What we do and do not know about reports of corruption against the president of the Bank of Latvia
On February 19, the Associated Press published an article by journalist Carlo Piovano, which alleged Ilmars Rimsevics, governor of the Bank of Latvia and a Latvian member of the European Central Bank (ECB), was the central figure of a bribery scandal and protected money launderers.
The story was published just a day after public disclosure that the Latvian Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) detained Rimsevics after authorities searched his property and work place. On February 19, KNAB announced, “the criminal proceeding was commenced for an alleged solicitation and acceptance of a bribe by a public official who holds responsible position.”
The AP report was based on an interview with the Norvik bank’s majority shareholder and chairman Grigory Guselnikov, who suggested Rimsevics “repeatedly” sought “to extort monetary bribes” and “retaliated against the bank when its owners refused to pay up.”
That same day, Latvian public broadcast television reported Guselnikov submitted a statement addressed to the State Police, suggesting that a high-profile state official extorted bribes from him. This was confirmed by Latvia’s Chief of the Criminal Police.
The AP report also included an image, which showed Rimkevics sitting by a table with Dmitry Pilshchikov, who was then the head of the Russian Research Institute of Information Technology (НИИИТ — NIIIT). The aim of the image was to illustrate Rimsevic’s ties with a Russian elite.
Until the KNAB and State Police disclose the conclusions of the investigation, the public narrative is likely remain Rimsevics’ word against Guselnikov’s.
The media spread
@DFRLab identified 3,426 media mentions of “Rimsevics” this week. The number of mentions peaked on February 19, when the AP report was published.
@DFRLab identified at least 75 online media outlets that republished the AP report. The event was reported on by many major English media outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, ABC News, and others.
Interestingly, 26 of 75 media outlets that republished or picked up the AP’s story were part of The Hearst Corporation media network. The Hearst Corporation is well known for running more local newspapers, such as the Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, and Albany Times Union.
Guselnikov’s accusation of Rimsevics did not hit the headlines on Russian media. The AP report was used mainly by Russian media outlets in Latvia, such as the Russian version of Delfi, Kompromat.lv, Novaja.lv, Vesti.lv. Some Russian media outlets that reported on the event included Eurasia Daily, RTVI, and independent Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta.
Nevertheless, Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published an article on February 20 with a rather hostile title: “Grand laundering. How corruption is turning Latvia in an outcast country”. The only media outlet to republish the story was the Russian website Rambler.
As soon as the AP published the report, the question of the accompanying picture’s authenticity arose.
The image in AP’s report was described under the subheader “The Russian Connection”. The caption read:
On one trip, in 2010, Rimsevics went on what appears to be a hunting trip, according to photos obtained by the AP. In one of the photos, he is pictured with Dmitry Pilshchikov, who was then the head of the Research Institute of Information Technology, a Russia-owned military tech company later sanctioned by the U.S.
The photo suggests a friendly gathering in a wood cabin: conversation and laughter around a meal, a bottle of liquor and instant coffee. A guitar lies on the table and an assault rifle hangs on the wall.
Pilshchikov’s boss at the time of the photo was Sergey Chemezov, an old-time ally and friend of Vladimir Putin since the 1980s. After the Crimean invasion, the company was sanctioned by the U.S. Chemezov continues to run Russia’s main arms conglomerate, Rostec.
Digital error level analysis (ELA) suggested that the image was not modified or manipulated in any way.
If an element from another image is added to the original one, the compression levels are different, and the grid on an image highlights the edited parts (see the example below)
AP Director of Media Relations Lauren Easton confirmed the authenticity of the photo to the Latvian news agency LETA.
Another curious fact about the image was its interpretation. The AP article made the connection between Pilshchikov and Chemezov, a close friend to Putin. The article included a blunt description:
“Pilshchikov’s boss at the time of the photo was Sergey Chemezov.”
Nevertheless, as the Russian version of the Latvian media outlet Delfi pointed out, this was not the case.
The AP’s image was dated August 2010. According to an article by Komsomolyskaya Pravda, Pilshchikov was the head of the NIIIT at least by 2011, but little more information was available about him. The institute became a part of the joint-stock company “Sistemi Upravlenia” (Coordination systems) in 2012. The company was subsequently added to Rostec (headed by Chemezov) only in 2014.
There is enough evidence that suggest the image could be falsified. This photograph is modified. That is all.
Later, during a TV show on Latvian public broadcast television, Rimsevics claimed that he did not know Dmitry Pilshchikov, the man sitting next to him in the photo. He said:
I did not drink Vodka. I was fishing salmon. The person I went there with was my friend Valery Maligin [a former owner of a large Latvian pharmacy Olainfarm]. At that moment… You know, it was like in a tourist group, where people are coming from different countries. They meet in Petropavlovsk airport and go to a fishing spot by a bus.
With this contextual information, the picture in and of itself does not suggest a connection between Rimsevics and Putin.
The timing of the article written by AP’s business editor Carlo Piovano and the lack of diversified sources remain in question.
A well-known Latvian journalist Inga Springe pointed out the fact that the article is based on one source — Guselnikov.
What's strange about @AP story on Rimsevics is that it's all based on one source. Usually, journalists try to find confirmation. This is tricky. Especially because Norvik tried to reach out LV journalists already last summer. Let's wait for Rimsevics' comment on public TV tmrow
— Inga Springe (@IngaSpringe) February 19, 2018
Nevertheless, IT expert Ilmars Poikans, claims that Piovano reached out to him in October asking about the corruption in Latvia and Rimsevics in particular.
Poikans is best known as Neo after he “hacked” into the State Revenue Service’s poorly secured system and published information about employee salaries.
Varu apliecināt, ka The Associated Press korupciju Latvijā pētīja jau vismaz no 2017. gada oktobra. Un konkrēti tika pieminēts tieši I. Rimševičs. Raksta autors Carlo Piovano ar mani personiski sazinājās 2017. gada oktobra beigās.
— Ilmārs Poikāns (@ilmarmors) February 20, 2018
The Twitter account of Piovano suggested that he was following how his story spread. On February 21, he tweeted.
Some Latvian officials think I am part of an information attack against the country. I guess I should be flattered that they think I am so powerful that I can control the US Treasury and the Latvian anti-corruption agency. https://t.co/axY3VRTWDF
— Carlo Piovano (@cpiovano) February 21, 2018
The AP report about the president of the Bank of Latvia Ilmars Rimsevics extorting monetary bribes from local banks hit the headlines on several major English media outlets, but the report was almost ignored on Russian media.
The image presented as evidence of Rimsevics’ connection with Russia proved irrelevant, as Putin’s friend Sergey Chemezov was not the boss of Dmitry Pilshchikov (the man in the image) at the time the image was taken.
The fact that the article came one day after Rimsevics’ detention and was based on one source drew suspicion from some Latvian officials. The statement Poikans made in his tweet, showed that the author of the AP’s article was researching the topic before, so Guselnikov’s accusations could also turn out to be true.
The @DFRLab will continue to monitor the ongoing situation with a specific focus on disinformation around the upcoming legal conclusion.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.