the Secretariat of State, from 2011 to 2018.
It’s the first time in modern history a cardinal has faced criminal charges in the Vatican.
The trial officially began July 27, but was adjourned until October, after the summer vacation period in Italy.
Most of the charges surround a notorious $400 million real estate deal in London executed by the Secretariat of State which has plunged the Vatican into a major scandal.
The deal was for the purchase a former Harrod’s warehouse, which would be converted into luxury apartments in the city’s swanky Chelsea neighborhood. However, the deal went south, costing the Vatican millions.
Funds from the charitable Peter’s Pence fund were used to make the initial investment, which was an additional source of outrage surrounding the London deal.
An annual collection taking place on the June 29 feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Peter’s Pence is a fund used for charity, but which also supports the running of the Curia. Over the years, the money has increasingly been used to fill the gaps in the Vatican’s administrative budget, which has come as a surprise to donors who thought they were supporting the poor and needy.
At the time all of this was happening, Brülhart was serving as head of a Vatican watchdog unit called the “Financial Information Authority,” or AIF, created under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in a bid to clean up Vatican finances.
Vatican prosecutors charge that Brülhart, along with his former deputy Tommaso Di Ruzza, “seriously violated the basic rules governing supervision” for apparently lending legitimacy to an illegitimate payment to Gianluigi Torzi, an Italian businessman who oversaw the London deal.
Vatican investigators allege that under Brülhart, AIF “overlooked the anomalies of the London transaction – of which it had immediately been informed – especially considering the wealth of information acquired as a result of intelligence activity.”
This point, as well as the fact that Brülhart has been charged at all, has been disputed by some observers who argue that at the oversight of the Secretariat of State was never part of AIF’s purview.
Under its statutes, AIF – now known as “ASIF,” the Financial Supervision and Information Authority – holds no supervisory power over the Secretariat of State, nor did it at the time Brülhart was in charge.
The only Vatican entity AIF actually supervises is the Institute for the Works of Religion, also known as the Vatican bank, which raises the question among some as to how Brülhart managed to violate “basic rules governing supervision” of an entity he wasn’t supervising.
Brülhart was also a non-executive president of AIF, meaning he provided vision and direction, but Di Ruzza had the real authority.
Before coming to the Vatican, Brülhart from 2004-2012 served as head of the financial intelligence unit of Liechtenstein, playing a key role in ending the small principality’s reputation as financially untouchable and helping it to make it on the “whitelists” of clean financiers.
During his time cleaning up Liechtenstein, Brülhart was also named the vice-chair of the Egmont Group, an international consortium of financial intelligence units who facilitate the sharing of information to fight financial crime and the financing of terrorism.
When Brülhart was brought to the Vatican under Benedict, it was widely interpreted as a sign of how serious the Vatican was about its own financial reform.
During his time with the Vatican, Brülhart took several significant steps, including assisting in the creation of a reporting system for suspicious transactions that was praised by big-time players such as Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency.
The inclusion of his name on the list of indictments in the Vatican trial, then, came as a surprise for many, who wondered how the man responsible for the Vatican’s financial cleanup ended up with this stain on his record.
Some believe Brülhart’s indictment may be linked to the Moneyval evaluations, as they often praise him but criticized the Vatican Promoter of Justice’s office, led by Italian layman Gian Piero Milano since 2013.
Brülhart will now have less on his plate when the Vatican trial picks back up in October.
John Allen Jr. contributed to this report.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen