Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have refused to name the the secretive multi-millionaire who loaned the couple their Canadian mansion - but who has used highly controversial methods also deployed by money-launderers and tax-evaders to conceal his identity.
The royals declined an invitation by DailyMail.com to reveal the mystery mansion owner's identity amid claims that he could be a Russian billionaire.
The couple's spokeswoman also declined to say whether they had paid for the vacation.
The latest disclosure comes amid their bombshell decision to quit their royal duties and split their time between the UK and North America.
That decision was announced after spending more than two weeks over Christmas and New Year at Mille Fleurs, a $14 million seafront home close to Victoria, British Columbia.
Five neighbors, a former colleague of the realtor who last sold the mansion, and a friend of the former owner all told DailyMail.com the current owner is a Russian businessman. Some said he is a billionaire.
Meghan and Harry were introduced to the mystery owner by David Foster, a friend of the owner. Foster's wife Katherine McPhee was a school friend of the Duchess of Sussex.
DailyMail.com can disclose that the owner has masked his identity using methods that are about to be outlawed in British Columbia because of their exploitation by money-launderers and tax evaders.
And the multi-millionaire has also declined to identify himself voluntarily ahead of new legislation in the Canadian province which will make it compulsory for the owners of properties to be publicly named.
Judgment questions: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stayed at a Canadian mansion owned by a mystery wealthy businessman - said to be a Russian billionaire - who conceals his identity using methods favored for money-laundering and tax evasion
Luxurious getaway: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spent their first Christmas with baby Archie in Mille Fleurs, $14.1 million waterfront mansion near Victoria, British Columbia. But they have refused to say who offered them the accommodation and whether it was free
Mystery multi-millionaire: In 2012, Bernadette Wolfswinkel, now 70, listed the property and it was reported to be sold two years later. But the buyer has masked their identity and Meghan and Harry have refused to reveal it
Grandeur: The main house is 11,416 square feet with five bedrooms and eight bathrooms and a 2,349 square foot guest cottage with three beds and two baths. It is where Meghan and Harry put the final touches to their 'Megxit' plan
Luxury property:The French country-inspired mansion was listed by Sotheby's in 2012 and sold in 2014. But its owner's identity and whether he gave Meghan and Harry the property for free remains a mystery
HOW MANSION OWNER KEEPS HIS NAME SECRET USING MONEY-LAUNDERERS' METHOD
Bernadette Wolfswinkel (right), the ex-wife of a disgraced Arizona financier, puts Mille Fleurs on the market with Sotheby's in 2012 for $18 million CAD ($14 million). But she is not selling the home itself. She is selling her shares in the Towner Bay Country Club, of which she is one of the directors. The names of company directors in British Columbia have to be publicly disclosed.
The mystery owner pays a reported $18CAD million for Wolfswinkel's shares, getting him the keys to Mille Fleurs.
He goes a step further to keep his name secret by not becoming one of the directors of the country club.
The mystery owner makes sure that no public documents are connected to Mille Fleurs other than it being part of the country club.
The mystery owner gets the benefit of tough Canadian privacy laws which say that planning documents with the names of property-holders cannot be disclosed to the public.
Law firm which holds details of the country club's shareholders refuses to allow access to them.
There is no suggestion the owner engaged in tax evasion or money-laundering
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A realtor involved in the 2014 sale of the home said it was bought by a billionaire who is neither Canadian nor or American for $18 million CAD - $14 million. The buyer's identity was subject to a non-disclosure agreement, the realtor, who declined to be named, said.
The association of the royal couple with a multi-millionaire – or possibly even a Russian billionaire – who masks his identity comes as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex find themselves apparently at war with their own family over their decision to move to North America and 'move towards' financial independence.
An association with someone who goes to extraordinary lengths to hide their identity will raise questions over judgment as they pursue earning opportunities in their attempt to 'work towards financial independence.'
It comes after Prince Andrew, Prince Harry's uncle, was forced to end his official duties in the wake of the death of his longtime friend Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire pedophile.
Prince Andrew was also revealed to have co-owned a business in a secretive tax haven with a second multi-millionaire financier.
The owner of Mille Fleurs was apparently not known to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex until Foster introduced them.
But DailyMail.com can reveal how the owner used a complex corporate shell to keep his name a secret, a practice which will become illegal in British Columbia later this year.
Mille Fleurs – which means Thousand Flowers – is officially owned by the Towner Bay Country Club Ltd.
The Towner Bay Country Club owns all 27 properties on the private Towner Park Road, just outside the small town of North Saanich.
When the homes are put on sale, the buyer does not buy the house directly.
Instead they buy shares in the country club, which gives them effective ownership of the property. The buyer's name therefore does not appear on the title of the land, which is a public document.
WHY KEEPING YOUR NAME SECRET IS BEING BANNED IN B.C.
Pat Poitevin, co-founder of the Canadian Centre of Excellence for Anti-Corruption, declined to comment on Meghan and Harry's situation specifically but explained why British Columbia is making owners identify themselves and preventing the use of shell companies to conceal ownership.
'It can be used legitimately, but unfortunately shell companies are used by kleptocrats, oligarchs, fraudsters, organized crime, terrorism financing, simply to hide the source of the funds, and it's being used to launder money,' he told DailyMail.com.
'They buy property to hide their identity from the regulators, from law enforcement agencies, to circumvent the rules in terms of banking and assets for tax purposes.
'They will use shell companies to hide the source of the funds and how it's being funneled to the ultimate beneficiary, whether the beneficiary is legitimate or not.
'People think it's just the Bahamas or the Seychelles where they have shell companies. But some of the major jurisdictions where the easiest way to funnel money is to start shell companies are the United States and Canada.
'Canada is known as the snow-washing capital of the world, because we don't know who the ultimate owner of a company is, and you can start a shell company online for $250.
'It's harder to get a local library card here because you need to show your driver's license. The problem is it can be used for nefarious reasons, for illegality, to get away from paying taxes, laundering money and supporting organized crime.
'There's trillions of dollars being lost over the years because oligarchs don't pay taxes, because they funnel their money through these shell companies.'
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The office address given by the Country Club on its corporate filings is at a local law firm, Henley & Walden LLP in Sidney. The firm refused to comment.
It refused to name the shareholder to DailyMail.com.
Some owners in the Country Club are named as directors of the club, meaning their names are disclosed publicly. The previous owner of Mille Fleurs, Bernadette Wolfswinkel, was a director, but the current owner is not.
Wolfswinkel, 70, is the ex-wife of a disgraced Arizona property magnate, Conley Wolfswinkel, who was convicted of bank fraud and accused of owing US taxpayers $2 billion.
She listed the property for $18 million CAD with a Sotheby's realtor in 2012, with the sale concluded in 2014. $18 million CAD is $14.1 million.
The buyer may have overpaid for the prestigious waterfront mansion; tax assessments from 2018 now value it at $7,942,000 CAD, less than half the reported selling price.
When DailyMail.com tracked down Wolfswinkel in her home state the 70-year-old declined to comment, saying only: 'How did you find me?'
Towner Bay company president, Tracey Davies, and vice president, Sandy Mouret, did not respond to requests for comment. The company secretary, Marian Neal, also declined to answer questions over Mille Fleur's ownership.
Officials at the North Saanich local government office said privacy laws prevented them from sharing planning applications showing the owner's name; the property's gardener declined to name his employer.
The complicated way in which Mille Fleurs is owned has been heavily criticized in British Columbia and accused of enabling tax evasion and money-laundering. There is no suggestion the owner of Mille Fleurs is involved in either.
Mille Fleurs is among hundreds of homes in the region that will be forced this year to reveal their true owners.
They will be named in a public, searchable, registry under a new British Columbia law, the 2019 Land Owner Transparency Act.
A 2016 report by Transparency International – the campaign group which called for the law to be changed in the province - revealed that nearly one-third of the 100 most valuable homes in Greater Vancouver were owned by shell companies run on the same lines as the country club.
Where Harry and Archie spent time together: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex released this picture at New Year. It was taken just beside their seaside getaway, before Christmas
Introduction: David Foster told DailyMail.com how his wife Katharine McPhee, 35, discovered that the Duke and Duchess were in need of a discreet spot for their first Christmas holiday. McPhee (right) went to school with Meghan (left) in Los Angeles and the two did theater together growing up
A spokesman for the British Columbia Ministry of Finance told DailyMail.com the registry would combat money-laundering and tax evasion when it comes into force in spring. The date for starting operations has still to be set.
'For too long, people in B.C. were using shell companies, trusts and partnerships to hide true owners of property. This left the real estate sector open to tax evasion, fraud and money laundering,' the spokesman said.
David Foster said that he had previously arranged for Russian oligarch Yuri Milner, pictured with wife Julia, to rent the property around 2014. Milner says neither he, his family nor his companies do not own the property
The Ministry of Finance said the registry is 'the single most important measure to combat money laundering because it will help tax authorities and law enforcement agencies with investigations and tax enforcement.'
Anyone convicted of flouting the law after the new registry is established can be personally fined up to $25,000 CAD or 15% of the property's assessed value, whichever is greater.
The owner of Mille Fluers would face a fine of more than $1.19 million CAD if they failed to comply. A second law passed at the same time, the Business Corporations Amendment Act, 2019, will give tax authorities full information on company shareholders.
The owner has previously let the property to a Russian oligarch.
Music producer Foster told DailyMail.com that he had arranged for Russian oligarch Yuri Milner, who at one time owned more than eight percent of Facebook and five percent of Twitter, to rent the property around 2014, but that the California-based tech magnate did not own the house.
'About five or six years ago I helped my friend Yuri rent the house for a short time. I don't know if that was for a week or a month or whatever. The owner is not Yuri, but it is an acquaintance of mine. I can't disclose his name,' Foster said.
A spokeswoman for Milner said that neither he, his family or his companies had any ownership of the mansion.
As well as drawing the ire of transparency campaigners, the cost of Harry and Meghan's vacation has irked some Canadian taxpayers.
At least four Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers were assigned to the couple's 24-hour protection unit, at an estimated cost of at least $240,000.
According to 2016 figures, RCMP sergeants earn $99,790 to $102,775 CAD, and DailyMail.com understands that the force assigned enough officers to give the royals a four-man 24-hour support unit for their six-week stay in Canada. Travel, overtime and other costs would have been on top.
An RCMP spokeswoman said: 'For security reasons, the RCMP does not disclose the number of police personnel assigned to work during this type of visit.
'Security costs for protection of visiting members of the Royal Family while in Canada are covered through the existing operational budget. For security reasons, we cannot provide a detailed breakdown of these costs.'
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WHAT DAILYMAIL.COM ASKED THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF SUSSEX... AND WHAT THEY SAID IN REPLY
DAILYMAIL.COM ASKED FOR ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS:
What is the name of the owner of Mille Fleurs?
Were the Duke and Duchess of Sussex aware of the owner's identity before accepting their invitation?
Were the Duke and Duchess of Sussex aware of how the owner holds Mille Fleurs?
Did the Duke and Duchess of Sussex pay for their stay? If so how was the amount they paid calculated?
AND MEGHAN AND HARRY'S SPOKESWOMAN SARAH LATHAM REPLIED:
'Thanks, I'm not commenting or guiding on the Canadian property'
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