How a whistleblower brought down the house of Wirecard

A long fight for justice by a whistleblower in its Singapore office brings down fintech company Wirecard – at a huge personal cost

Pav Gill had a choice: Resign or be fired. It was September 2018, and he had just spent a year as the Head of the Legal Department for the Asia Pacific (APAC) region at Wirecard, a payment processing company headquartered in Germany.

He was in no mood to celebrate his work anniversary as he had been grappling with a series of forgery, round-tripping, cover-ups and other irregularities at his new job – not to mention a death threat. He had been asked to visit Jakarta to attend a presentation in person, by one of Wirecard’s Indonesian entities. Pav refused, as one of the executives implicated in his whistleblowing had boasted of the connections his wife’s family had with drug lords. Days later he was told to leave or be fired.

Wirecard’s growth

Wirecard AG was founded in 1999 in a small town outside Munich. Markus Braun became its CEO in 2002 after rescuing the company from the brink of collapse with a personal investment of £75 million (US$118 million). He also engineered its rise on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, making Wirecard a fintech darling of Germany. Unlike its competitors such as Apple Pay and PayPal, Wirecard offered both conventional and digital payment processing services to large and small businesses, and its multi-channel platform could handle online, mobile, and in-store point-of-sale transactions that its rivals could not.

Wirecard’s clients included German grocery discount stores like Lindl, and  also some less well-known shady businesses such as online gambling. Wirecard made Singapore its base and expanded aggressively in Indonesia and India before venturing into South America and North America where it bought over Citigroup’s prepaid card services in 2016. This acquisition boosted Wirecard’s portfolio with over 20,000 new institutional clients located in Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Wirecard appeared to be an appealing investment option and Gill himself was excited to have been headhunted for the well-paying position.

Red flags and threats

Soon after joining, however, Gill noticed red flags. For starters, the Head of International Finance, Edo Kurniawan, had had only two short stints as a regional finance manager before he was hired by the headquarters to handle billions of dollars at the age of 33.

Next, he realised that Kurniawan could neither speak nor write German or English fluently, yet he flew around the world for weekly meetings. Kurniawan also boasted that he married into a drug-dealing family in Indonesia, telling Gill that colleagues in the Philippines had been dismissed for accusing the company of fraud. “Wirecard has been known to make people disappear,” he told Gill.

More disturbing, Kurniawan’s practice was to hire young inexperienced female staff and pay them high salaries to organise dubious transactions. When Gill uncovered Kurniawan’s dubious transactions, he was allowed to engage an independent team of lawyers to probe deeper. Their initial investigations revealed, among other things, that a round-tripping of £37 million (US$48 million) had occurred from a Wirecard-owned bank in Germany to an inactive account belonging to a Hong Kong subsidiary. The money was then moved to an external company, before appearing in Wirecard in India.

When he escalated the report from the independent lawyers, the Wirecard board came down hard on Gill and Royston Ng, who was a former prosecutor working as Wirecard Singapore’s head of regulatory compliance. Both were instructed to stand down. Ng chose to comply, leaving Gill to fight for justice on his own.

From then on, Gill’s workplace became very challenging. Kurniawan insisted that Gill go on a business trip to Indonesia to attend a presentation. Gill had a strong sense of foreboding and suspected it was a ruse to get him out of Singapore for a more sinister purpose. He even received an anonymous tip-off from Wirecard’s head office in Munich, telling him bluntly, “We strongly recommend that you don’t go because you will not come back.”

Gill soon left Wirecard, but he and his mother found themselves being stalked. While attending job interviews, he was asked questions that were designed to tempt him into breaking his non-disclosure agreement with his former employer.

Fighting back and a bittersweet victory

Gill was raised by his mother Sokhbir Kaur, who had worked at an American bank during her younger days. Appalled and frustrated at what had happened, she decided to go public in October 2018. Without Gill’s knowledge, and using an alias, Kaur wrote to various news publications to convince them to break the story about the harassment from Wirecard. She wrote to The Asian Wall Street Journal, Financial Times (FT); and freelance journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, who was known to protect her sources.

FT eventually broke the story four months later. In June 2020, Wirecard declared bankruptcy, and nearly a year later, in May 2021, Gill revealed himself to be the whistle-blower. By December 2022, Braun and two other Wirecard managers stood trial for multiple counts of fraud. Some officers in the Singapore office were also charged with criminal breach of trust.

Although justice was served, the emotional cost for both Gill and Kaur was enormous. The entire saga left Kaur feeling that the price she and Gill paid was unfair, and that more should be done to protect future whistleblowers.

The case teaches students to recognise the contextual factors as they decide upon an appropriate course of action when faced with value conflicts, and develop strategies that could lead to less negative consequences. They will also assess if the case protagonist could have managed the situation differently, if at all.

 

The two-part case “A whistleblower’s dilemma in the house of Wirecard (A) and (B)” is written by Professor Abhijeet Vadera, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources at Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Dr Cheah Sin Mei, Assistant Director, and Mahima Rao-Kachroo, Case Writer, both from the Centre for Management Practice at Singapore Management University. To read it in full, please visit the CMP website by clicking here.