They occupied a world of high-rolling hunting parties and complicated gifts – until it went seriously wrong.
Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein: So I met Juan Carlos in 2004 at the beautiful shooting estate of the late Duke of Westminster in Spain. And the Duke had an exceptional sort of shooting party that he hosted with very interesting guests. And one of the guests was King Juan Carlos of Spain. And I was probably one of the more junior guests, but I was very well connected at the time in my own right.
And at some point in time the Duke asked me to sit next to the king. It was, I think, the breakfast on the second day. I think the King must have requested that I should sit next to him. And so I sat next to him and he was very charming and very down to earth and very warm. I think, actually, he found it fun to be with someone who wasn’t so afraid of protocol and who treated him very normally.
Paul Caruana Galizia: Juan Carlos the First, king of Spain, archduke of Austria and duke of Milan, count of Barcelona, lord of Biscay and of Molina, a descendant of the Bourbons who ruled much of Europe for centuries. Neither he nor his life were normal. He was a modern day hero. He led Spain out of fascism and into democracy. He was handsome and roguish. He drank rioja and loved bull fights. “A people’s king,” the Spanish called him, and he could have rested on those laurels. But, like all heroes, he had a singular flaw. Not drinking or drugs, not even political illiteracy. But one rooted in a strange and lonely childhood: a distant mother and callous father who favoured his brother. A life in exile. It left them, one person said, with an unlimited capacity for falling briefly in love.
Corinna: He’d call me 10, 12 times a day. We were always on the phone.
Paul: I’m Paul Caruana Galizia, I’m a reporter at Tortoise. And the story I want to tell you is a love story, but it’s more than that. It’s one of power and greed.
For the past four years, investigating corruption has been my life. In Malta, where I’m from, I see every day how corruption decimates a society and how, when you let it go uncontrolled, it can run riot through a country.
My mother, who was a journalist, was murdered while investigating flows of illicit money between shell companies, public officials and businessmen. It was corruption obscured by an economic boom. A pattern that I began to see in Spain.
Corinna: Juan Carlos brought great prosperity to the country. And as long as everybody was making money and the country was prospering, nobody asked any questions.
Paul: In a prosperous reign, unseen since the Spanish treasure fleets brought mountains of gold and silver from the New World, the only questions asked of Juan Carlos were favours. Spanish businessmen asked their King to open doors to lucrative contracts at home and, more and more, in the Middle East. Because Juan Carlos was, his Swiss banker said, a person highly appreciated by the Gulf countries.
But at home, the appreciation waned, the financial crisis hit, and then the Eurozone crisis. The gold rush stopped. And the Bourbons of Spain were losing grip on their country only three decades after Juan Carlos won it back. So they began to turn on those closest to them.
Corinna: And I realised that actually they had a very well put together plot to frame me.
Paul: This is Corinna, Juan Carlos’s last great love. When I first met her, she was 55 years old, twice divorced and still arrestingly beautiful. She was raised in a middle-class family, but you wouldn’t think it, to see her now. We spoke in the living room of her Belgravia apartment, valued at £5.5 million before her £4 million renovation. Surrounded by the art of modern masters, gifts from the man who was once the King of Spain.
Paul, interviewing Corinna: Okay, can I ask you just to say your name?
Corinna: I’m Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Well, just check if this is working, do you want to check if it’s recording?
Paul: It’s recording, for sure.
Paul, narrating: I made these recordings on my phone thinking I’ll just write them up into an article. But when I listen again, I think she needs to be heard in her own voice telling her own story.
The story, all the characters involved have told me over and over, is like something out of Shakespeare or Balzac. But in Corinna, I think here’s a character even they couldn’t make up. For her relationship with its monarch and the serious criminal accusation, Corina has become one of the most hated women in Spain. But the story she tells of how she got here is very different. And when you line the two stories up side by side, it’s hard to know which to believe.
In one sense, I felt I got to know Corinna as well as a reporter could. But in another sense, I knew nothing at all. I was meant to investigate the criminal accusation against her, but fell into a world of princesses, kings and dukes who aren’t as rich as they think they should be, who trade on their status in deals that run into the billions and cuts into the hundreds of millions. Their status is now fading.
Alongside the British crown, the Spanish Royal family was the only European monarchy with any modern relevance until Corinna came along and cracked their world wide open.
Corinna Larsen was raised in an affluent suburb of Frankfurt by a German mother and Danish father who later sent her to boarding school in Switzerland, where the super rich are educated.
Corinna: Most of the Middle Eastern families would send their children to be educated in Switzerland. So I met even more people from other parts of the world. I studied political sciences and of course I graduated with honours, [but] back in the days there were no jobs for women in that field.
Paul: So she added luxury brand marketing to her studies, then took a job in Paris. Young and beautiful and glamorous, Corinna was chased and did some chasing herself. Her first husband, a high-flying American banker, said it was love at first sight. They had a daughter and divorced five years later, then, in London, she married a penniless German Prince.
She was now Her Serene Highness, Princess Corinna zu-Sayn-Wittgenstein. Though they have a son together, that marriage failed too.
But, importantly for this story, both marriages took her further into hunting and the closed world of men and power it represented.
Corinna: Shooting was very much predominantly a sort of boys club. So it’s where the boys go. They talk about business. They talk about beautiful women. They talk about big deals. It’s sort of your typical boys’ day out. You had a whole parallel universe happening at shoots and, clearly if you are not part of the shooting group, then you’re not part of the inner circle.
Paul: So Corinna made the circle her own. She set up a sporting agency that would serve the hedge funds and the Russians, and all the new money arriving in London.
Corinna: I convinced all of my friends to allow me to bring my clients to stay at their palaces and castles and ground estates. People were allowed to shoot there, but they were never allowed to stay in the houses. And the whole hedge fund industry, they wanted to really fly in by helicopter, stay in the palaces, shoot, eat Nobu for lunch. You know, it was a whole different generation of people who wanted a much more sort of higher degree of service.
And in the United Kingdom, some of these estates are very beautiful, but they were very run down. The owners suddenly realised how much money they could make.
But it involved us coming in, sort of blitzing the place into shape in a short period of time. And, you know, I’d regularly drive up a whole truck with Jo Malone candles and Kenneth Turner flowers and beautiful things and bath oils. So we kind of restyle this beautiful hotel. So that business just went…
Paul, interviewing Corinna: …took off.
Corinna: And then people started to say to me, oh, I have five friends, but we’re trying to do a deal in such and such industry, you have so many contacts, would you know someone who would be interested? So at some point I realised, people wanted a lot more than the shoot.
My clients were asking for me to set up a sort of structure where I could actually start putting together cross-border transactions for them. And so these two, three clients of mine, who were these very powerful men, said: “Come on, Corinna, be brave, you don’t need these male partners. You can set up on your own and do your own thing.”
And I have to say it never occurred to me to set up my own company.
Paul: Can we name the clients?
Corinna: Richemont is known. The other one is a large German… a giant.
Paul: Can I try to guess?
Corinna: I’m under such strict confidentiality restrictions that I cannot tell you, but it was enough for me to set up my own business, and the clients were so blue-chip that it enabled me to sort of rapidly establish a) a scalable business, and b) a reputation.
Paul, narrating: Reputations change. Richemont denies any dealings with Corinna or her firm Apollonia, but she did work for one of its affiliates. And the big German corporate she mentioned was Volkswagen, but they won’t say anything publicly. But this hypothetical example she’s about to give me sounds a lot like a deal she worked on where she tried linking Volkswagen up with Vladimir Lisin. He was an oligarch who won control of Russia’s steel industry after the Soviet Union collapsed, and who used to go on Corinna’s hunts.
Paul interviewing Corinna: Can you talk through an example of a transaction so that people know the nature of the work?
Corinna: You’d, say, have a large corporate, primarily in either oil, gas, metals, industrial goods. Say they needed to get steel supplies from Russia, and they wanted to build a factory, and they wanted to create an integrated supply relationship sort of spanning probably sort of 20, 30 years going forward from the moment that they commanded. They would come to someone like me and ask me to source the perfect partners because it’s difficult and uncharted territory to do that. Or they had someone in mind, but couldn’t get to them, and I knew a lot of these people personally. And then you basically start introducing them.
It’s not a very female heavy industry. So I was working with large coal, steel, all of the metals, then oil and gas. So my primary areas where there are clearly Russia, the Middle East; I was very prominent, of course, in Brazil.
So this is not an industry where you are an intermediary or where you collect commissions. This is a business where you need to think very long-term in terms of how you set the business up from the get-go – or do you partner up? They’re cross-border multi-billion dollar transactions that take a certain amount of time to actually structure correctly.
So I would come in as the strategic advisor, and this was very interesting. So I would more mediate between the parties until agreements could be reached.
Paul, narrating: Hunting for deals, hunting for game. Sometimes I think Corinna’s skill was letting these powerful men feel they were doing the hunting themselves.
Her next big prize was the late duke of Westminster, Gerald Grosvenor. He was the richest man in Britain when they began their affair. He owned a large chunk of Mayfair and Belgravia, and it was in one of his apartments, 19C Grosvenor Gardens, that he’d meet Corinna on Sunday evenings.
She specifically denied this in an email she sent me. She said: “All of these false allegations have already been made, they are total rubbish and part of an ongoing disinformation campaign.”
The truth is, these allegations haven’t been made publicly before, but a lot of people who knew the Duke or Corinna back then have told me they certainly did have a relationship and, in the end, Sunday evenings weren’t enough. In February 2004, we find Corinna back where we started, a guest at the Duke’s shooting estate in Spain, La Garganta, larger than the entire city of Barcelona.
It was at that shooting party where Juan Carlos asked for her to sit beside him.
Corinna: I think he was also fascinated because the day before we were on neighbouring stands shooting and he missed everything.
Paul, interviewing Corinna: So he’s not a good shot?
Corinna: Well, he’s in fact an excellent shot. I think he was one of – certainly considered one of – the best shots in Spain. But, you know, there are some days you’re maybe not fully focused or you’re not lucky. But I think he found it quite funny that he was having such a bad day, and the person next to him couldn’t miss a thing.
So we have this conversation, and he was very charming and very down to earth and very warm, and he then started to contact me in London, at my office. And he started sending me messages on my mobile number.
Paul: What would he say?
Corinna: “Oh, hello, this is King Juan Carlos.” And so it took, quite a few months, but he was pursuing me in a very consistent way and was very, very charming. So eventually I agreed to sort of meet with him. He expressed the fact that he had fallen in love with me…
Paul: On that first date, in a way?
Corinna: Yes, he was texting me. And he was sending me so many beautiful bouquets of flowers with lovely messages. I kind of had gathered that he was romantically interested.
Paul: Of course.
Paul, narrating: So Corrina, juggling a King and the Duke, was living in London by now with her two children and their nanny. A nanny who began writing a diary about life in Corinna’s household. Here’s an entry from the 26 September 2004:
“The Duke has been phoning since yesterday. My heart goes out to him because Corinna is cheating on him like he’s cheating on his wife. Gosh, this family household is far from boring.”
And later on another entry:
“Corinna told me she loves the King very much and he loves her and wished he’d met her years ago. I bet he says that to all the women he has affairs with. He’s got such a bad name for sleeping around.”
And he did have a bad name when it came to women. But Spaniards forgave Juan Carlos’s beauty queens and glamorous Majorcans. They forgave the way he was with Princess Diana, who described him as “a little too attentive”. They forgave how he treated his saintly wife, Queen Sophia, because they were Juan Carlistas.
It wasn’t the monarchy that was popular in Spain. It was him. He was the grandson of the last king of Spain, Alfonso the 13th, before the monarchy was abolished in 1931 and replaced by a Republic. The family were exiled, but, after a few years, the fascist Generalissimo Francisco Franco took power in Spain and established a totalitarian state.
[Clip: Generalissimo Francisco Franco victory speech.]
Paul: Franco was a believer in Spain’s monarchy, and so he brought Juan Carlos back to the country as a first step to its restoration. He was grooming Juan Carlos to be king instead of his father, creating a bitter, jealous rift between them. Franco became his father figure. He gave Juan Carlos his first shotgun and encouraged him to hunt.
Corinna: Franco was away several days a week during shoot season. I think, towards the latter part of his life, rumored four or five days even. So you had a whole parallel universe happening at shoots, and people who don’t shoot are sort of somewhat not in on all the secrets. So it’s a very, very competitive activity, where people who are not included feel somewhat left out of the real happening or the real inside of things.
Paul: But even then, so close to Franco’s inner circle, Juan Carlos was always broke. He got no money from his father or Franco, who kept him on a tight leash, and it added to his sense of insecurity and exile.
Corinna: They were not a wealthy family, and dependent on the charity of other people, essentially. So I think there was really a felt absence of financial comfort in the family. And King Juan Carlos often talked about that lack of money and the worry that that entailed; being an exile, not being able to fund themselves, not being able to fund a comeback either. So I think he was deeply marked by the exile and the lack of financial resources and the combination thereof making them vulnerable to stronger players, such as Franco.
Paul: Franco took over the schooling of Juan Carlos and his younger brother, Alfonso, the family favorite. He allowed them to visit their parents during holidays.
One Easter, Juan Carlos was playing with a revolver when Alfonso walked into the room. He surprised him and the gun went off. A bullet went into Alfonso’s forehead and killed him. When an aide rushed into the room and said they would tell Juan Carlos’s parents, the boy replied, no, I must tell them myself.
Juan Carlos became more desolate and morose, but also taller and more handsome. He tried to find solace in the many girls who began to take an interest in him.
Franco intervened; vetoing a love match with an Italian countess in favour of the more suitable Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark.
But the general was getting old. He became more reclusive. And Juan Carlos, after years of grooming, began acting as head of state.
Then when Franco finally died in 1975, he became the king of Spain. The Bourbons were back.
[Audio clip: Juan Carlos being sworn in as head of state.]
Paul: Juan Carlos broke his promise to Franco that Spain would remain fascist, and introduced democratic reform. When Franco loyalists attempted a coup in 1981, firing shots in Spain’s lower house. Juan Carlos went on TV and said: the crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, will not tolerate attempts to interrupt the democratic process of the constitution.
And as Spain grew more democratic, it grew richer. Tourism boomed and industry boomed when they joined the common market. As more money flowed into the country, Juan Carlos became its biggest power broker.
Corinna: As a king, King Juan Carlos had real power.
Paul, interviewing Corinna: Real power.
Corinna: Real, real power. And he could make phone calls and place children or son-in-laws on company boards. In transactions, he would make a phone call and people were genuinely always keen to make sure he was happy.
Paul, narrating: He fixed deals at home, and promoted royal families in the Middle East in exchange for cheap oil, on which he reportedly took commissions. And, as he grew closer to the sheikhs and kings there, he called them brother and they gave him diamond studded swords. Spanish businesses began using him to win contracts in the region.
Corinna: He already had such a well-established circle of people around him who were all Spanish and/or Middle Eastern and sort of various other nationalities. And they had a well-established modus operandi of doing deals. I guess many of these large infrastructure deals over the years during the boom were probably all subject to the same type of arrangements.
Paul: The arrangements paid. Corinna says she saw firsthand just how much money and gifts the Royal family were accumulating.
Corinna: There would be sort of an avalanche of gifts arriving. There were whole warehouses of things that people would send, from sporting outfits to ski outfits. Businessmen bought a yacht for him. Very special cars. So these cars were then, many of them, monetised. They would be sold on. There was a whole system in place. It was quite extraordinary.
Paul: Corinna told me that while Juan Carlos was showing her around his palace in Madrid one time, he showed her a whole room full of cash, complete with a note-counting machine.
Corinna: He said to me, oh, this is where everybody goes when they need money. He was actually quite nonchalant about it. It did not seem like some great secret. I guess they just kept large sums of cash because then things could be paid and they wouldn’t be on credit cards and it wouldn’t be visible.
Paul: Although Spaniards weren’t shown the cash room, many suspected he had been brokering deals at home and away. They didn’t mind. Juan Carlos had brought freedom and wealth to the country, and deserved some himself. His private life was his own.
Corinna: I obviously didn’t know so much about him. I only knew what you would know officially from official pictures. The last thing I wanted to be is… entering into some sort of situation where I was wrecking a marriage or causing the family a breakup. And he described it as an arranged marriage because she was the daughter of a reigning king, which at the time Franco felt would give legitimacy to Juan Carlos as his heir or successor. And I think she was very heartbroken when she realised that he was not faithful to her.
And I guess because he was such a serial womaniser, and I think that’s also well-documented, she must have had this experience quite regularly. And I guess when you’re in your thirties, you’re sort of woman enough to realise that that causes you a deep unhappiness. And at that point in time, as a mother too, you make an informed choice of how you go forward.
And there’s no criticism. There are many, many women in the world who decide to remain married and accept a marriage that is a marriage on paper, either for the sake of the children or because they want to remain close to power and privilege and a very privileged life. But then you are no longer a victim, then you become an active participant in something that is a partnership for power.
Paul: So here Corinna was, a woman in her thirties, with children. Like the queen, she was close to power and privilege. Her relationship with Juan Carlos was growing more passionate and more intense. So, like all the women who came before her, she thought he’d treat her differently.
Corinna: We had a meaningful… this was by no means a sort of affair. This was a very serious relationship. We were very seriously committed. He would write to me beautiful letters. I mean, yeah.
Paul: So he’s a real romantic.
Corinna: Yes, he is.
Paul: I mean, was he fun? Obviously things have changed a lot, but…
Corinna: He was a lot of fun. I think actually he found it fun to be with someone who wasn’t so afraid of protocol and who treated him very normally. He loved making barbecues with my son. We had an inflatable swimming pool for my son in the little house outside of Madrid. I mean, it was simple. He was very down to earth. It was very simple. We didn’t have a luxurious place that we could call our sort of HQ when we met. It was quite simple in the countryside. We’d go for walks, quad bike rides. Really, none of the glitz you’d normally associate with palaces, because he had his fair share during the rest of the time and I had my fair share working in this environment. So, you know, neither of us wanted more of this when we met.
Paul: But they didn’t just meet in their Spanish idyll. While Corinna maintains that she never worked for Juan Carlos, they took business trips together and worked on the same projects. He shared sensitive business documents with her, which he would come to regret and emailed her about some of his deals.
[Audio clip: Advert about the high speed railway in Saudi Arabia.]
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was building a high-speed railway to carry pilgrims from Medina across a 450-kilometre stretch of desert to Mecca. And, in 2006, it began taking bids on the second phase of construction.
The fierce competition came down to two consortia. One was led by Alstom, the French infrastructure giant; the other by OHL, Spain’s biggest infrastructure firm.
The Spanish-led consortium paid a Saudi prince who was involved in the deal a so-called commission of EUR120 million. And another EUR100 million to Shahpari Zanganeh. She’s an Iranian businesswoman and widow of the billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.
It seems it wasn’t enough. It looked as if the French bid was poised to win the deal, but court documents and interviews with other players suggest that Juan Carlos got involved. His role was to make the Spanish bid 30 per cent cheaper.
The discount won it the deal. 6.7 billion euros. The biggest overseas contract in Spanish history.
Back at the palace in Madrid, Juan Carlos summoned his Swiss lawyer and banker. He told them he’s expecting a donation from the Saudi king. Amount unknown. They asked him whether it really was a donation, not an illicit commission or fee. He insisted it was a donation. And would they just please make arrangements to receive it?
Here’s what they came up with: they’d set up a Panama company overseen by the lawyer and the banker on behalf of Juan Carlos, attached to a Swiss bank account in his name. The banker met Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to America at a private jet airport near Basel and gave him the account number. He asked the Saudi if this gift was actually money in exchange for a service or a brokerage fee. No, the Saudi replied, it is a pure gift to his brother.
They still didn’t know how much they were getting. When the funds arrived a few days later in August 2008, Juan Carlos turned to his lawyer and said, “They have been very generous.” $100 million.
Juan Carlos was surprised, his lawyer said, but at no time was he uncomfortable with the amount received. He’s not the kind of man to be uncomfortable.
The king, who didn’t know then that this deal would be his undoing, was emboldened.
Corinna: So in 2008, King Juan Carlos went to visit my father in Berlin. They had lunch or dinner, that I don’t remember exactly, but he did tell my father he wanted to propose to me. And he was sort of asking for his blessing. And, you know, as a political strategist, I did not suddenly go weak in the knees at the idea of getting married. I never expected this to actually materialise.
And then he proposed in the earliest part of 2009, but I took the proposal as a token of the seriousness of the relationship. I didn’t actually expect a king in a Catholic country to go through with a divorce. I didn’t think that would be good for the crown. I thought it would destabilise the institution potentially, given that it was not an ongoing monarchical tradition.
I was actually not really intent to get married, if you see what I’m saying. I wanted to have a meaningful and serious relationship. And so, for me, it was more a case of having the honour of actually him asking my father and presenting me with an engagement ring.
It’s obviously an emotional moment, but I didn’t have this movie going on in my head of this actually resulting in a proper marriage. But I took it as a token of the seriousness of the relationship.
Paul: Perhaps because he was serious about their relationship, Juan Carlos came clean to Corinna that he had been seeing another woman alongside her and his wife, the queen. Corinna was heartbroken.
Not long after, her father died from an aggressive form of cancer. And her heart broke again.
She turned away from Juan Carlos, who grew desperate for her, calling her “my angel”.
And then Juan Carlos’s personal crisis became a national one.
The global financial crisis hit Spain that year, plunging its economy into a recession it wouldn’t recover from for years.
Corinna: I think until the economic crisis really badly affected Spain and there was such high youth unemployment and sort of general discontentment… I think when you have a huge crisis, and you’re sort of tone deaf to the public mood and what the people are looking for…. they were looking for greater transparency.
Obviously, massive amounts of money had disappeared. All this corruption became more apparent. And people started to become aware to what degree there was corruption inside the system. And then they wanted to have accountability for these monies they were providing to these institutions. And suddenly all eyes were on them.
Paul: And the king didn’t realise how closely they were looking.
Corinna: In February 2012 was my son’s tenth birthday, and Juan Carlos gives my son a safari as a gift. I was initially very reluctant. Then King Juan Carlos convinced my first husband – they’d, through me, become also quite close – that Philip would also go on this trip. And how could I ruin such an amazing opportunity for a little boy who was understandably quite excited? So in the end they wore me down. And I said, yes. If I could have sent Alexander’s father, it would have been great, but he was never available. So I ended up… one parent had to be present. So I ended up going there.
Paul: Almost everything went wrong. Corrina’s first husband, Philip Adkins, was astounded by what he says really happened. The safari was actually for Corinna, he says, and it came unglued when she had a gigantic row with the king.
Corinna was a really good shot. She had an elephant in her cross hairs. And she was about to pull the trigger. But before she could, the king shot it instead. She was outraged, complaining that he shot my elephant. She refused to speak to either of them for the rest of the day.
After the rioja dried up that evening and everyone had settled into their tents, Juan Carlos tripped in the dark, fell, and broke his hip. It’s almost too convenient an image of royal decline.
Corinna arranged for an emergency medical evacuation. His condition, including internal bleeding, was serious. He drank some red wine on the private jet flight to ease the pain.
He had emergency hip replacement surgery in Madrid. And it made his Botswana trip harder to keep secret. Angry that he was hunting elephants, angry when it found out that the hunt was funded by a Syrian billionaire, the Spanish press finally let rip. El Mundo, the leading conservative paper thundered:
“The spectacle of a Monarch hunting elephants in Africa while the economic crisis in our country causes so many problems for Spaniards, transmits an image of indifference and frivolity.”
One of the King’s advisors told him: Corinna or corona; it’s Corinna or crown. For the first time in his life, as he was limping out of hospital on two walking sticks, Juan Carlos issued a public apology.
[Audio clip: the king’s apology.]
Paul: But now the real interest was in the mysterious blonde princess who the press soon learned had accompanied him.
Corinna: After coming back from this trip, I find myself in the crosshairs of the global media. And the entire narrative was really damaging and negative towards me.
I couldn’t see an advantage for King Juan Carlos either, but it was definitely devastating for me, reputationally. Not because we had had a relationship, but because the way it was portrayed and the way it was explained made me sound like a really, truly horrible human being. And I had actually transported him back alive.
And I really didn’t think that, married to that level of hostility… they literally incited mass hatred in Spain. It was to a point where I think people, if I had stayed in Spain, would have thrown things at me or physically aggressed me. It was really, really quite violent.
Paul: As Corina became public enemy number one in Spain, the woman who corrupted their king, Juan Carlos grew tired of it all. He’d had enough of carrying the people’s expectations. He’d done enough. He began thinking of abdication.
And it’s at this point that he does the thing that first brought me to this story. It’s the moment where the truth splinters.
Corinna: At that point in time, you start facing the idea of mortality. And he was not in good shape. Still having to run the country. And I think that’s when he realised how much, how meaningful it is to actually have people around you who truly care about you. And so the relationship became a friendship that was really very, very solid.
And I think this is when the family became extremely concerned, because at a moment where he felt… mortality became part of his thinking… he started talking about his testament, about his will. He started to talk about things that were sentimental to him that he wanted to give to my son, like his gun collection. And he clearly figured out he couldn’t put us in an official will and he quite openly said, he thought the family would just rip it up and not respect it.
Paul: Or perhaps Juan Carlos was just the same old guy worrying about money and security and taxes. And he had a new reason to worry about taxes. A treaty was about to come into effect that required Swiss banks to send information on the accounts of EU residents to their home countries. And remember, Juan Carlos had put down $100 million he got from the Saudis into a Swiss account.
Mirabaud, Juan Carlos’s Swiss bank, warned his lawyer that they would have to report the king’s account to Spain. He had never declared it there. And after the Botswana elephant hunt news, Mirabaud considered the King to be a reputational risk. It wanted to end the banking relationship. His lawyer shuffled back and forth between Geneva and Madrid, asking Juan Carlos where he wanted to put the EUR65 million that were left in his account.
Finally, the lawyer said, he made the decision to give everything to Corinna.
Corinna: And I asked the king whether there were any expectations attached to this gift. And he was very apologetic, he said it was the least that he could do after everything that I had done for him, all we meant to him, and everything that I had endured subsequently to this trip to Botswana.
I was so successful in my own right. I was able to generate very serious income annually in my own right. So I had no incentive to be doing anything that I didn’t feel a hundred percent comfortable with.
And he said, absolutely not: I want you to do something for Alexander’s future; I might not be around for very long, and I would like you to be well taken care of too. And that was the conversation we had.
Paul: Juan Carlos and Corinna signed a two-page contract, which claims his donation to her is irrevocable. It gives the date only as 2012 and it’s not witnessed or notarised.
Then he signed another document claiming that Corinna is not his fiduciary. In other words, not a front for his finances.
To receive the money, the lawyer helps Corinna buy a Panama shell company and the bank account for it in the Bahamas. Corinna said she picked the Bahamas because she travels there and likes it. It also happens to be a highly secretive tax haven.
Even with all these impenetrable structures in place, the lawyer still didn’t want to make the transfer himself. So he gave Juan Carlos power of attorney to do it.
By June 2012, the funds arrived with Corinna. She would use $18 million of it to buy Chyknell House, a big estate in Shropshire. She would send $42 million to her account at Fieldpoint private bank in New York. And $11-12 million to an account in England.
Juan Carlos’s friends say Corinna was never meant to keep it all. That he soon began to feel like he had made a terrible mistake. Spain’s intelligence agency, the CNI, thought the same. It had been worried about Corinna ever since the news of her romantic relationship with the king broke. And now it was worried about the financial relationship. Its director, General Félix Sanz Roldán, feared a scandal that could bring down the monarchy.
Corinna: Immediately, I was being followed. I could notice I was being followed. Not long afterwards, they sent a group of mercenaries to occupy my Monaco flat and office. So, from Monaco, I came to London. I noticed somebody clearly surveillancing me and I reported it to my lawyers.
The following night I have a man walking into my hotel room at two in the morning. Didn’t knock, didn’t switch on the light, stood over my bed. I woke up and started shouting, and he said he was there to pack my suitcase. At 2am.
There was no credible explanation for this event. The next day, I effectively left for Brazil.
I was being followed aggressively in Brazil. I arrived back in London and the king tells me that the general, head of the secret service, was going to come and talk to me.
The general told me that they had leaked the information about the Botswana trip and my presence deliberately. Which was a shock to begin with because it clearly meant they had preplanned it and they had rolled out a plan. So he ‘fessed up to that.
He tried to sell me this as a positive thing. That I was finally officially or internationally recognised as the chosen love of the king. And I should take this as a massive compliment. It was a very misogynist kind of conversation. And I was just sitting there. My heart was beating.
Paul, interviewing Corinna: But did he say why? Did he say, look, we did it because…
Corinna: He didn’t say why. Obviously, he felt like we have reasons you don’t need to know.
And then he had two specific demands. One was that I must, under no circumstances, talk to the media at all, regardless of what they were saying. The second condition was I had to keep the king motivated to stay in his job, which sounded like an odd demand, because I was clearly not going to Spain. So I understood this to mean that I had to remain present, to remain in touch, to remain reachable, because he was difficult to control for them. So they thought they could somehow reverse engineer this mechanism.
And he said that if I did not obey these demands, he would not guarantee my physical safety or the physical safety of my children.
So it was a very chilling conversation. I was really terrified. That same day, I traveled to Switzerland because, of course, my little boy was at school there. And the moment I entered my flat, I also noticed somebody had been inside the flat, papers had been moved. And I found a book about Princess Diana’s death on the coffee table. And later that night, I received an anonymous phone call saying there are many tunnels between Monaco and Nice.
Paul: As in, a reference to Diana.
Corinna: He had successfully convinced me that they have global reach. They could find me anywhere. They could gain entrance to my homes. They could occupy them. They could do anything.
Paul: At this point, who did you think the general was loyal to? Was he loyal to Juan Carlos as a person? Or was he loyal to the crown, the state, whatever?
Corinna: Well, that is a good question. I could not quite see how leaking this Botswana trip and my existence was beneficial to King Juan Carlos. So I asked myself whether the generals served several masters, or whether he was also carrying out instructions maybe from his prime minister or from other powerful individuals inside the royal household.
But I felt true fear, not just for myself but for my children too.
Paul, narrating: Then Corinna’s name suddenly came up in a massive corruption scandal involving the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, and daughter, Christina.
[Audio clip: News report of tax fraud trial.]
It was known as the “Nóos case,” and one of the accused said he had evidence implicating Corinna in it. But she suspected she was being framed.
Corinna: Here the family clearly colluded to create a narrative that read Iñaki and Corinna, instead of Iñaki and Christina. And they were hoping, in the process, to prevent the judge from indicting Christina.
Now, in order to pull this off, they needed multiple family members, royal household senior figures, to go along with that idea.
I was, of course, horrified when I realised that they would resort to false incrimination in a criminal investigation to save their own daughter who was approximately the same age.
I asked King Juan Carlos, because he had promised me they would clarify why this had happened. He said, because blood is thicker, that was the response. So that showed to me the level of ruthlessness.
Paul, interviewing Corinna: Was that the first time you felt that he made you feel: listen, you know, you think you’re quite close, but when push comes to shove…
Corinna: It was worse than that, actually. I think it was the major alarm that started ringing in my head. It provoked a definite break in my trust and my entire way I was viewing King Juan Carlos and my friendship with him, because I was truly terrified of what else they might do.
The worst part was really having to resort to the media to set the record straight.
Paul, narrating: She told the New York Times that she was not the king’s romantic partner and that she didn’t profit from her relationship with him. She said the king is just an old caballero who is fighting for his health.
She broke the unwritten rules over royal extra-marital relationships. Say nothing.
Corinna: After that, of course, the retaliation strategy was extremely brutal. Within days of having proved successfully that I had no involvement in the Nóos case, more fake allegations appeared in the media: this time, that I was a weapons dealer, that I had tried to broker illegal weapon sales to Saudi Arabia that infringed human rights in Yemen and other places. The allegations just got worse. Defying either of the two men’s orders would result in negative repercussions.
Paul: With all this going on, Corinna says the king kept calling her every day, sometimes ten or 12 times a day.
She says she had to keep indulging him because that had been General Sanz Roldán’s order. Keep the king sweet – or else.
Corinna: So, by 2014, he then expected me to somehow return into a romantic relationship, because my reputation had been so severely damaged that my only salvation would be to return to him because he could make it whole again. So it was like this omnipotence: I could destroy you and then I could make you again.
So when he didn’t get his way, he retaliated by accusing me of theft, he started coming to London on a regular basis once he abdicated.
So once somebody starts entering your territory, then they start calling your family members, your business associates, your colleagues, your friends, anybody who forms part of your environment, involving yourself in WhatsApp groups, calling me a thief and saying that I’d stolen everything
Paul, interviewing Corinna: Who was in these WhatsApp groups?
Corinna: In these WhatsApp groups was King Juan Carlos, my first husband, my son’s father, and my son and daughter. And that was clearly a retaliation for not getting his way. For maybe regretting he’d given me things. But the way he was behaving was so outrageous and unacceptable, you couldn’t reason with him.
Paul, narrating: By this time, Juan Carlos had bowed to pressure and abdicated in favour of his son, Felipe. He sought advice from friends on how to deal with Corinna. They warned him off trying to get the money back.
But his son-in-law was now in prison after the Nóos scandal and his daughter, Christina, was worried about her finances. She lent on her father to get the money back from Corinna. And so the pressure continued.
In response, Corinna began talking to José Villarejo, a decorated undercover policeman and private detective, about digging out information on the royal family’s campaign against her.
Corinna: Villarejo appeared with a document, on CNI letterhead, that clearly outlined a plot that had been instructed by Juan Carlos, that was being masterminded, and it’s detailed, by General Sanz Roldán. It involved creating false jurisdiction for me; therefore, many articles had previously appeared falsely stating I had a home in Madrid, which… I couldn’t place these articles. I didn’t know what purpose they served. But once I saw the document, I realised that they were trying to incarcerate me by any means. And, once you see that, I basically started defending myself.
Paul: There was one catch. Corinna didn’t know it, but Villarejo was taping their meeting. In June 2018, some of his secret recordings were leaked to the Spanish press.
[Audio clip: Secret meeting between Corinna and Villarejo.]
Paul: On the tapes, Corinna says Juan Carlos used her as a front to hold property. Not out of love, she said, but because I am a resident of Monaco.
And they revealed something else. She said Juan Carlos had received a commission on the Mecca to Medina high-speed railway
[Audio clip: Corinna mentions the train deal.]
Paul: Spanish prosecutors pounced, but they hit a wall. The constitution gives the monarch complete immunity during their reign, and Juan Carlos was king throughout the bidding process and signing of the deal.
But over in Switzerland, a young prosecutor, Yves Bertossa, was looking for scalps. His men raided Juan Carlos’s banker’s office in Geneva, and then Mirabaud bank.
They found documents on Juan Carlos’s Panama company and they saw the incredible donation itself. $100 million from the Ministry of Finance of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
What they didn’t find was any meaningful documentation to support the claim that the money was a gift.
Bertossa suspects it was a commission Juan Carlos received for securing the discount from the Spanish consortium. The one that won them the bid. And he thinks something else: that the 65 million euros Juan Carlos gave to Corinna in 2012 came from this money. The implication for Bertossa is clear – that Corina is suspected of laundering Juan Carlos’s money, a crime that carries a five-year prison term.
It was a donation, she told Bertossa, out of gratitude and love. She said it was part of a long tradition of gifts Juan Carlos gave her and that he often received cash from Gulf rulers. That’s true. But never this much.
She refused to answer questions on the Villarejo tapes. She even refused to confirm it was her voice.
The criminal investigation carries on, and Corinna says she’s confident she’ll be cleared. But cleared or not, she wants to know why she is the main target of all the public anger and the criminal investigations. Why she has captured the public’s imagination, when the spanish Royals have been deal-making for decades.
Why, in all this, has she come in for so much anger and attention?
Corinna: I think because I’m a foreign woman. And I think they felt they didn’t necessarily have the same level of control over me.
Maybe it’s because these men saw me as a much more progressive thinking individual and a woman. And they’re from a time and from a mindset, under Franco, where women have to be obedient. So I think I’m being punished for being disobedient.
And I also think maybe it’s a more sexy story, I don’t know. You have an attractive woman, you have this king, you have all of these ingredients that make almost a great movie script. And by putting out so many articles about me, they’ve created – they’ve created – the myth. I would have just gone away very quietly had they not created this visibility.
Paul: And so everyone loses in this story. And they lose in the ways that mean most to them.
Juan Carlos languishes in Abu Dhabi, where he has riches and nothing else.
The popularity of the monarchy he worked so hard to achieve is in freefall. 40 per cent of Spaniards want a republic. King Felipe, Juan Carlos’s son, has to win the same fight that his father won – and then lost – to establish the legitimacy of the monarchy.
If the Republicans in Spain get their way, the only consequential monarchy left would be Britain’s, a monarchy already worried about how it will survive the transition from the queen to Prince Charles. Nervous glances are being cast from Buckingham Palace across the Zarzuela in Madrid
And then there’s the EU. Which thinks of itself as a superpower in the rule of law. We heard in this story how its rules work in some ways and fail in others. What’s clear that they certainly don’t guarantee there’s no corruption within the EU’s borders.
The tax treaty it signed with Switzerland flushed out European money, only to send it further out of reach – in this case, to the Bahamas, but also to places like Panama.
And while prosecutors in Spain and Switzerland have descended on the Mecca-to-Medina railway deal and all the bankers, lawyers, princes, kings and agents in between, they can’t get their biggest prize. Spanish law protects Juan Carlos.
Some of the individuals who helped squirrel away money could feel the force of the law. But the institutions, the banks and law firms which aided and abetted the king, don’t seem to be in any prosecutor’s sights.
And then, of course, there’s Corinna. Before she sent me home from Chyknell House with a biography of Franco and a jar of homemade blackcurrant jam, we sat to talk one last time – in a grand room, bright sun flooding through enormous windows, casting shadow and light on a woman whose inheritance was a sharp mind and uncommon beauty. Who, in this sordid tale of dynasties and legacies, at least operated on her own merits.
Hers has been an incredible journey and she didn’t set out on it to do good. But she has helped me understand some very important things about Spain. That corruption isn’t always about the gangsters, murderers, and sleazy politicians I see every day in Malta.
There’s an old world of kings and princes who are their equals when it comes to shady dealings.