What really happened to the Brillante Virtuoso?

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Dead in the water. By Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel. Wallet; 288 pages; $27. Atlantic Books; £18.99

JIT GLOBAL maritime network is one of the most impressive achievements of capitalism. Commercial ships carry more than four-fifths of the world’s trade in physical goods, much of it carried in the more than 16,000 container ships and tankers in service. Yet, as more and more ports have been moved away from cities, shipping has become one of the less visible drivers of the modern economy.

He may also be among the most sleazy, argue Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel, two Bloomberg reporters. Drawing on more than four years of reporting, their account of the plight of Brilliant Virtuoso exposes the dark, barnacle-encrusted happenings below the industry’s waterline. They tell a remarkable story about a commonplace ship, “disputed, set apart in court and investigated by police, naval forces, private detectives and experts who make a living by boarding ships to search for almost invisible clues”. Books on the merchant navy are rarely so captivating.

The central event is the boarding of the Brilliantan aging oil tanker, by pirates claiming to represent ‘the authorities’, as the ship sails through the Gulf of Aden in July 2011. The intruders set off an explosion which causes a devastating fire, then flee.

David Mockett, a Yemen-based marine surveyor working for Lloyd’s of London insurance market, is sent to inspect the badly damaged ship, but finds himself with more questions than answers. Why was the crew so quick to let the pirates on board? And why did the marauders start a fire and disappear rather than seize the ship and demand a ransom?

Suspecting an insurance scam, Mockett begins to dig deeper. But within weeks, he was killed by a car bomb. Two ex-British detectives hired by the insurers to take over the investigation encounter several obstacles. One is a thicket of corporate layers, common in shipping, making it difficult to identify the Brilliantis owner. Front companies and flags of convenience allow shipowners to take “all the profits, little liability”, say the authors.

Another problem is that of the interviewers’ own employers. Lloyd’s, the main insurance market for large commercial risks, has a habit of paying (at least partially) the claims of shipowners suspected of having scuttled their own ships, rather than enduring long and expensive investigations and litigation. Another reason why very few ‘accidents’ are thoroughly investigated is that insurers fear this will lead large shipowners to look elsewhere. Better to cough up, say, half the value of the ship and move on.

However, this case is so egregious that after many back and forths, investigators are allowed to continue digging. They identify Marios “Super Mario” Iliopoulos, a motor racing enthusiast and owner of a Greek ferry service, as the Brilliantis the ultimate owner. Whistleblowers Confirm Attack Was Insurance Fraud; one of them needs rescuing when he discovers a group of portly men are looking for his house. A Greek lawyer representing insurers receives death threats and is beaten near his office in Piraeus.

In October 2019, more than eight years after the Brilliant was set on fire, the High Court in London finally ruled that the attack had been faked and that the “orchestrator” of the audacious fraud was Mr Iliopoulos (who has always denied it). But it was a strange sort of victory for underwriters. Mr Iliopoulos was found to have made a bogus insurance claim for $77 million, but it didn’t cost him a penny as he was not a party to the case, which pitted the insurers against the one of its lenders, Piraeus Bank. The bank, which had financed the purchase of the Brilliant, had long since written off the loan. Two months after Judge Nigel Teare handed down his 136-page judgment, one of Mr Iliopoulos’ ferries has won ‘Ship of the Year’ at Lloyd’s List Greek Shipping Awards. He accepted the award in person, at a ceremony attended by Greek industry bigwigs and politicians.

The private investigators who helped uncover the scam were arguably worse than its alleged perpetrator. One was even forced to defend a criminal complaint after an associate of Mr Iliopoulos alleged the detective unlawfully tried to access his private information. Insurers withdrew an offer to pay the investigator’s legal bill, leaving him heavily out of pocket. Mockett’s widow also had a deal with rum. She sought compensation from insurers who she had been told had spent $28 million on their own legal costs, but received nothing, according to the authors.

The Sobering Lesson Brilliant saga, they conclude, is that shipping fraud pays off – and even if those behind it are unlucky enough to get caught, their chances of ending up in jail, or even out of pocket, are slim. The story illustrates how the shipping industry “has the unique attribute of being fully integrated into the global economy while existing outside of it, benefiting from its infrastructure while ignoring many of its rules”.

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