The Spanish royal family must have hoped that a decision by the former king, Juan Carlos, to exile himself from Spain earlier this month would have drawn a line under the financial scandals linked to him that have blackened the family’s name in recent years.
If so, they were probably reckoning without his ex-lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, giving an explosive in-depth interview to the BBC in which she described intimate details of her relationship with Juan Carlos, said her life was threatened by Spanish secret police and testified that she was “very surprised” to be given a lump sum of €65m ($77m) by the king, describing it as, “an enormously generous gift.”
She suggested that she might be persuaded to return the money if it turns out it is “illegal”, but only if “everyone else” does too.
And as to allegations that she may have actually been laundering the dough for the king emeritus?
Nonsense, she says, she was given it out of love, and when Juan Carlos asked for it back, in 2014, it was just a post-breakup temper tantrum that meant nothing.
“In 2014 he made desperate attempts to get me to come back to him,” she told the BBC. “At some point he realized I wasn’t going to return, and he went completely ballistic. He asked for everything back. I think it was just a tantrum he threw.
“He’s confirmed to the Swiss proceedings that he actually never asked for the money back, and that I never carried money on his behalf.”
Sayn-Wittgenstein sat down with the BBC for the lengthy interview, published Thursday, which will make uncomfortable reading for King Felipe, who took over when his father abdicated in 2014 after he was discovered to have gone on a notorious elephant hunting trip to Botswana with Sayn-Wittgenstein.
The hunting trip, which was paid for by Mohamed Eyad Kayali, an adviser to the Saudi royal family, coincided with a period of great austerity in Spain, and the opening of a corruption investigation which ultimately saw the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, thrown in jail, where he still languishes.
Mark Nayler, a British journalist based in Malaga, told The Daily Beast: “The royal household are not going to be best pleased about this interview. They wanted Juan out of the country to try and divert as much attention away from this story as possible. But I think it is telling that she felt the need to give that interview, and you could interpret it in one of two ways; you could say she is leaping to her former lover’s defense, or that she needs to clear her own name.”
Juan Carlos fled the country earlier this month for the UAE (where he is believed to be staying in a luxury resort owned by the ruler of Dubai) after Swiss authorities said they were opening an investigation into his financial dealings, and revealed that a Swiss bank account controlled by Juan Carlos had been credited with a $100 million payment from the late king of Saudi Arabia in 2008.
Juan Carlos has extensive immunity in Spain but it has been speculated that he wanted to move further afield to avoid any embarrassing extradition tussles if the Swiss authorities go after him.
The Swiss prosecutors allege the payment was a kickback related to the awarding of a massive contract to a Spanish consortium to build a high-speed rail link in Saudi Arabia, and Zayn-Wittgenstein, whose €65m payment came from this account, is being investigated along with the former king.
The investigation was launched after an audio recording made by a police officer was published in the Spanish media.
In one of the recordings, a female voice, widely believed locally to be Wittgenstein (she has not commented) asks rhetorically in Spanish about the emeritus king: “How does he get money? He takes a plane, goes to Arab countries… And he returns with the cash in suitcases, sometimes with five million. He has a machine to count it. I've seen it with my own eyes.”
Pressed on the €65m payment in the new interview by the BBC, she said: “Conversations about him managing his will during his lifetime had taken place in 2011. He started to talk about his death and what he wanted to leave in his will. He also mentioned he wanted to take care of me, but no amounts were ever discussed. He was worried that the family wouldn’t respect his wishes.”
King Felipe (who is married to Queen Letizia) has renounced his personal inheritance from his father in a desperate attempt to shore up his reputation.
Sayn-Wittgenstein said she was visited by Spain’s shadowy secret police, the CNI, and that an operative told her “he was sent by the king” to warn her against talking to the media.
“He said if I didn’t follow these instructions, he would not guarantee my physical safety or the physical safety of my children,” she says.
Experts on the CNI told the BBC they considered her allegations credible.
Sayn-Wittgenstein also told the BBC of her heartbreak of the end of the relationship shortly after her father's funeral: “To my great shock, just after his funeral, the king told me he’d been carrying on a relationship with another woman for a period of three years,” she says, claiming that just a few months before he had proposed to her and told her dying father he was going to ask her to marry him.
It was, Sayn-Wittgenstein said, a bitter end to a relationship that had begun in passion: “In the first year … he would phone me up to 10 times a day. I mean, it was an immediately very strong, deep and meaningful relationship.”
She says she asked Juan Carlos how all this would sit with his wife, Queen Sofia. “He said they had an arrangement to represent the crown, but they led totally different, separate lives. And the king had just come out of a nearly 20-year relationship with another lady who also had a very important place in his heart and in his life.”
Apart from Queen Sofia, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein tells the BBC, she believed she was in an exclusive relationship with King Juan Carlos.
“I’d made it very clear I wouldn’t tolerate him having relationships with other women at the same time,” she said. “I think in the end he was mortified by what he did. But for me, that was something I could never overcome.” She ended the relationship in 2009.
Nayler says the new interview is likely to only add to public anger in Spain: “The allegations have not been proven yet, but one of the reasons it looks so bad is because it's hard to think that all of this activity was genuinely above board. Why were there these offshore accounts containing enormous sums of money? Why would they have been kept secret at the time?”
Enquiries seeking a press contact via the Spanish royal family’s social media accounts went unanswered.
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article we inaccurately attributed a comment to Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein that has now been removed.
The article has also been updated to reflect the circumstances of the breakup between Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and Juan Carlos.