It seemed a simple proposition – perhaps too simple. JuicyFields, a cannabis investment platform, launched in 2020, allowed trading in both conventional and crypto funds without the background checks typically required for investment banking transactions.
According to Swedish attorney Lars Olofsson, it’s likely that many of JuicyField’s clients – he estimates up to 125,000 accounts – were unaware of the background check requirement or other discrepancies, which should have been red flags. Many of them were inexperienced investors that bought into JuicyFields based on the company’s slick marketing or on word-of-mouth from other clients that had seen significant returns – at first.
“Definitely, there was a grooming process,” Olofsson said of the company’s persuasive sales pitch. “At first, the investors did get some returns on investment, and many of them deposited more money then and told friends about it.”
In June, when JuicyFields was banned from investments and fined by German financial regulator BaFin, Olofsson believes its shadowy operators realized the jig was up. By July, the platform had shut down, with clients locked out of accounts overnight and the company’s social media accounts shuttered.
Olofsson’s research revealed that Juicy Fields GmBH was founded in Germany in 2017, with Dutch (Juicy Fields B.V.) and Swiss (Juicy Fields AG) subsidiaries to follow.
Viktor Bitner, a German citizen with Russian ties, founded the company as a “research & development company,” Olofsson said, but it didn´t start operations until spring 2020.
Following the money
Olofsson, who is also the CEO and founder of Malmo-based business consultancy PrioStarup AG, said that details have surfaced in contracts that JuicyFields held with various consultants and executives that indicate irregular activities.
“Bitner signed an agreement with a Swiss company, ALPINE Asset Management, and (its CEO) Fransesca Grecco, who received an annual management fee for $3 million. This is absolutely crazy and is 10 times as much as normal for these kind of consulting services. The only explanation is that both parties knew this was a criminal operation,” he surmised.
“I’ve [got] the agreement that was later signed with a Mr. Alan Glanse, who has presented himself as the [JuicyFields] CEO. This is not correct according to public records. … You can see that his compensation was $120,000 per year – only a 20th of what the Swiss lady got,” Olofsson added.
In fact, Glanse sparked rumors of Russian mafia involvement in July when he told Spanish finance publication El País Financiero that “three people with Russian passports” had hired him, adding he’d met with them only five times and that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
During the interview, when confronted with documentation apparently leaked to the publication, Glanse said that Russian citizens and JuicyFields “shareholders” Paul Bergholts, Alex Vaimer, and Vasily Kandinski were “the real owners.”
Bitner also was mentioned as a “front man” in the article, though his actual role at the company has been obscured by a cast of hired consultants and executives that held C-suite positions.
Attempts to reach Bitner for comment were futile on social media accounts that have long been stagnant. A LinkedIn page lists Bitner as CEO at Juicy Grow GmbH. An attempt to reach Swiss consultant Grecco also did not receive response.
Reflections of Wirecard downfall
Clues from JuicyFields are scattered like seeds across news outlets, blogs, and social media, especially in the countries where the company found many of its investors, such as Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece and Malta.
Bloggers and social media observers that track cyber criminals and scams began speculating on JuicyFields as early as 2021, with some making comparisons to the epic downfall of German payment processor Wirecard.
Listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in 2005, Wirecard eventually became Europe’s largest fintech firm with a valuation of $28 billion – more than traditional financial institutions such as Deutschebank at one point. Though alleged money-laundering and fraud at the company had been reported by industry analysts and insiders since 2016, it was listed as one of the 30 most valuable companies in Germany by 2018 and expanded to establish an Asia Pacific branch and subsidiary in Dubai.
In 2019, the Financial Times reported on a series of suspicious transactions at Wirecard, which the company aggressively denied, as it had done with previous allegations. Wirecard filed suit against FT for misrepresenting “company secrets” in their reporting. Independent auditors were brought in by the company to address allegations.
By mid-June 2020, auditors revealed that $2.3 billion of cash balances that should have been in escrow accounts could not be accounted for, amounting to massive, complicated fraud. A search for the funds conducted by the company came up empty. This was quickly followed by the arrests of Wirecard’s top executives and insolvency proceedings by the end of June.
Police raids on the Wirecard offices continued, amid accusations of money-laundering and defrauding of creditors. Repercussions from Wirecard’s downfall brought about the resignation of then-president of German financial regulatory watchdog BaFin Felix Hufeld, and former Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Finance Minister Olaf Scholz were called to testify in the scandal.
Why did it take so long for financial authorities to act, when irregular activities had been alleged for years? In 2019, regulator BaFin had already announced an inquiry into the company’s accounting and banned short-selling Wirecard stock. And it’s a question that’s come back around in the JuicyFields case.
The German regulator said they are unable to comment on Olofsson’s case but offered further details on JuicyFields.
“On 3 June 2022, BaFin prohibited Juicy Holdings B.V. from offering capital investments in the form of investment opportunities in JuicyFlash, JuicyMist, JuicyKush, and JuicyHaze cannabis plants to the public in Germany due to a violation of the German Capital Investment Act. Juicy Holdings B.V. is therefore not authorized to offer capital investments in the form of investment opportunities in cannabis plants in Germany,” a BaFin representative stated.
“Regarding our warning in relation to Juicy Holdings B.V.’s, I want to highlight that Juicy Holdings B.V.’s (alleged) capital investments were/are unregulated capital market products. This means that a company that offers such products does not require authorization from BaFin and is therefore not subject to ongoing supervision.”