So how DID Prince Andrew’s friend win prestigious [email protected] award… days before fixing it for Duke to get £750,000? In a shambolic pitch, he stuttered and floundered so much that he couldn’t even fill the three minutes he was given, writes SIAN BOYLE
- Andrew faces questions over businessman embroiled in High Court fraud case
- Selman Turk, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is accused of a £40 million fraud
- Renewed scrutiny of [email protected] follows new info in High Court documents
During his infamous BBC Newsnight interview in November 2019, Prince Andrew revealed his thoughts on how he might try to salvage the remnants of his reputation.
Following the exposure of his friendship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and allegations that he had sex with Virginia Giuffre when she was a 17-year-old sex trafficking victim (which he vehemently denies), the Duke of York cited his [email protected] global initiative as a way of reconnecting with the public.
The Dragons’ Den-style mentoring network to connect start-up firms, often in the technology sector, with potential investors was the Prince’s pride and joy and, it was claimed, had raised tens of millions of pounds for local and national economies.
London-based Turkish businessman and former banker Selman Turk shakes the Prince’s hand at the [email protected] event
‘I’m [going] to continue to work with Pitch,’ Andrew, a former UK trade ambassador, told interviewer Emily Maitlis. ‘…I’m not somebody who does things in competition with people, oddly. I do things in collaboration with people.’
Even at the time, it sounded ridiculously naive. Within days of the car-crash interview, leading businesses and charities that had enthusiastically backed [email protected] were rushing for the door, despite a royal aide insisting plaintively that it had been one of Andrew’s few ‘real success stories’.
His name had soon disappeared from the website, its moniker was reduced to ‘Pitch’, employees vacated their Buckingham Palace HQ and the UK arm of the company, owned by the Prince, was wound up.
Now, given recent revelations about [email protected], the Prince’s assertion that it was key to his rehabilitation sounds positively cynical, with some of those ‘collaborations’ looking decidely rum.
Attention is increasingly focused on what exactly happened at a Pitch event at St James’s Palace on November 6, 2019, with questions mounting over the integrity of businessman Selman Turk, who took part and who is, separately, now embroiled in a High Court fraud case.
He has also been accused of owing employees tens of thousands of pounds, and even a member of the House of Lords is out of pocket.
Andrew faces questions about why this alleged fraudster, whose company Heyman AI had received a [email protected] award, has been accused of facilitating the placement of £750,000 into the Prince’s personal account at his bank Coutts just days after the event, and whether later concerns about the legitimacy of the award were ever investigated.
Turk with the Duchess of York. There is no evidence to suggest that Prince Andrew was involved in determining who the final winners were in respect of the awards
The renewed scrutiny of [email protected] follows new information in High Court documents in the case between Mr Turk, a former Goldman Sachs banker who is accused of a £40 million fraud, and Nebahat Isbilen, a 77-year-old Turkish multi-millionairess.
As the Mail reported earlier this month, the court papers have drawn the Duke, his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson and even his daughters into a tantalising mystery of how and why they came to receive large sums from accounts linked to Turk.
According to the court papers, it is claimed that Isbilen transferred the £750,000 to Prince Andrew’s bank account on November 15, 2019. This was nine days after Turk had presented his digital bank business idea at the glittering [email protected] event at St James’s.
Mrs Isbilen, who is a political exile in the UK, claims in her court affidavit she was told by Turk that this was a gift to Prince Andrew, who, she claims she was told, was helping to secure her a British passport. The sum was paid back by the Prince in March 2021 — 16 months later — after Mrs Isbilen’s solicitors wrote to him over his dealings with Turk, according to legal documents.
Mrs Isbilen said in her affidavit that she was in the audience at the Palace that day, which she believes was at Turk’s invitation.
‘I can only wonder if there is any connection between this event and the Duke of York transfer,’ she said.
According to the court papers, it is claimed that Isbilen transferred the £750,000 to Prince Andrew’s (pictured in 2020) bank account on November 15, 2019
A former business associate of Turk has reportedly claimed that the money ‘was all to do with ensuring Heyman AI did well at Pitch’.
There is no evidence to suggest that Prince Andrew was involved in determining who the final winners were in respect of the awards.
Adding to the intrigue is video footage, revealed by The Mail On Sunday, of the Duchess of York praising Mr Turk at a private dinner in September 2019 as a ‘wonderful man’ — just weeks after he had transferred at least £225,000 to her bank account.
In another clip filmed five months later at the same restaurant, she says: ‘…I completely believe in the customer care of this wonderful man, Selman…’
Selman Turk’s digital banking company, Heyman AI, began life in April 2019, just six months before the Pitch event. It was incorporated at 25 Park Lane, Mayfair — one of the most exclusive addresses in Britain — and Turk, 35, saw [email protected] as the perfect platform to elevate it further.
Founded five years previously, Pitch boasted of helping 931 businesses, creating 5,982 jobs and generating £1.1 billion of economic activity.
Each year, hundreds of start-up companies entered, of which 42 were selected by a panel of Pitch staff, business experts and corporate sponsors to progress to the next round.
These lucky entrepreneurs were then subjected to a series of ‘boot camps’ where they honed their business plans and perfected their pitches. From this group, 12 were selected for the final, in which they had three minutes to pitch to Britain’s business luminaries.
The court papers have drawn the Duke, his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson and even his daughters into a tantalising mystery of how and why they came to receive large sums from accounts linked to Turk
It’s fair to assume that few of the entrepreneurs in Pitch’s Class of 2019 had ever crossed a royal threshold before — except one.
Selman Turk was already an associate of Prince Andrew, the men having been introduced in May or June of 2019 — about five months before Pitch — by Tarek Kaituni, a convicted gun smuggler and associate of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.
In fact, Turk lived less than a mile from St James’s Palace, in a multimillion-pound flat rented out by the Crown Estate.
Turk, Kaituni and the Duke went on to meet at a dinner with potential investors at Turk’s home in December 2019. In February 2020, Turk and Kaituni were pictured at Frogmore House, the royal residence in Windsor Great Park.
In August 2019, three months before [email protected], £225,000 was transferred to an account in the name of ‘Duchess of York’ from an account linked to the Turkish banker. The Duchess has previously said this sum was for her work as a brand ambassador for a U.S. solar energy company.
There were also regular instalments adding up to £350,000 paid to the Duke.
Princess Eugenie received £25,000 over the course of two days in October 2019. These payments — including the £750,000 to the Duke — have variously been explained as a gift for Beatrice’s wedding, and funds towards a surprise birthday party for the Duchess of York.
Selman Turk’s company, Heyman AI, made it to the first round of [email protected], then the top 42, then the final 12, giving him an opportunity to pitch at the main event.
‘He got through but he was appalling’, a senior [email protected] source told the Mail this week. ‘He did an appalling pitch and I just remember thinking, ‘How did he get through?’ It was just nuts.’
Princess Eugenie (pictured in 2019) received £25,000 over the course of two days in October 2019
However, the source added that it was ‘fanciful’ to assume Prince Andrew had any influence over the Pitch panel, and that ‘there were lots of people who vetted the applications’.
As planning for the final Pitch extravaganza gathered pace, there was a sense of discombobulation behind the scenes, according to one of the entrepreneurs who advised Prince Andrew on the 2019 event.
He described a boardroom meeting at Buckingham Palace in the weeks before the event that 16 business leaders attended to discuss the venture.
‘[The Prince] was late, for a start,’ according to the entrepreneur. ‘But what I found astonishing, given his [previous] role as the UK’s unofficial business ambassador, was when he leaned back in his chair, surrounded by the great and good of business, and said: ‘I don’t have a clue about business.”
Selman Turk (pictured) was already an associate of Prince Andrew, the men having been introduced in May or June of 2019 — about five months before Pitch
On the day itself, the air thrummed with anticipation as nervous entrepreneurs, potential investors and a glittering array of business leaders gathered to sit on crimson velvet chairs beneath giant chandeliers at St James’s Palace.
In the scarlet-walled room, beside the large digital screen centre stage, were two Grenadier Guards in all their pomp, who sounded their trumpets to announce ‘time up’ on any pitch that went over three minutes.
Up for grabs were two prizes: The title of official winner of [email protected] 2019, with two runners-up, and the People’s Choice Award, voted for online the next day.
‘The prize is the prestige,’ said Sharon Pursey, who competed in Pitch in 2017 through her firm SafeToNet. She says the Duke’s ‘little black book’ has since opened many business opportunities to her.
And there was no doubt Selman Turk was hoping to benefit even more than he might have done already from Prince Andrew’s ‘little black book’.
But on the day he bombed: banal, stuttering, floundering on stage, then falling silent before the trumpets sounded to put him, and the audience, out of their misery.
Not surprisingly, it caused much consternation the next day when Heyman AI was announced as winner of the People’s Choice Award, having won by a landslide.
Other competitors were so surprised by the win — which had garnered as many as 10,000 votes, while the other entrants had only hundreds — that concerns were immediately lodged with Amanda Thirsk, then Prince Andrew’s private secretary.
In an exchange with Thirsk reported by The Guardian, she was told that Heyman AI’s win ‘did not feel right or make sense’ and ‘it would be a shame if people were gaming the system’.
Thirsk replied: ‘I think your point is right that a campaign to ‘game’ the position is not quite in keeping. We will certainly look at this again for next time.’
Another source said: ‘There was a group of us on the day who felt the People’s Choice Award hadn’t felt right during that competition because their pitch was c**p.
Their whole concept was bizarre, in that they were pitching for something when they didn’t have a licence.
‘A few of us made the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that bots [must have been used] to do this, because the way the awards worked was you were actively told to go on your network and get people to vote for you [online]’.
Online robots or ‘bots’ are software programs that perform automated, repetitive, pre-defined tasks.
Andrew Patel, an AI researcher at cybersecurity firm WithSecure, said that for someone to increase votes on a website, they would simply need to provide the voting link ‘to someone who knows how to write code or some computer language that is familiar with scripting websites.
‘You provide them with the link and ask them to write a piece of code that mimics filling out a form and voting. Depending on what [authentication] is required on the form, they could generate names as well.’
Prince Andrew has declined to comment on these allegations, but a source familiar with Pitch operations said a specialist data company had been used to prevent malicious voting, including by bots.
Winning the People’s Choice Award did not deliver quite as much as Selman Turk hoped. From late 2020 through 2021, Heyman AI’s fortunes went from bad to worse.
At least eight employment tribunals last year found against the firm, ordering it to pay out for unpaid wages, holidays worked but not paid for, and dismissing employees in breach of contract.
More than £100,000 was owed to Joe Gordon, a rising star of the financial technology industry who left his job as CEO of online bank First Direct to take on a shiny new role at Heyman AI.
Former Heyman AI employees have written online about the company’s culture, alleging unscrupulous business dealings.
‘CEO lies a lot and gave unrealistic promises,’ wrote one on the employment review website Glassdoor. Another commented: ‘Unethical behaviours in management…a huge question mark about source of funding.’
The Times reported this week that, according to former staff, on the day in November 2020 when salaries were due, Turk arranged a video call with employees and told them they would not be paid. He refused to take questions.
In January 2021, he is reported to have changed his email address and ‘gone quiet’. Up to 80 staff in total say they have not been paid, along with 20 contractors. In
September last year, a County Court Judgment was issued against Heyman AI, with outstanding debts of £21,913.
Perhaps no one is more surprised at Heyman AI’s change in fortunes than Baroness Couttie, a life peer who was a special adviser to the firm until the end of January 2021, earning around £40,000.
‘He had a good team around him, several ex-Bank Of England people,’ the Baroness told the Mail last week. ‘Selman was quite charming, very driven. He was confident this business would be a success.’ In March last year, following Mrs Isbilen’s High Court claims, a worldwide freezing order was made on all Turk’s funds up to £40 million.
According to Baroness Couttie, ‘by November , he ran out of money. It came as a great shock to us.’ She said Turk ‘still owes me money’ but would not be drawn on how much.
Heyman AI was dissolved in September 2021 and Selman Turk has not been seen in London for months.
As for Prince Andrew, his fortunes deteriorated further soon after the Pitch event, fuelled by the Newsnight interview on November 16.
In February this year, the Duke paid £12 million in an out-of-court settlement to Virginia Giuffre.
While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the Prince, his ex-wife or their daughters, Andrew’s links to this alleged fraudster are intriguing, to say the least.
How well did he know Selman Turk? What did he think the £750,000 in his account was for?
And how, given Turk’s lamentable performance on the day, did Heyman AI emerge as a winner at [email protected] after such an overwhelming public vote?
Yesterday, the entrepreneur who was present at the Buckingham Palace boardroom meeting said he could only speculate as to how Heyman AI came to be at Pitch, and whether the Duke of York had any involvement.
‘[The Yorks] apparently have no cashflow,’ said the source. ‘Obviously, he can pull strings. But did he?’
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