More on Robert Mueller and Mogilevich…

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller, speaking in Budapest in 2005

Special Counsel Robert Mueller isn’t playing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mueller has brought on board attorney Lisa Caroline Page who worked on the FBI Task Force in Budapest that investigated Russian Mob kingpin Semion Mogilevich.

By adding Page, Mueller may be sending a signal that he’s going after links between Trump and Russian organized crime, and perhaps zeroing in on Mogilevich ties.

Catching Mogilevich was an important part of Mueller’s 12-year tenure as head of the bureau and big reason why the FBI put the Mob boss on its 10 Most Wanted List in 2009.

Here’s what Mueller himself had to say in 2005 during a visit to Budapest for the 10th anniversary of the International Law Enforcement Academy:

And the FBI/­Hungarian National Police Organized Crime Task Force has been up and running for five years, working to dismantle organized crime groups. Just last month, we obtained approval to have FBI agents permanently stationed here in Budapest to work on the Task Force.

The Task Force has had a number of successes. Right here in Budapest , Ukranian-­born Semion Mogilevich established the headquarters of his powerful organized crime enterprise. The group engaged in drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution, and money laundering, and organized stock fraud in the United States and Canada in which investors lost over $150 million.

As soon as the Task Force began investigating his activities, Mogilevich realized he could no longer use Budapest as his base of operations. He immediately fled the country, and is now hiding in Moscow. Working closely with Hungarian authorities, United States prosecutors obtained a 45-­count indictment against Mogilevich and three other criminals, charging them with money laundering, securities fraud, and racketeering.

Mueller’s biographer, Garrett Graff, called the Budapest task force “perhaps the most unique FBI force in the world.” Hungary was the only country outside Afghanistan and Iraq where agents were permanently stationed.

The Budapest task force assembled a global picture of Mogilevich’s operation. According to a Dec. 22, 2006 report in The Wall Street Journal, FBI agents in Budapest got help from authorities in Israel, another of Mr. Mogilevich’s suspected bases of operations, and Cyprus, an offshore banking center used by many Russians.

So elusive was Mogilevich, however, that agents in Budapest were chasing smoke, sometimes even in their own backyard. Graff’s book, The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror, contains this tantalizing piece of information:

The full extent of Mogilevich’s US ties are still unknown. Although banned from entering the country because of his alleged criminal ties, Mogilevich has visited Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami under aliases to meet with U.S. associates, and the FBI photographed at least one of his aides attending a Republican Party fundraiser in Texas.

Mogilevich was arrested in Moscow in 2008 and then subsequently released him the following year. He lives more or less openly in Russia today. While US eventually caught up with Osama bin Laden, Mogilevich was the one who got away.

Mueller’s role as special counsel for Trump’s Russia links may be a second chance of sorts. By probing Trump’s links to Mogilevich, Mueller may be able to snare an even bigger fish.

No wonder he’s driving Trump crazy.

Is Robert Mueller Examining Trump’s Links to Mogilevich?

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Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Dmitry Firtash (right)

As we noted earlier here and here, among the many dictators, despots, and shady foreigners who called Trump Tower home were members of the Russian Mafia with connections to Semion Mogilevich, said to be the most dangerous Mobster in the world.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Trump’s links to Russia, may also be taking an interest in Trump’s ties to Mogilevich, a man the FBI says is involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.

As described in Wired, among the prosecutors and investigators hired by Mueller, is one Lisa Page:

Also, while the Special Counsel’s office has yet to make any formal announcements about Mueller’s team, it appears he has recruited an experienced Justice Department trial attorney, Lisa Page, a little-known figure outside the halls of Main Justice but one whose résumé boasts intriguing hints about where Mueller’s Russia investigation might lead. Page has deep experience with money laundering and organized crime cases, including investigations where she’s partnered with an FBI task force in Budapest, Hungary, that focuses on eastern European organized crime. That Budapest task force helped put together the still-unfolding money laundering case against Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash…

The hiring of Page, which was confirmed by a Mueller spokesman in The New York Times, gives the special counsel a team member with knowledge of not only Dmitry Firtash, but of the man who is believed to stand behind him: Semion Mogilevich.

Full disclosure: Firtash hired the Washington law firm Akin Gump to clear him of links to Mogilevich. I profiled Akin Gump partner Mark MacDougall in this 2008 piece.

Firtash, pictured above, made his fortune in the 2000s in the natural gas sector. In 2004, Firtash and a minority partner emerged with 50 percent ownership of a murky Swiss company called RosUkrEnergo (RUE). RUE extracts gas from Central Asia and acts an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine for the delivery of gas.  The other half of RUE is held by Gazprom, the gas giant controlled by the Russian government, which shows that Firtash has close ties with the Kremlin.

Billions of dollars flowed through RUE and some of that money was allegedly siphoned off by Semion Mogilevich, who U.S. government officials say (see here) is the man behind the curtain at the gas company. One of the few willing to say this publicly was Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, a political enemy of Firtash, who got thrown in jail for her troubles. Notably, Firtash’s stake in RUE remained a secret for two years.

Intelligence Online, a Paris-based news organization with deep sources in the spy world, published this handy chart of the Firtash/Mogilevich connections, under the headline “The Tip of the Mogilevich Iceberg:”

Mog:RUE

Firtash admitted to William Taylor, the US ambassador to the Ukraine, that he has had dealings with Mogilevich, according to a 2008 State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks:

(S) The Ambassador asked Firtash to address his alleged ties to Russian organized crime bosses like Semyon Mogilievich. Firtash answered that many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union, adding that when a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by “the laws of the streets.” He noted that it was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member at the same time. Firtash acknowledged that he needed, and received, permission from Mogilievich when he established various businesses, but he denied any close relationship to him.

And in this October 2009 press release, the FBI took note of Mogilevich’s control of natural gas supplies. “Through his extensive international criminal network, Mogilevich controls extensive natural gas pipelines in Eastern Europe,” the bureau wrote in a veiled reference to RUE.

The question is what is the nature of the relationship between Firtash and Mogilevich. Is it a thing of the past, as Firtash insists? Or is Firtash a front man for Mogilevich?

Presumably, the FBI — and, by extension, Lisa Page — knows the answer. The bureau has been investigating Firtash since 2006, according to The New York Times. A year before that, the FBI passed their counterparts in the Austrian police a confidential report naming Firtash as a “senior member” of the Semion Mogilevich Organization, according to a  2008 report by Roman Kupchinsky, an analyst with Radio Free Europe.

Page’s work in Budapest involved her deeply in the Firtash/Mogilevich world. The Wired article suggests she worked on the case that led to Firtash’s arrest in Vienna in 2014. Firtash was indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago on charges of plotting a bribery scheme to set up a $500 million titanium business in India. He remains free after a Russian billionaire friend posted bail of $174 million but cannot leave Austria.

And Budapest is also a home of sorts for Mogilevich. He resided in Budapest when he ran a pump-and-dump scheme through a publicly traded front company called YBM Magnex Inc. Mogilevich was indicted in 2003 on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering in YBM Magnex.

So, what does this have to do with President Trump?

Firtash was a business partner of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was deeply involved in Ukrainian politics. Manafort advised Viktor Yanukovych on his successful 2010 campaign for the presidency of Ukraine. He resigned from the Trump campaign after The New York Times found a handwritten ledger showing that Yanukovych paid Manfort $12.7 million in cash.

While he was assisting Yanukovych, Manafort became business partners with Firtash. The two men explored developing a 65-floor tower on the site of the Drake Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

A 2011 lawsuit filed in New York by Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, called this partnership between Firtash and Manafort a means of laundering the proceeds of gas deals between the Ukraine and Russia. Firtash says that the lawsuit was full of lies, but he confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that he did put $25 million in an escrow account for the developers of the Drake project that Manafort helped him set up. The deal collapsed and the tower was never built.

It’s a good bet to say that we only know a little of this story, which is buried in the files of the FBI and the US intelligence community. But Trump Tower’s role as a home away from home for Russian mobsters with Mogilevich and his unhinged, self-destructive reactions to anyone probing into Russia suggests that there is more, much more to come. Stay tuned.

Carter Page Mystery Solved?

Ed Cox

The Washington Post is reporting that Carter Page was introduced to the Trump campaign by Nixon’s son-in-law, NY GOP Chair Ed Cox.

This may be the answer to one of the ongoing mysteries of the Trump-Russia affair: How did Page wind up working for Trump?

Edward Finch Cox is a retired partner formerly with the firm of Patterson Belnkap Webb & Tyler, LLP.  He is chairman of the New York Republican State Committee. Cox is married to Nixon’s daughter Trish. The two were married in a White House ceremony in 1971.

How did Cox meet Page?

Their paths may have intersected in a couple of ays: Cox’s has served as a director of Noble Energy, Inc. for more than two decades. Page, you’ll recall, was an energy industry analyst. In addition Cox has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 1993. Page served a fellowship at the CFR.

One person tweeting about this is Roger Stone, a former Nixon aide and GOP political operative, who is himself under investigation for his links to Russia:

This is interesting. Cox and Stone both worked together in the Nixon administration (where Stone was involved in the dirty tricks operation), and it seems there’s no love lost between them:

Then again, as someone on Twitter pointed out, here’s Carter Page attending one of Stone’s speeches:

Stone Pence

The Russian Mobster Who Hid out in Trump Tower and the Taj Mahal

Vyacheslav Ivankov

Vyacheslav Ivankov was a top Russian mob boss, wanted in Russia and in America.

He was a Vory v Zakone, a member of the “thieves-in-law,” the highest criminal echelon in the Soviet Union before the Communist government collapsed.

An infamous 1995 FBI affidavit describes Simeon Mogilevich, considered by the bureau as the most dangerous Russian mobster in the world, as “one of IVANKOV’s closest associates.”

It was Mogilevich, according to Alan Block’s All Is Clouded by Desire, who paid a Russian judge to arrange for Ivankov’s early release in 1991 from a tough Siberian prison where he was being held for ‘robbery and torture.

After his release from prison, Ivankov was accused of murdering two Turkish nationals in a Moscow restaurant in January 1992.  Later that year, he fled Russia for New York.

Journalist Robert I. Friedman tells the story of where the FBI found him in his book Red Mafiya (which you can read for free at this link).

Despite Ivankov’s flagrant, multinational criminal activities, during his first years in America, the FBI had a hard time even locating him. “At first all we had was a name,” says the FBI’s James Moody. “We were looking around, looking around, looking around, and had to go out and really beat the bushes. And then we found out that he was in a luxury condo in Trump Towers” in Manhattan.

[A copy of Ivankov’s personal phone book, which was obtained by the author, included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organization office fax machine.]

But almost as soon as they found him, he disappeared again leaving nothing but vapor trails for the FBI to follow. “Ivankov,” explained an FBI agent, “didn’t come from a walk-and-talk culture,” like Italian gangsters who take walks to discuss family business so they can’t be bugged or overheard by the bureau. “As soon as he’d sniff out the feds, he’d go into hiding for days at a time,” a trait that made him harder to keep tabs on than Italian mobsters. “He was like a ghost to the FBI,” says Gregory Stasiuk, the New York State Organized Crime Task Force special investigator.

Stasiuk picked up Ivankov’s trail at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the Trump-owned casino that the real estate magnate boasted was the “eighth wonder of the world.” The Taj Mahal had become the Russian mob’s favorite East Coast destination. As with other high rollers, scores of Russian hoodlums received “comps” for up to $100,000 a visit for free food, rooms, champagne, cartons of cigarettes, entertainment, and transportation in stretch limos and helicopters. “As long as these guys attract a lot of money or spend a lot of money, the casinos don’t care,” a federal agent asserted. Russian mobsters like Ivankov proved a windfall for the casinos, since they often lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a night in the “High-Roller Pit,” sometimes betting more than $5,000 on a single hand of blackjack. “They’re degenerate gamblers,” says Stasiuk. Although the FBI still couldn’t find Ivankov, Stasiuk managed to tail him from the Taj Mahal to shipping mogul Leonard Lev’s sprawling home on a dead-end street in Far Rockaway, Queens, and on another occasion, from the Taj to the Paradise Club, a notorious Russian mob haunt in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, then managed by godfather Marat Balagula’s youngest daughter, Aksana, the onetime aspiring optometrist.

The implication here is that Trump or his organization was welcoming these Russian mobsters because they were laundering huge sums through his casino. “The casinos don’t care” means Trump didn’t care either.

Friedman’s reporting is backed up in a report by the Tri-State Joint Soviet-Emigre Organized Crime Project, an effort by New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to come to grips with Russian mob influence:

Russian emigres have also been conducting various types of money laundering schemes in hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. Casino operators indicate that a significant number of Russian emigres frequent casinos. Many of them are “high- rollers” recognized as favored customers and, as such, have received such perks as limousine service, plush hotel suites, meal and alcohol allowances, and seating for prime events. One of the schemes observed by various law enforcement agencies, including the United States Secret Service and the New Jersey State Police, involves the use or attempted use of counterfeit currency and traveler’s checks. Russian-emigre criminals use the bogus currency, in amounts below the federal Currency Transaction Report threshold, to obtain cash and/or playing chips.

The Taj Mahal repeatedly failed to properly report gamblers who cashed out $10,000 or more in a single day, according to a 1998 IRS settlement unearthed by CNN. The casino violated anti-money laundering rules 106 times in its first year and a half of operation in the early 1990s.

Ivanov’s stay at the Taj Mahal came to an end in April 1993 when Ivankov’s presence in the United States was reported by The Associated Press’ Charles Hanley.
Ivankov was arrested in 1995 and sent to prison  for conspiring to extort $3.5 million from two Russian emigres who ran an investment advice company in lower Manhattan. He served nine years.

After his release he returned to Russia where he was assassinated.

Did Trump Really Have A £1 Billion Cash Stockpile During the Financial Crisis?

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Trump on his golf course in northeast Scotland

NBC reported recently that a focus of the House intelligence committee’s investigation into Trump and Russia involves the president’s finances:

Among the House lines of inquiry, one official familiar with the investigation told NBC News, is to what extent Russian money bailed out Trump’s real estate empire after the 2008 real estate crash.

Richard Dearlove, the former head of Britain’s MI6 made the same point in an interview with Prospect magazine:

As for the president’s personal position, he said, “What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the west apparently would not lend to him.”

I’m wondering: Was Dearlove speaking from insider knowledge?

The Trump Organization did lay claim to having a substantial amount of cash ready to deploy in the 2008 financial crisis.  And it planned to invest that money in Great Britain.

Was MI6 tracking the source of this funding?

In the fall of 2008, the Scottish government was considering whether to grant approval for Trump’s golf resort on the coast of northeast Scotland. Questions were mounting over whether the future US president had the £1 billion he had promised to spend to build “the greatest golf course in the world.” Lehman Brothers’ spectacular collapse had triggered a global financial crisis and lending on projects like Trump’s golf course had ground to a halt.

Throughout that fall, George Sorial, managing director of international development and assistant general counsel at the Trump Organization, insisted that Trump had a huge sum of cash at his disposal earmarked for what became Trump International Golf Links near Aberdeen, Scotland.

In November 2008, Sorial told The Scotsman of Edinburgh that Trump had the cash on hand to fund the Aberdeenshire course.

Mr Sorial said: “The money is there, ready to be wired at any time. I am not discussing where it is, whether it is in a Scottish bank or what, but it is earmarked for this project. If we needed to put the development up tomorrow, we have the cash to do that. It is sitting there in the bank and is ready to go.”

He added: “As we have said all along, Aberdeen is a project we have chosen to fund with cash. Mr Trump has recently increased his cash position and we have no need for a bank loan in respect of the Aberdeenshire project.”

Of course, this could be Trumpian bluster. Trump was claiming he would spend £1 billion on the project and never came close to that sum. He promised vacation homes that were never built, jobs that never materialized and a huge hotel that was never built.

While Sorial was boasting about money in the bank, his boss was suing a group of lenders led by Deutsche Bank to extend payment on a $640 million construction loan for a tower in Chicago. Deutsche Bank would use Sorial’s comments in court filing to argue that Trump had the funds to pay up.

But it wasn’t Trump’s bluster, per se, it was Sorial speaking. And his refusal to discuss the source of the money — “whether it is in a Scottish bank or what” — and his assertion that Trump had “recently increased his cash position” is interesting, given the interest in Trump’s funding sources during the 2008 financial crisis.

Trump’s International Golf Links opened in 2012.  The course is owned through Trump International Golf Club Scotland Ltd. (TIGCS), a British company registered in 2005. The company is controlled by Donald Trump, with Sorial serving as corporate secretary.

This Russian funding source, if it ever existed, flowed through Donald Trump. The 1,400-acre grounds were purchased with what Sorial described to Scottish Parliament in 2008 as “Mr Trump’s personal money, with no financing, and we have carried all the associated costs, again out of Mr Trump’s personal expenses.” In its latest corporate filing available here, TIGCS reported that Trump had loaned the company more than £39 million.

After Trump’s election, Sorial, a British citizen, was named chief compliance officer of the Trump Organization. He manages potential conflicts of interest that may emerge between the presidency and private business.

Before joining the Trump Organization in 2007, Sorial was a partner at Day Pitney and New Jersey’s DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Wisler. His name turns up as co-owner of Interlink Sun Homes, which sold vacation homes in Bulgaria to UK citizens.

In September 2007, Sorial was named a “Global Scot,” a network of executives with strong ties to Scotland. Trump’s inclusion on that list was revoked after his harsh comments about Muslims during the 2016 election campaign.

James Dodson, author of several books on golfing, recounts an interesting exchange he had a few years back at one of Donald Trump’s golf courses with the president’s son, Eric. According to Eric, Trump had several Russian investors who were big on golf.

“So when I got in the cart with Eric,” Dodson says, “as we were setting off, I said, ‘Eric, who’s funding? I know no banks — because of the recession, the Great Recession — have touched a golf course. You know, no one’s funding any kind of golf construction. It’s dead in the water the last four or five years.’ And this is what he said. He said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.’ Now that was three years ago, so it was pretty interesting.”

The whole article posted on WBUR’s website is well worth reading, but the little snippet above is the one getting some attention on Twitter. This conversation allegedly took place in 2014 at the Trump National Golf Club Charlotte. The club is actually located in Mooresville, North Carolina about 30 miles outside Charlotte.

Eric Trump on Twitter called Dodson’s story made up.

Another Carter Page mystery

carter_page_mem_160707_16x9_992_0An answer by FBI Director James Comey during his May 3 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee caught my attention.

During the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked him a few questions about Carter Page:

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter Page an agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: But you won’t tell me about Carter Page?

COMEY: Not here I won’t.

The curious part of this is the section I’ve highlighted in bold. It seems a fairly benign question: Was Carter Page an agent of the Trump campaign?

Yet, Comey declined to answer in public.

Sometimes in these “I can’t answer these questions” hearings, the questions are more interesting than the answer. They can be a way of signaling important things if you’re paying attention.

Comey’s refusal to comment on whether Page was an agent of the campaign suggests that the question touches on an aspect of the FBI’s investigation. Comey could not have answered without divulging something about the investigation. In other words, the FBI is likely examining the nature of Page’s role in the campaign.  As a Senate veteran and lawyer himself, Graham also certainly knew that Comey wouldn’t answer the FISA question. But did he also know that he wouldn’t touch the question on Page’s role in the campaign? I would venture to guess that he did.

Almost since Trump in March 2016 named “Carter Page, PhD” as one of his foreign policy advisers, everything about Page and the campaign has been a mystery. He traveled to Moscow in July 2016 to give a speech critical of U.S. policy at Moscow’s New Economic School, but exactly who he met with is unclear.  Page did reluctantly admit to meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US at the Republican National Committee meeting in Cleveland, but what they discussed isn’t known.  Also unclear is how Page wound up on the campaign is still very much a mystery, as I’ve explored previously.

So if Page wasn’t an agent of the campaign, what was he?

 

 

Trump and the Sculptor: A Tale of Corruption, Organized Crime and Murder

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Trump and the sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli

Not long after his 1996 visit to Moscow, Donald Trump was working the phones.

In a conversation captured by The New Yorker’s Mark Singer, Trump took a call from Michael Gordon, a reporter from The New York Times in Moscow.  Gordon had just interviewed a Russian sculptor named Zurab Tsereteli. Was it true that Trump and Tsereteli had discussed erecting a 306-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus on the Hudson River?

“Yes, it’s already been made, from what I understand,” said Trump, who had met Tsereteli a couple of months earlier, in Moscow. “It’s got forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development”—a seventy-five-acre tract called Riverside South—“and we are working toward that end.”

According to Trump, the head had arrived in America, the rest of the body was still in Moscow, and the whole thing was being donated by the Russian government. “The mayor of Moscow has written a letter to Rudy Giuliani stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab. It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”

Trump hung up and said to me, “See what I do? All this bullshit. Know what? After shaking five thousand hands, I think I’ll go wash mine.”

Tsereteli had been trying to find a home in America for his unwanted, unloved statue. The Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen called the 311-foot-tall statue “graceless as a herd of brontosaurs … [and] configured in the shape of an exploded hydra.” Miami, along with Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland Ft. Lauderdale, and Boston had all said nyet.

While President Trump is not known for his taste (gold-plated sinks, anyone?), it seems curious that Trump would go out of his way to help Tsereteli. Why do this in front of a reporter? Why help Tsereteli?

luzhkov_yury

Yuri Luzhkov

The answer, I believe, has little to do with the sculptor or his work and more to do with his patron: Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful and notoriously corrupt mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010.

It was Luzhkov who gave Tesereteli important commissions such as reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Under Luzhkov, Tesereteli’s statues popped up all over Moscow, including his much-reviled statue of Peter the Great that many see as a tasteless monument to Russia’s corruption. And thanks to his friend Luzhkov, Tsereteli lived in a Moscow mansion that once housed the German Embassy.

In 1996 and 1997, Trump was exploring the possibilities of developing a property in Moscow for his first overseas venture. And nothing happened in Moscow without approval from the all-powerful Mayor Luzhkov.  President Yeltsin had given Luzhkov exclusive control over privatization of property and businesses within the city limits. So, by doing a favor for Tesereteli, Trump may have been trying to do a favor for Moscow’s infamous mayor.

Luzhkov, his family, friends, and his staff had made themselves into a wealthy man by skimming from development projects like Trump’s in one of Europe’s most lucrative real estate markets. It’s no coincidence that Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, became Russia’s richest woman running a Russian construction company. (She has since fled the country.) His deputy wore a million-dollar watch.

A 2010 State Department cable released by Wikileaks quoted an investigative journalist who told an American diplomat that “Luzhkov used criminal money to support his rise to power and has been involved with bribes and deals regarding lucrative construction contracts throughout Moscow.”  Corruption pervaded Moscow, the State Department concluded, “with Mayor Luzhkov at the top of the pyramid.”

Tsereteli may have been running his own schemes. In 1993, customs officers in St. Petersburg opened shipping crates carrying another (smaller) Tsereteli statue of Columbus as a gift to the city of Seville, Spain. Inside were thousands of copper ingots, too soft for use in sculpture but normally used for electronic circuitry. Investigators later revealed that Tsereteli’s holding company, Kolumb, had contracted privately to ship 85,000 tons of copper (ten percent of Russia’s then annual copper exports) out of the country. Tesereteli was never charged.  (See New Moscow Monuments, or, States of Innocence, Bruce Grant, American Ethnologist, May, 2001.)

vyacheslav-ivankov

Vyacheslav Ivankov

According to sources quoted in the State Department cable, Luzhkov and his wife had links to organized crime in Moscow. One of Luzhkov’s friends was crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov.

This is interesting because Ivankov became one of the most powerful Russian Mafia bosses in America, and, when the FBI went it went looking for Ivankov, agents tracked him down in a luxury apartment in Trump Tower, according to journalist Robert I. Friedman’s expose Red Mafiya. Invakov disappeared and then turned up again in Trump’s New Jersey casino, the Taj Mahal.

Organized crime also pervaded Moscow’s hotels, and Moscow city officials had offered Trump the chance to invest in a pair of hotels, which Luzhkov and his cronies controlled through the Moscow City Property Committee. In The New Yorker profile, Trump seemed excited about the prospect:

“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”

The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box, was Europe’s biggest hotel, and it was infested with rats and criminals. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist magazine, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. The Economist had called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.” Fortunately for Trump, nothing came of the Rossiya deal and the hotel was razed in 2006.

hotelrossia

The Rossiya

And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period bracketing Trump’s visit to the city. An American hotelier, Paul Tatum, had been gunned down on Nov. 3, 1996 the center of Moscow. (Trump arrived in Moscow a little more than a week after Tatum’s murder.)

Tatum had been in a bitter fight with the city for control of his hotel, the Radisson. Just a few days before his death, Tatum had placed newspaper ads accusing Mr. Luzhkov of corruption. After Tatum’s death, Luzhkov’s office took over control of the Radisson.

Back to our sculptor. Before Trump made his calls about the statue, Tsereteli had been trying for years to bring his sculpture to America. One of his first attempts was Miami, where one of Trump’s friends, Bennett S. LeBow, had been trying trying to help Tsereteli bring his 500-ton Columbus sculpture to America — and perhaps to curry favor with Luzhkov at the same time.

LeBow took Tsereteli and his friend Luzhkov to Miami’s City Hall to offer the statue to the city, and in August of 1992, he set up the New World Foundation Inc. to raise the estimated $20 million it would cost to erect the sculpture in the sea off Miami Beach.  The short-lived company was staffed his executives from his various companies.

LeBow had many business interests in Russia. His Brooke Group made and sold cigarettes in Russia through Liggett-Ducat, a Russian joint stock company. More importantly to this story, LeBow’s conglomerate, Brooke Group Ltd., owned real estate in downtown Moscow.

A Brooke Group subsidiary owned Ducat Place, which was prime office space in the middle of downtown Moscow. In late 1996, one office building had been completed in Ducat Place, construction on a second building was underway, and a third building was in the planning stages. Doing a favor for Luzkhov certainly was good for business.

LeBow had helped bring Trump to Moscow in 1996 and partnered with him on a deal to build or at least put his name another Trump Tower in Ducat Place. That deal went nowhere.

It seems possible that LeBow might have advised Trump to be nice to Tsereteli if he wanted to do a real estate deal in Moscow.  We know what Trump wanted: a real estate deal in Russia. What we don’t know is what else, if anything, Trump was asked to give up in return.

A final note: In 2016, Tsereteli’s unwanted, unloved Columbus statue was unveiled in its new home in Puerto Rico.