By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek shipowner Victor Restis was arrested on charges of money laundering and embezzlement on Tuesday, becoming one of just a few prominent businessmen to be detained by police since Greece sank into crisis.
Restis, who has a stake in Greece's top-selling newspaper and other media as well as his shipping fleet, is being investigated over bad loans of up to 500 million euros ($660 million) at FBBank, a troubled lender that was wound down this year, court officials said.
He has been accused of using his influence over the bank to secure a 5.8-million-euro ($7.7- million) loan for companies with links to him, the officials said.
His family owned a majority stake in FBBank, which had about 1.6 billion euros' worth of assets before it was wound down, with its healthy assets absorbed by Greece's top lender, National Bank.
Restis denied any wrongdoing when he appeared before a prosecutor to be formally charged, court officials said. Calls to his company were not answered.
In a statement released later in the day, Restis Group said the accusations were made by a former employee and were "baseless".
"Mr. Restis is shocked by the false accusations of criminal wrongdoing made by a former employee. He will vigorously respond to these allegations," the Group said. "A thorough investigation by the Greek authorities will reveal that the accusations of criminal wrongdoing are baseless."
Restis is expected to appear before a prosecutor on Friday, court officials said.
He was arrested outside his office in a northern suburb of Athens, a police official said. A Greek prosecutor has issued arrest warrants for two more suspects in the same case.
Rated number 56 in the Lloyd's List top 100 influential people in shipping, Restis has been active in sectors including the dry bulk, tanker and offshore markets, managing an estimated 80 to 85 vessels.
"This comes as a major surprise to the shipping industry - he is a big player in the sector," a ship industry official said. "Restis has been a highly visible Greek ship owner and businessman who has built his business from his family."
Another prominent Greek businessman, Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, was jailed in December pending trial for involvement in a banking scandal. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Greece's descent into a deep economic crisis has triggered public anger against a political and business elite widely viewed as privileged and corrupt, prompting prosecutors to step up investigations into corruption cases.
The shipping industry accounts for about 5 percent of GDP.
Greece's wealthy shipowners, who control about 15 percent of the global fleet, have enjoyed favorable tax terms for decades, paying taxes on their ships' tonnage instead of profits.
They have come under fire since the crisis started from some media groups and the leftist opposition that accuses them of sidestepping their share of austerity and tax burden on the public.
Last week, the conservative-led government said that 441 shipping companies would donate up to 140 million euros annually to the state over three years, to help boost the economy which is in a sixth year of recession.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by Deepa Babington and Michael Roddy)