Edmond Safra

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Edmond Safra
Edmond J. Safra

(1932-08-06)6 August 1932
Died3 December 1999(1999-12-03) (aged 67)
(m. 1976)
Parent(s)Jacob Safra
Esther Safra
RelativesJoseph Safra (brother)
Moise Safra (brother)
The Villa Leopolda at Vilefranche-sur-Mer from the road to La Condamine

Edmond J. Safra (Arabic: ادموند يعقوب صفرا‎; 6 August 1932 – 3 December 1999) was a Lebanese Brazilian[4][3] banker who continued the family tradition of banking in Brazil and Switzerland. He was married to Lily Watkins from 1976 until his death. He died in a fire that attracted wide media interest, and was judicially determined to be due to arson.


The Safra family came from Beirut, Lebanon[5][6][7][8] and is of Sephardic Jewish background originally from Lebanon and Aleppo. Edmond's father, Jacob Safra, had opened the J. E. Safra Bank in 1920 in Beirut. By the time he was sixteen, Edmond Safra was working at his father's bank in Beirut, engaged in the precious metals and foreign exchange aspects of the business.

In 1949, the family moved from Lebanon to Italy, where he worked for a trading company in Milan. The family moved again in 1952, this time to Brazil, where Edmond Safra and his father founded their first Brazilian financial institution in 1955.

In 1956, Edmond Safra settled in Geneva to set up a private bank, the Trade Development Bank, which grew from an original US$1 million to US$5 billion during the 1980s. He extended his financial empire to satisfy his wealthy clients from around the world. He also founded the Republic National Bank of New York in 1966, and, later, Republic National Bank of New York (Suisse) in Geneva. The Republic bank operated 80 branches in the New York area, making it the number three branch network in the metropolitan region behind Citigroup and Chase Manhattan.

Safra's banking interests catered to clients looking for tax havens in Monaco, Luxembourg and Switzerland.[9]

From 1980 until Safra's death, Walter Weiner was Safra's attorney and CEO of Republic National Bank of New York and, in 1983, Wiener became chairman of the bank.[9]

The sale of Trade Development Bank to American Express for more than US$450 million in 1983, turned into a legal battle between the two parties. The financier came out on top, winning a public apology from American Express for starting a smear campaign against him[10] and US$8 million in damages, all of which he donated to charities.[11][12]

In 1988, he also founded Safra Republic Holdings S.A., a Luxembourg bank holding company.[13]

By the early 1990s, Safra's fortune was an estimated at US$2.5 billion. He was a major philanthropist during his lifetime, and he left his wealth to the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation[14] which supports hundreds of projects in fifty countries around the world in the areas of education, science and medicine, religion, culture and humanitarian assistance.

In 1996 Safra co-founded Hermitage Capital Management with Beny Steinmetz and Bill Browder.[15] The hedge fund became one of the most important investment companies in Russia and later became famous in connection with the Sergei Magnitsky affair.[16]

On 17 August 1998, Safra's Republic National Bank of New York lost 45% of its net income due its large holding of Russian bonds after the 1998 Russian financial crisis.[9]

He alerted the FBI to a US$7 billion money laundering network during the late 1990s involving the Bank of New York, Russian banks including Depozitarno-Kliringovy Bank and the Russian mafia which resulted in both Peter Berlin and his wife Lucy Edwards, a former vice president of the Bank of New York, confessing to money laundering for Semion Mogilevich and the Russian mafia of more than $7 billion between 1996 and 1999.[16][17][18]

In 1998, Safra was a key FBI witness to a $4.8 billion money laundering scheme involving IMF money, his Republic National Bank of New York, his Republic National Bank of New York (Suisse), Mikhail Kasyanov, and Vladimir Putin.[19][a] He also provided evidence to the Geneva prosecutor Bertrand Bertossa.[19][21] The IMF money was sent out on 14 August 1998 from the New York Federal Reserve and deposited into Republic National Bank of New York account and then dispersed through several accounts only to settle into accounts in the United States and Switzerland associated with officials of both the Russian Ministry of Finance and the Russian Central Bank.[19][21][b] The Italtian newspaper la Repubblica broke the news of "Kremlingate" in August 1998 that $21.4 billion had been transferred between 27 July 1998 and 24 August 1998 through an account at his Bank of New York.[19][21][24][25] The stolen IMF funds caused the Russian financial crisis of 1998 which began on 17 August 1998.[19][26][27][c] He told British press that a "contract had been put on his life" and that he feared that Russian mafia would kill him.[32][33]

As he approached his 60s, the financier divided his time between his homes in Monaco, Geneva, and New York City and the Villa Leopolda on the French Riviera. Weakened by Parkinson's disease, he required nursing care.[12][34]

On 2 December 1999, Edmond and Lily Safra gained Monegasque citizenship.[34]

In 1999, he sold his Safra Republic Holdings and Republic New York Corporation to HSBC for $10.3 billion in cash.[35][36] On 31 December 1999, HSBC Private Bank became the new name for Safra's former holdings.[37]

After the release of the Panama Papers, numerous Safra family associated entities were found in the Bahamas Leaks and the Paradise Papers[38]


In December 1999, Safra and nurse Vivian Torrente were suffocated by fumes in a fire deliberately lit at the billionaire's Monaco home,[39][40][41] where he apparently felt so safe that he did not have his bodyguards stay the night.[42] On the night of the fire, Daniel Serdet, the attorney general and chief prosecutor of Monaco, stated that Samuel Cohen, Safra's personal security chief, stated that no security guards were needed.[34][33]

Another bodyguard and nurse, American Ted Maher, who was sharing the night shift with Torrente at the time, was arrested[43] under suspicion of starting the fire, and was convicted of the crime in 2002 by the Monaco Court. He claims that he was attacked by two masked men and, unable to figure out how to trigger the Safra's complex security system, started the fire in an attempt to trigger the system. The prosecution argued he was attempting to carry out a daring rescue, and thus increase his standing in the Safra family's eyes, but lost control of the fire unintentionally.[44]

Maher's lawyer, Michael Griffith, said that Maher did indeed start the fire in order to gain acceptance from Safra and that "It was a stupid, most insane thing a human being could do,” said Griffith. “He did not intend to kill Mr. Safra. He just wanted Mr. Safra to appreciate him more. He loved Mr. Safra. This was the best job of his life.”[45] Safra left 50% of his assets to several charities.[46] The details of Safra's death were discussed by media outlets including 60 Minutes, CBS 48 Hours, Dateline NBC and Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair.

Philanthropic activities[edit]

Safra supported educational, religious, medical, cultural, and humanitarian causes and organizations around the world, and the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation carries on this work today in his memory.[47]

Committed to his Jewish faith, he believed that constructing and renovating synagogues was important in places where there was a potential for a Jewish community to flourish, and synagogues around the world bearing his father's name testify to this commitment. Many of these were built in the world's major Jewish centers, but he also helped to build synagogues in more remote communities such as Manila and Kinshasa.

500 years after the last synagogue was built in Madrid he constructed a new one. He also helped to renovate and enlarge synagogues in Amsterdam, Istanbul, Naples, Budapest, Rhodes, and Vienna. He saved the oldest synagogue in France, in Clermont-Ferrand, from destruction by buying it for the community, and he contributed to the expansion of the Cannes synagogue and Synagogue Beth El in Paris.[48] He also helped refurbish synagogues in many small French cities including Évian, Annemasse, and others. Among the synagogues is the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York City.

In addition to supporting a number of synagogues in Israel, the tombs of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (2nd century CE) were especially important to him, and he was a generous supporter of these pilgrimage sites. For many years on Shavuot eve, the anniversary of his father's death, he would pray at the tomb of Rabbi Meir until dawn.

During his lifetime Safra donated millions of dollars to provide treatment for the sick. Hospitals across the globe – the Hôpital Cantonal de Genève, the Hôpitaux de France, and countless institutions in the United States, for example – benefited from his generosity. He was one of the founders of Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo, today one of South America's major medical centers. In Israel, he initiated the construction of the Edmond and Lily Safra Children's Hospital at the Tel Hashomer hospital complex.

In the area of medical research, he was a significant supporter of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and a number of different centers studying specific diseases in France, the United States, and elsewhere around the world. He created the Edmond and Lily Safra Chair in Breast Cancer Research at Tulane University.[49]

Safra believed higher education was essential for every young person in the modern world, even though he himself never attended university. He provided university scholarship funds for tens of thousands of needy students through the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF), an institution he and his wife established in 1977 to support deserving Israeli students.[50]

Safra also helped universities directly, often through the support of chairs and particular programs (such as Judaic Studies). For example, at Harvard University he endowed the Jacob E. Safra Professorship of Jewish History and Sephardic Civilization, and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; and he gave significant funds for the Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professorship in Latin American Studies.[51] At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, he created the Jacob E. Safra Professorship of International Banking and the Safra Business Research Center.

He was awarded Honorary Doctorates by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yeshiva University (New York) (where he established the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies) for his ongoing support of those institutions.

With respect to younger children's education, he was especially devoted to schools in the cities where he lived – for example, he founded Ecole Girsa,[52] Geneva's first and largest Jewish school. He took great pride in founding the Beit Yaacov school in Bat Yam. He was also one of the world's most significant benefactors of yeshivot (religious schools training young men to be rabbis, Jewish teachers, and judges), assisting numerous institutions worldwide.[53]

In France, the Edmond J. Safra Foundation[14] financially supports Clinatec.[54]


Recognized for his philanthropy, Safra was named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres and Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government, Commandeur de l’Ordre de Mérite by the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and Commandeur de l’Ordre de Rio Branco by the government of Brazil.[citation needed]


  1. ^ In July 1998, Vladimir Putin travelled from Moscow to the south of France to conduct important meetings when he was named head of the FSB.[20]
  2. ^ In 1998, Safra's Republic National Bank of New York was the preferred foreign bank through which most Russian banks had correspondent accounts and both Russian banks, including SBS-Agro (Russian: СБС-Агро), Menatep (Russian: Менатеп), Inkom (Russian: Инком), and United Bank (Russian: Объединенный банк), and the Russian Ministry of Finance transferred IMF loan money to foreign locations through Safra's Republic National Bank of New York.[22][23]
  3. ^ According to Oleg Lurie, after Boris Berezovsky, who was a Deputy Secretary of the Security Council and the owner of United Bank (Russian: Объединенный банк), a Russian bank involved in the scheme of stealing the IMF funds, tipped off Safra in early autumn 1999 that he would be killed because he had assisted prosecutors, Safra moved from his villa Leopold at Antibes to a very secure bunker in Monaco where he died in December 1999 when two armed masked men entered Safra's 1000 square meter apartment and set fire to it while Safra, his wife, daughter and others in it.[19][21][28] Safra succoumbed to smoke inhalation during the blaze.[19][21] In March 1998, Alexander Litvinenko had been ordered to kill Berezovsky.[29][30][31] According to Safra's bodyguards, in the summer of 1999, Safra traveled to Moscow staying for several days during which he met several high-ranking Russian Ministry of Finance officials, Berezovsky, and Roman Abramovich.[27]


  1. ^ a b Edmond Safra (1954), information from the National Archives, Rio de Janeiro. Scan of Edmond Safra's Brazilian entry visa on 1954 on familysearch.org
  2. ^ a b Edmond Safra (1954), information from the National Archives, Rio de Janeiro. Scan of Edmond Safra's Brazilian entry visa on 1954 on familysearch.org<
  3. ^ a b Lichfield, John (4 December 1999). "Billionaire who blew whistle on Russian cash scandal is killed in Monte Carlo". Independent. Retrieved 26 November 2017.
  4. ^ Edmond Safra (1954) and Edmond Safra (1954), information from the National Archives, Rio de Janeiro. Scan of Edmond Safra's Brazilian entry visas on 1954 on familysearch.org
  5. ^ Edmond Safra (1954) and Edmond Safra (1954) information from the National Archives, Rio de Janeiro. Scan of Edmond Safra's Brazilian entry visa on 1954 on familysearch.org
  6. ^ Lichfield, John (1999-12-04). "Billionaire who blew whistle on Russian cash scandal is killed in Monte Carlo". The Independent. Retrieved 2018-02-19.
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  10. ^ Zonana, Victor F. (April 28, 1992). "Controversy at American Express". The Los Angeles Times.
  11. ^ Burrough, Bryan, 1961- (1992). Vendetta : American Express and the smearing of Edmond Safra. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-215957-0. OCLC 27770148.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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Further reading[edit]

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