Pav Gill is now widely recognized as the internal whistleblower who helped expose corruption and fraud at the now-defunct German fintech Wirecard. In a little over a year, his professional and personal life was turned upside down. Gill tells Fraud Magazine his story and the lessons he learned from this bizarre journey.

Pav Gill’s colleagues joke that no one could possibly be hiding fraud at their company. They wouldn’t dare. After all, the softspoken lawyer was the whistleblower who helped to bring down German fintech Wirecard — his former employer — in the country’s largest financial scandal since World War II.

Indeed, Gill has been a celebrity of sorts ever since his identity became public last year when Sky Studios aired a documentary about Wirecard titled, “Wirecard: A Billion Euro Lie,” that included interviews with Gill and his mother, who encouraged him to go to the press about wrongdoing at the payments firm. It’s been a fraught few years for the Singapore-born whistleblower, but he now lives a comparatively less turbulent life in his new home in Bangkok, Thailand, as chief legal officer at Zipmex, a digital assets exchange platform. (See “Wirecard: The Billion Euro Lie,” IMDb, 2021.)

Even so, life as a whistleblower is rarely easy. Those who decide to speak up make considerable sacrifices and don’t necessarily get the credit or the protection they deserve. Gill’s experience was no exception.

Gill says the authorities in Singapore and Germany have barely acknowledged or thanked him for his efforts, not to mention provide any protection from top executives at Wirecard whom he had a hand in bringing down. Several of them are fugitives and still at large.

“That leaves me in a state where I remain an unprotected person,” Gill tells Fraud Magazine from his apartment during a Zoom call in December.

The ACFE believes Gill’s bravery and efforts should be recognized, so it’s awarding him this year’s Cliff Robertson Sentinel Award, which the association bestows annually on a person who, without regard to personal or professional consequences, has publicly disclosed wrongdoing in business or government. (Gill will receive the award at the 33rd ACFE Global Fraud Conference, June 19-24, in Nashville, Tennessee, and virtual,

Gill’s story certainly fits the bill, and it’s one worth recounting for what it can teach us about whistleblowers, their motivations and what more needs to be done to encourage employees of all sorts to speak up about fraudulent activity at companies and government agencies.

From the Magic Circle to Wirecard

Before joining Wirecard in September 2017 as senior legal counsel, Gill had already enjoyed a distinguished career working at several of the elite “Magic Circle” firms, a term coined by journalists for a small group of highly profitable London-based legal practices. In what would be a strange foretelling, Gill’s first full-time job was as an associate covering capital markets, banking and finance at Allen & Overy in Singapore. That firm was an advisor in 2010 on an Islamic bond or “Sukuk” to 1Malaysia Sukuk Global Berhad, an issuance vehicle for 1MDB, the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund that was later embroiled in one of the world’s biggest corruption scandals.That bond deal led Gill to accept a job in Dubai with Clifford Chance, the legal advisor for Goldman Sachs, one of the managing banks on the same Islamic bond issue that would also soon be caught up in the 1MDB scandal. (See “Understanding Goldman Sachs’ role in Malaysia’s 1MDB mega scandal,” by Rozanna Latiff, Reuters, Oct. 22, 2020, and “What is a Sukuk?” by Akhilesh Ganti, Investopedia, Oct. 17, 2020.)

Gill started his job at Clifford Chance on Aug. 14, 2011, and over the next couple of years, he worked on everything from Turkey’s debut Islamic bond to the restructuring of Dubai’s debt-laden World Island project, a collection of man-made islands shaped into the continents of the world. But by 2016, Gill decided it was time to take a slight shift in his career path, and he started looking for work in the fintech space as an in-house counsel. He moved back to Singapore where GoBear, the now-defunct fintech start-up, hired him as its first legal counsel to help it expand into five markets in the Southeast Asian region. Gill took a substantial pay cut, but he wanted the experience in the fintech space. Then Wirecard, the German payment processor and financial services provider, offered him a job as its first legal counsel for the whole of Asia-Pacific. He accepted what seemed like a perfect opportunity to advance his career.

“The salary and coverage were good, and it was a listed German company,” recalls Gill. “I had autonomy, a team to grow and covered all markets in the region with a reporting line to Wirecard’s headquarters in Aschheim, Munich. It was a step up in my career and pretty exciting at the time.”

It was 2017, and Wirecard was the darling of the European stock markets with its shares more than doubling on the back of an EY audit showing strong cash flows. The company was also expanding into Asia in a big way after buying Citi’s merchant acquiring business in 11 countries. (See “Wirecard: the timeline,” by Dan McCrum, the Financial Times, June 25, 2020.)

Wirecard flew Gill to Munich amid the Oktoberfest celebrations to visit the company’s headquarters for his first day at the group. Its university-style campus was impressive but had particularly stringent security. Security guards confiscated passports before anyone entered buildings, and they insisted on everyone having an official pass — even those who’d worked there for some time. Wirecard issued only a few passes each week, and they only provided access to designated floors. “I thought that the security measures were a bit extreme in relation to Wirecard staff from overseas offices,” Gill says. “Then again you don’t think too much about it. You have high security, which is good for a payments company. It wasn’t a red flag at the time.”

Warning signs

However, on Gill’s return to Singapore a few days later, he found that the Wirecard office had a rather more careless air. He began to question the company’s hiring practices and how it managed its regional finance department. Gill remembers that Edo Kurniawan, who ran Wirecard’s Asia-Pacific accounting and finance department, didn’t seem qualified for the job.

“His CV didn’t add up,” he says. “His first four years were at an unspecified ‘public audit company,’ allegedly based in Singapore and Hong Kong, followed by two short 1½-year stints as a regional finance manager/controller.”

“Even though he was unable to speak German and barely able to string a meaningful email together in English, he was hired by Wirecard headquarters in Munich — a multibillion-euro-listed company. As its global head of international finance, he was practically the third most powerful finance person in the group. What did he do to snag this job?”

Kurniawan also hired young women from Indonesia and Malaysia, who didn’t necessarily have the required experience for the jobs he promoted them to in the finance department.

“I think that was a form of abuse because they were forced to rely on what he was saying and his expertise by virtue of his bestowed title,” says Gill. “And also, they wouldn’t want to unnecessarily rock the boat by questioning their boss and thereby potentially ruining their employment prospects as expats in Singapore.”

However, Kurniawan’s strategy had failed. He’d underestimated his employees, especially one who soon realized that what Kurniawan was asking her to do was wrong. So, she sought Gill’s advice. She told Gill that Kurniawan’s wrongdoing stemmed from the challenges Wirecard faced in taking over Citi’s Asian payment operations and obtaining regulatory approval in 11 countries stretching from India to New Zealand. To get a license in Hong Kong, for example, Wirecard’s local subsidiary had to show it was generating some cash flows. The problem was that none of the Hong Kong operations — nor any of the Asian subsidiaries — were making money, says Gill.

“That was the first major red flag because Edo initially gave a set of financials for the Wirecard Hong Kong entity, which was dormant and loss-making in terms of projected income. Edo was informed that the likelihood of a license application using this entity being approved by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority [HKMA] would be slim, and his response was that there was likely a mistake with the financials he provided to us,” says Gill. “He subsequently returned with profitable projections for the said dormant subsidiary, which he added should satisfy the HKMA.”

Wirecard allegedly inflated numbers for loss-making Asia-Pacific (APAC) entities through “round-tripping” schemes. This essentially involved moving substantial sums of money from the books of one subsidiary to another — often through entities with no connection to Wirecard — making it seem like each one was generating a profit, explains Gill.

Kurniawan, meanwhile, allegedly created false “software transfer agreements” for several million euros between Wirecard and bogus third-party shell companies, says Gill. “He would sign off as director, oftentimes for entities where he was not even a director,” he adds. “They would then book these as pending account receivables and money owed to them. These amounts would be sufficient enough to close the loss-making gap.”

That was apparently enough to keep auditors and investors happy. Wirecard’s stock prices soared to hit a high of 191 euros in August 2018, valuing the company at more than 24 billion euros, a larger market cap than Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank combined, according to the Financial Times. (See “Wirecard: the timeline,” FT.)

“What no one understood is that if you looked at any of the Asia-Pacific entities none of them were raking in any profits; nearly all were loss-making, and many had consistently filed their financials late,” he says. “But yet when interim results would be declared, you would see that the APAC [region] as a whole was having an EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] virtually the same as Europe.”

This was all the more baffling considering the company’s antiquated technology. Wirecard was far from being the fast-growing fintech that it touted itself to be, and its technology was light years behind competitors such as Alipay, the online payments platform created by Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, says Gill. “They didn’t even have a proper internal automated ledger system,” he says.

This wasn’t the first time Wirecard had come under suspicion for financial shenanigans. Dan McCrum, an investigative reporter at the Financial Times and last year’s ACFE Guardian Award recipient, had raised questions about the fintech’s accounts as far back as 2015.

And before that, a German shareholder group published a report on the company that suggested some balance-sheet irregularities. German authorities then prosecuted the shareholder group for not revealing their positions in Wirecard stock. (See “ Wirecard’s house tumbles,” by Dick Carozza, CFE, Fraud Magazine, March/April 2021.)

The Phoenix probe

With new evidence from the concerned person in the finance department, Gill approached Wirecard’s deputy general counsel, who suggested that they conduct an internal investigation using an external, independent law firm in Singapore, which was an expert in white-collar crimes. That way, Gill and others at the firm who wanted to do the right thing couldn’t be accused of having a personal agenda against Kurniawan. He warned, however, that they should keep the investigation quiet as there was a camp within Wirecard, including a former CFO who’d hired Kurniawan and chief operating officer Jan Marsalek, who’d oppose the move. “[The deputy general counsel] provided access to the inboxes of Edo, his sidekick, James Wardhana, and the head of finance for APAC, Irene Chai [who Edo had rehired],” says Gill. “We looked at it and helped the law firm come up with the report.”

The investigation, which according to the FT started in March 2018, was initially called Project Phoenix (later Project Tiger), the immortal bird in Greek mythology, on the assumption that Wirecard would be reborn after the expulsion of the corrupt few. “We thought these are a few bad apples so that once we cleared them, we would have done our job, and Wirecard would rise from the ashes,” says Gill.

That hypothesis was soon proven false when word got out about the investigation, and it was taken over by Marsalek, the chief operating officer who was later blamed for much of the financial deceit at the company. “That is when things went downhill,” says Gill. “They made my life hell for several months, and eventually I was forced to leave.” (See “From payments to armaments: the double life of Wirecard’s Jan Marsalek,” by Sam Jones, Paul Murphy and Helen Warrell, the Financial Times, July 10, 2020.)

Not a single person in the finance department was suspended pending the probe despite obvious wrongdoing, says Gill. “It was insane because one of these guys had transferred money from Wirecard’s account to his personal account,” he says. “He had emailed logos of these third-party companies to himself, created invoices and faked contracts.”

Instead, Gill found himself facing the brunt of unnerving intimidation tactics ranging from shouting to the company’s insistence that Gill go on a business trip to Jakarta for no apparent legitimate business reason. This was particularly sinister, says Gill, as Kurniawan often bragged about how he married into a family of drug dealers in Indonesia.

“Edo said, ‘even if you go in two days’, two weeks’ or two months’ time, you have to go.’ So that was strange in itself,” recalls Gill.

“Eventually I got two anonymous tipoff calls from Munich. I don’t know who these people were, but they just said: ‘I understand you’re being told to go on a business trip to Jakarta, but we would recommend you don’t go because you won’t come back.’”

Gill refused to go on the trip, and four days later he was forced to resign. He left the company Sept. 18, 2018, exactly a year to the date he’d started. To the outside world, however, the company was going from success to success. That same month, Wirecard replaced Commerzbank on the German Dax 30 stock index, drawing even more interest from the investing public.

Reluctant whistleblower

The decision to become a whistleblower (or sentinel, as the ACFE calls it) is never easy. That step can change a person’s life forever as they travel on an often-dangerous path. Gill himself may have moved on in the hope of putting this unpleasant experience behind him. But ultimately those corrupt Wirecard executives forced his hand.

After he left Wirecard, executives had Gill and his mother followed. (At the time, they lived together.) Job interviews also took on a surreal air when interviewers insisted on asking him about why he left Wirecard but had little interest in his job skills. Before long, he realized that Wirecard executives had created bogus job postings, probably through their friendly contacts at other companies, to trap him into violating nondisclosure agreements. “The problem was that they didn’t let us move on,” he says. “They really forced us into that position.”

Gill credits his mother, Sokhbir Kaur — a single parent who raised him alone while working several jobs and ensured that he got into the best schools in Singapore — for initiating the whistleblowing. Kaur got so upset with Wirecard’s persistent harassment of her son even after he’d left the company that she reached out to Clare Rewcastle Brown, the journalist who broke the 1MDB corruption story (Rewcastle Brown was the recipient of the ACFE Guardian Award in 2018. See “Lone brave journalist exposes 1MDB corruption,” by Sarah Thompson, CFE, Fraud Magazine, May/June 2018.) Brown in turn referred them to the Financial Times, which had long been investigating the company but had hit a dead end, according to Gill.

Fortunately, Gill had saved the mirrored email inboxes and kept all the raw data collected during the Project Tiger probe, elements of which he provided to the Financial Times at a meeting set up in October 2018. “So, when they looked at everything it was an irresistible inference that there was a huge fraud going on,” he says. (The Phoenix probe was later renamed Project Tiger on the insistence of lawyers in Germany, who preferred the reference to the Asian Tiger economies. See “The Phoenix from Aschheim,” by Christoph Giesen, Klaus Ott, Nicolas Richter, Jan Willmroth and Nils Wischmeyer, Süddeutsche Zeitung.)

About four months later, the newspaper published its first story based on the evidence it had extracted from Gill, detailing the fraudulent round-tripping of funds and other falsification of accounts organized by Kurniawan. (See “Executive at Wirecard suspected of using forged contracts,” by Dan McCrum and Stefania Palma, the Financial Times, Jan. 30, 2019.)

At the same time, Gill had also compiled key aspects of the evidence into a dossier and coordinated its distribution to Wirecard’s auditor EY, the German regulators and other law enforcement bodies. Yet the only group that took immediate action was the Commercial Affairs Department, the white-collar crime unit of the Singapore Police Force, which raided Wirecard’s offices in February of 2019. Gill says that the German regulator BaFin, in contrast, not only consistently absolved both Wirecard and itself of any responsibility, but proceeded to announce a two-month ban on the short selling of the company’s stock, which by that time had sunk to under 100 euros, according to FT.

“The fact that BaFin imposed a short-selling ban quickly after the FT articles to protect this company for two months was unprecedented in Europe,” says Gill. Indeed, the scandal and BaFin’s response left its reputation in tatters, especially after investigating the FT for market manipulation and later discovering that one of BaFin’s own employees had been using inside knowledge to trade Wirecard stock. German lawmakers have since tried to strengthen oversight at BaFin to ensure that another Wirecard can’t happen again. (See sidebar “BaFin strengthens oversight in wake of Wirecard scandal” at the end of this article, and “German regulator reports own employee for Wirecard insider trading,” by John O’Donnell and Tom Sims, Reuters, Finance, Jan. 28, 2021.)

With Marsalek waging a full-scale Twitter war against the FT — claiming a conspiracy between its journalists and short sellers to benefit from the drop in Wirecard stock — Gill decided it was time to broaden his reach.

“At the time, there were Brexit sentiments, so it came across like the FT was trying to damage this German fintech darling for nationalistic reasons,” he says. “That is why I realized that I had to change the sentiment from within Germany.”

The Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest daily newspapers in the country, reached out to Gill, and it quickly published his story. Gill also cleverly used Twitter under a pseudonym “@Laan_Pa,” disseminating information that newspapers might be less willing to print for legal reasons. “There was a lot of work involved over the course of 1½ years between the first FT article in January 2019 and the crash of the company in June 2020,” he says.

During the latter half of 2019, Wirecard continued to deny wrongdoing and indeed was still able to raise money in the capital markets. But mounting evidence of fraud, helped by investors’ insistence on an independent audit by KPMG — rather than EY — eventually left little doubt about the company’s shaky foundation.

“Once the hedge funds, like TCI, were completely involved, I think they forced a lot of changes through with their financial might and influence,” says Gill. (See “High-profile activist investor TCI files criminal complaint against Wirecard,” by Hugh Leask, hedgeweek, Special Reports, May 20, 2020.)

In the summer of 2020, the company finally admitted to wrongdoing after CEO Markus Braun resigned and was subsequently arrested. And on June 25 of that year Wirecard filed for insolvency. (See “Wirecard: the timeline,” FT.) Even so, both Marsalek and Kurniawan remain on the run and have yet to be brought to justice.

Protecting whistleblowers

Gill, who still feels unprotected, says countries should have more regulations and bodies to keep whistleblowers out of harm’s way. Many First World financial hubs like Germany or Singapore simply lack effective whistleblower laws or have none at all, he says. Indeed, European countries are only just coordinating the passage of what is being called an EU Whistleblower Directive, which is designed to shield whistleblowers against reprisals as well as create internal and external channels for those who wish to report wrongdoing. [See “Directive (EU) 2019/1937 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2019 on the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law,” Official Journal of the European Union, Nov. 26, 2019.]

And as of Dec. 21, 2021 — the deadline set to implement the directive — only Denmark and Sweden had managed to make it an enforceable regulation. (See “‘Life is an Echo’ - What Does the EU Whistleblower Directive Mean for Companies?” by Anna Blume Huttenlauch and Marie-Luise Heuer, Blomstein, Lexology, Dec. 17, 2021.)

Part of the problem, says Gill, is that Germany, until recently, lacked independent external entities where whistleblowers could go to seek advice on how to proceed or whether they had a case at all. Seeking guidance among work colleagues can backfire as the executives in power are often the ones perpetrating the fraud — similar to what happened at Wirecard — or simply for confidentiality related restrictions if the potential whistleblower works in internal audit or legal and compliance.

Since then, Berlin-based European Center for Whistleblower Rights opened in March 2021 the Whistleblower-Herz, the country’s first nonprofit whistleblower support organization. The U.S., on the other hand, has a longer history of organizations that support whistleblowers. (See “Germany’s First Whistleblower Support Organization Opens,” by Mark Worth, Whistleblower Network News, March 27, 2021, and “Nine Organizations That Work With and Help Whistleblowers,” by Dana Gold, Society of Professional Journalists, Government Accountability Project.)

“We need independent entities where you can go but won’t be incriminated because all you are trying to do is figure out a pathway,” says Gill.

A generational shift and lessons learned

Gill says whistleblowers still carry a certain stigma. Many view blowing the whistle as a form of “snitching” and all its negative connotations. “In many countries, even as a kid in school, you are not expected to rat on a classmate to your tutors,” he says. “So, I think that kind of anti-exposé mindset is just ingrained.”

Yet a generational shift in such thinking could be on the horizon, as movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo push to unveil wrongdoing and bring perpetrators to justice. “It’s time for whistleblowing to be more accepted,” he says. “Everyone is just tired of the usual small bunch who not only unjustly enrich themselves but do so at the expense of innocent victims.”

While Gill may have never taken the path of a whistleblower had Wirecard executives stopped hounding him once he left the company, it’s been a learning experience for him — one that’s applicable to his current job in the ever-changing world of cryptocurrencies and fast-growing, high-tech firms.

“Experiences like Wirecard help you know where the clear red lines are because financial technology is operating in the gray most of the time, where you are pushing boundaries and testing unregulated areas,” he says.

“You need to go back to first principles in everything you do. If your regulator asks you what you are doing, you have to give them a good reason. It is ticking those boxes that regulators would have. That is commercially wise because you are not saying no to everything.”

That knowledge will serve Zipmex and Gill’s colleagues well.

[See sidebar: “BaFin strengthens oversight in wake of Wirecard scandal”.]

Paul Kilby is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact him at