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Businessman From Maribor With A Final Indictment For Economic Crime

Marko Podgornik Verdev, director and co-owner of the Mikro+Polo company, Slovenia’s largest supplier of laboratory equipment, who likes to portray himself in the media as a friendly employer and a fighter against stereotypes, has found himself in a criminal trial. The final indictment, drawn up by the Maribor prosecutor’s office on the basis of a lengthy criminal investigation, charges him with the offence of causing bankruptcy by fraud or dishonest business practices. He is now facing a sentence of six months to five years imprisonment for the alleged offences in the field of commercial crime.

Marko Podgornik Verdev, the Director of the company that was even awarded the title “Podravje company of the year” by readers of the Večer newspaper has recently been boasting in the media about how happy he is. “Who am I? I am a father of three children, who loves his ex-wife, with whom we are raising our children together, and I am married to a younger man,” Podgornik Verdev, a well-known entrepreneur from Maribor, told a prominent Slovenian media outlet last summer.

Podgornik, who is known for his extravagant lifestyle, has, however, kept quiet about the fact that he is being prosecuted on suspicion of committing the offence of causing bankruptcy by fraud or dishonest business practices. This was confirmed by the District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Maribor.

In response to our questions, Tilen Ivič, Senior State Prosecutor and interim head of the District Prosecutor’s Office in Maribor, confirmed that on the 18th of December 2019, the District State Prosecutor’s Office in Maribor filed “charges against one person for the offence of causing bankruptcy by fraud or unscrupulous business conduct under Article 226(1) and (4)(1) in conjunction with Article 226(3) of the Criminal Code (KZ-1).” The indictment became final on the 4th of December 2020.

In a long-running investigation, Maribor’s criminal investigators have established that the bankruptcy was fraudulent. The owner and Director allegedly “transferred the entire business of an over-indebted company to a newly established company in 2011,” thus avoiding repayment of debts to “a commercial bank, which thereby suffered a loss of 6.7 million euros.” According to unofficial information, the bank in question was BKS, which did not wish to respond to our questions on the grounds of confidentiality.

The criminal investigation into the Mikro+polo company and Marko Podgovrnik was launched in 2017 on suspicion of committing a criminal offence of false bankruptcy and commercial fraud. In this story, Podgornik was allegedly assisted by his now-deceased uncle and co-owner of the company, Vojko Podgornik, with whom Podgornik started his business career.

The Mikro+Polo company was renamed “Vse za laboratorij ” (“Everything You Need For a Lab”) in 2011, and Mikro+Polo subsequently went bankrupt in 2014. They continued selling laboratory equipment with the new company, which was soon given the same name. In the bankruptcy of the “Vse za laboratorij” company, creditors filed claims for 16.8 million euros, of which 8 million euros were filed by the BKS bank from Celje, which unofficially also launched the police investigation, and a claim for just over 4 million euros was filed by the state-owned Bank Assets Management Company, to which the claims of the NKBM bank were transferred.

Stranded construction projects

Some of the Podgornik family companies also invested heavily in construction, for example, in the construction of the Škrjančevo housing estate in Domžale, which ran aground during the construction crisis. The Poloplus company built apartments in Miklavž na Dravskem polju, and the company Klass invest was stranded in the renovation of the Kranjska Gora Suite Hotel Klass. Poloplus went bankrupt in 2014, followed by Klass Invest in 2015.

“The claims against the main debtor Poloplus d.o.o. – in bankruptcy were transferred to the Bank Assets Management Company,” the Bank Assets Management Company confirmed, stating that the Management Company also held claims against Klass invest d.o.o., “on account of the guarantee for the claims against the main debtor Poloplus d.o.o.” In the bankruptcy of the debtor Poloplus d.o.o., the Bank Assets Management Company was granted claims amounting to 3,338,098.61 euros, “of which approximately 2,57 million euros were recognised as contingent claims on the basis of a guarantee and pledge of real estate property for claims against another debtor, as is also clear from the final list of tested claims published by the Agency of the Republic of Slovenia for Public Legal Records and Related Services (AJPES),” they explained.

They also confirmed that these are claims made by the NKBM bank. “The claims against the main debtor Poloplus d. o. o. were transferred to the Bank Assets Management Company from NKBM, d. d.,” they stated.  The debt transferred from NKBM and recognised in the final list of tested receivables amounted to approximately 760,000 euros. As explained further, in the bankruptcy of Poloplus, in addition to the claims, the Bank Assets Management Company was also granted a right to cover the debt from certain real estate. “Their realisation in the bankruptcy covered the claims recognised and secured by these properties. Some of these properties were acquired by the Bank Assets Management Company in the course of the realisation procedure in the bankruptcy,” they added in the statement.

Rich living with high margins

Other disclosures published in the media also testify to Podgornik’s way of doing business.  For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marko Podgornik appeared in the media for exposing his luxurious life, while at the same time playing a prominent role in the healthcare supplier lobby, which is primarily characterised by high-margin businesses that operate at the expense of Slovenian healthcare. Information has been leaked that the Mikro+Polo company has received a total of more than 60 million euros in taxpayers’ money since 2011. The data was revealed in 2016 by RTV Slovenia’s “Ekstravizor” show team, which investigated suspicious deals in the procurement of medical equipment. Podgornik’s company, Mikro+Polo, was also among the companies mentioned. The Ekstravizor team found that since the company’s establishment in 2011, they have received more than 33 million euros, and in total more than 60 million euros of taxpayers’ money. If we were to assume that they charge a double margin to the state, that would mean that they still walked away with 30 million euros of profit.

From bankruptcy to bankruptcy

Despite Podgornik being portrayed in some media as a role model of entrepreneurship, the data paint a very different picture. Members of the Podgornik family can be found in several other companies, several of which ended up in bankruptcy. Martina Kšela Podgornik and Marko Podgornik were co-owners of the Maribor-based trading company Zdravila, which also had branches in Domžale, Hrastnik, Idrija, Trbovlje and Žalec, from its founding until 2012. From 2012 until the company was gone in 2014, it was owned by PoloPlus, which ended up in bankruptcy. The co-owners and agents in the past were Vojko Podgornik, Matjaž Podgornik and Martina Kšela Podgornik. Since 2011, PoloPlus has been owned by Vse za laboratorij, which was also co-owned by the Podgornik family. The company ended up in bankruptcy, and the owner of the company was, once again, PoloPlus. Matjaž Podgornik also has his own company, Podgornik Investicije, formerly called Mikro + Polo LB, which was also owned by Vse za laboratorij in the past, but later withdrew from the founding. This left Matjaž Podgornik as the sole owner (and director).

The overpayment was not repaid

Another telling case reported in the media is how Podgornik’s Mikro+Polo came into the ownership structure during the receivership proceedings, when Mikro+Polo converted its receivables from BIA Separations d.o.o. into an equity stake. Despite the fact that the company settled half of the debt, Mikro+Polo converted the entire debt and is still allegedly not repaying the overpaid debt. The company was sold by Bia Separations owner Aleš Štrancar in 2020 for 360 million euros to Sartorius, an international biopharmaceutical and laboratory equipment manufacturer based in Germany.

According to publicly available data, Mikro+Plus has become the owner of 0.33 percent of the company Bia Separations, and the company has been acquired by the German company Sartorius for 360 million euros. One percent thus represents 3.6 million euros. On the 11th of May 2018, Mikro+Polo became the owner of 0.39 percent of Bia Separations. It received just over 1.4 million euros for its share of the sale. Given that half of the share is still to be repaid for the overpaid debt of Štrancar, Mikro+Polo has caused Bia Separations financial damages of at least 700 thousand euros.

He will clarify in court whether there was fraud

Podgornik will now have to explain his business decisions in court. A criminal investigation into economic crime, which found that Podgornik, as Director of Mikro+Polo, had deliberately caused the bankruptcy of an over-indebted company and suspected him of the offence of causing bankruptcy by fraud or dishonesty, gathered enough evidence for the prosecutor’s office to decide to prosecute Podgornik.

Podgornik will have to explain in court why he worsened the company’s financial situation by transferring the entire business of an over-indebted company to a newly established company in 2011. It is known that he did so in order to ensure that the underlying over-indebted company did not fulfil its contractual obligations under two loan agreements with a commercial bank. It is therefore suspected that fraud was committed by transferring the assets of the over-indebted company to the newly created company before the bankruptcy was opened. Podgornik will also have to explain whether the avoidance of debts and the bankruptcy were deliberate and why he, as the responsible person of the company, changed the name of the company before the bankruptcy and proposed the bankruptcy of the company under the new name.

I. K.

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