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.
Choosing carefully how he returned the boxes, Bitraj would make sure those he had tampered with were not in line for delivery to Albania’s commercial banks, nor likely to be picked on in the regular random audit of the vault.
As the thefts mounted, he would stuff the boxes with packaging, balls of string and books to replace the weight of the cash.
All three keys needed to access the vault were kept in his personal safe. In statements to police, bank employees said they had not received any directive on how or where to store the keys.
Bitraj says auditors checked only 2 percent of the cash boxes in the vault. Fired governor Ardian Fullani says it was 5 percent, maintaining that checks in the former communist country were comparable with other central banks in Europe.
Witness testimony has since revealed that the bank’s plumber and electrician both made up the numbers for the required seven-member audit team in 2012 and 2013.
Oddly enough, according to Bitraj’s confession, the security cameras in the cash processing section were not trained on the cash boxes, but on an office and an annex to the cash room.
Bitraj would stuff the money in a black plastic bag and place it in his office safe, investigators said. Then before leaving work, he would duck into the lavatory and strap the wads of bills to his body. His nephew would drive him home.
“The bank had no system to detect if anyone was carrying banknotes out, and some of the cameras were at an angle at which one could not see everything,” an investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
The theft reached its peak during the World Cup in Brazil in June and July; at one point, Bitraj smuggled out 10 million leks, or roughly $90,000, in a single day.
Newspapers reported that he bet through Tirana bookmakers on dozens of matches throughout the tournament, losing 20 million leks ($180,000) on a single game when he backed Brazil to beat Chile in regular time but they only won through on penalties.
The strain on him was mounting.
His wife, in written testimony, said he was suffering from high blood pressure. Investigators told Reuters he was not eating properly, could not sleep and had stopped washing himself.
“I wonder why the guy didn’t skip the country,” said a veteran insider at the central bank.
His confession sent shockwaves through the bank: 18 employees have been arrested, mainly on suspicion of negligence. Fullani, who had won praise from the likes of the International Monetary Fund for his handling of monetary policy during 10 years in charge, is under house arrest pending trial on charges of abuse of office.
Bitraj himself has been charged with bank theft and faces up to 20 years in jail. The trial is expected to begin within weeks and a verdict could come early next year.
His tale is a cautionary one for banks the world over.
“It seems they worked on the basis of trust. And there should be zero trust in a bank,” the central bank insider said.
Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Trevelyan