Betting the bank: the Albanian gambler who robbed the national vault

Sat Nov 8, 2014 4:32am EST
 
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By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - In the end, it wasn't the security cameras or the audit inspections in the vault of Albania's central bank that brought down Ardian Bitraj.

It was the high blood pressure and lack of sleep, the burden of a multi-million-dollar secret.

Sitting down with his boss this July, Bitraj confessed his deception: over a four-year period he had stolen the equivalent of $6.5 million from the vault, covering his tracks by stuffing the empty cash boxes with books and balls of string.

The revelation brought down the central bank governor, led to the arrest of 18 employees and tarnished the reputation of an institution once lauded for its professionalism. And all for the sake of a gambling habit that led to massive losses, culminating in a series of fatal bets on the soccer World Cup.

The full story of the Balkan bank heist is only just emerging, gleaned by Reuters in interviews with bankers, investigators and others involved, and from legal documents including a transcript of Bitraj's confession.

It started in May 2010, when Bitraj, who had risen to become head of the cash processing department at the bank, first opened the metal and plastic clasps to the wooden boxes that hold its cash reserves in the cryptically named X Building on the outskirts of the capital Tirana.

Bitraj, 45, had a penchant for placing bets on soccer matches, so roughly once a month he would wait for his co-workers to leave the room and swipe up to 2 million leks, roughly $18,000, according to the confession.

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A view showing the building of Albania's central bank, in Tirana August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Arben Celi/Files