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Mogilevich, Putin and Trump

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Semion Mogilevich remains a subject of fascination in the Trump-Russia story.

I’ve written before about Mogilevich’s ties to Trump Tower and how the man called the most powerful Mobster in the world may be a subject of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

I thought it would be worthwhile to take a deeper dive into the world of Semion Mogilevich to understand who he is and what it means for Trump to be connected to him.

If you want cut to the chase, here you go: Having a relationship with Mogilevich was in some ways like having a relationship with Putin himself.

Semion Mogilevich and Donald Trump both were born in June of 1946, only two weeks apart, in vastly different circumstances. Trump, as we know, was the son of a wealthy New York developer. Mogilevich was born to a Jewish family in Kiev and before he began his life of crime he earned an economics degree.

Calling Mogilevich a Mobster is a bit misleading. He is a Mobster, but he’s much more than a Russian version of Tony Soprano.

Mogilevich is better described as a secret billionaire who made his fortune in the murky gas trade between Russia and Ukraine. US Attorney Michael Mukasey said in 2008 that Mogilevich “exerts influence over large portions of the natural gas industry in parts of what used to be the Soviet Union.”

The man called “the Brainy Don” also ran a publicly-traded company that defrauded investors in the United States and Canada out of $150 million. He sells weapons and drugs, arranges contract killings, runs prostitutes — all on an international scale. He has connections and influence at the very top of the Russian oligarchy. But the biggest sign of his power and influence is that he today lives free in Russia.

How is this possible? How can an international criminal live openly in Moscow?

To understand this, consider this secretly recorded conversation between then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Ihor Smeshko, who was then head of Ukraine’s military intelligence:

Smeshko:  “So, this is why [the American FBI]  thinks that Mogilevich’s organization, it is working completely under the cover of SBU [Ukraine’s secret service.] This is why there is this kind of cooperation there!”

Kuchma: “He [Mogilevich] has bought a dacha in Moscow, he keeps coming.

Smeshko: “He has received a passport already. By the way, the passport in Moscow is in a different name. And what is level in Moscow is … Korzhakov [the head of Boris Yeltsin’s personal security] sent two colonels to Mogilevich in Budapest in order to receive damaging information on a person … He himself did not meet them. His organization’s lieutenant, [Igor] Korol, met these colonels and gave them the documents relating to ‘Nordex’. Mogilevich has the most powerful analytical intelligence service. But Mogilevich himself is an extremely valuable agent of KGB, PGU … When they wanted to … Mogilevich … When the Soviet Union collapsed UKGB ‘K’ command did not exist yet. When one colonel wanted to he is retired, he lives there when he tried to arrest him, he got his pennyworth, they told him ‘Stop meddling! This is PGU [SVR, Russian foreign intelligence service] elite’. He has connections with [Russian businessman and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly] Chubais.”

This conversation, which was secretly recorded by a Kuchma bodyguard, is difficult to follow, but it gives you a sense of Mogilevich’s power and reach. First, he ran his own powerful intelligence service that was useful to a  Russian president. He was an agent of the KGB in the days of the Soviet Union and remains a source to modern Russian intelligence. And he is protected by powerful interests in Russia.

These tapes were of great interest to Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB officer who was poisoned in a London hotel in 2006 with radioactive Polonium-210. Litvinenko, who hated Putin, had a role in transcribing them and publicizing them.

The British inquiry into his death went into considerable detail of the conversations on these tapes and his writings, which contain a few other fascinating bits of information on Mogilevich. In an email, Litvinenko revealed that Mogilevich had sold arms to al Qaida:

“I know beyond the doubt that Mogilevich is FSB’s long-standing agent and all his actions including the contact with al Qaida are controlled by FSB — the Russian special services. For this very reason, the FSB is hiding Mogilevich from the FBI.”

In Russia, criminals and intelligence services aren’t adversaries. They are birds of a feather. They share information. The Mob helps the state, and in return, Russian criminals like Mogilevich get to share in the riches and remain free.

As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian history and security issues, writes,

“The Russian state is highly criminalized, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.”

Mogilevich’s ties to the Russian political “upperworld” go deep. Very deep.

 

In another  secretly recorded conversation in 2000, Ukrainian PM Kuchma discusses Mogilevich with  Leonid Derkach, the former head of the Ukrainian security services.

Kuchma: “Have you found Mogilevich?”

Derkach: “I found him.”

Kuchma: “So, are you two working now?”

Derkach: “We’re working. We have another meeting tomorrow. He arrives incognito.

Later in the discussion Derkach revealed a few details about Mogilevich.

Derkach: “He’s on good terms with Putin. He and Putin have been in contact since Putin was still in Leningrad.”

Kuchma: “I hope we won’t have any problems because of this.”

Derkach: “They have their own affairs”

According to Litvinenko, the poisoned ex-FSB agent, Putin was Mogilevich’s “krisha” or protector in Russian underworld slang.

And this was a relationship that dated back to the early 1990s when the future Russian president was a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg.

“Mogilevich have good relationship with Putin since 1994 or 1993,” Litvinenko says in broken English on a tape made before his death.

Back in 1993 and 1994, Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He was known in St. Petersburg as the man who could get things done. His approach to the criminal world  was a practical one, Karen Dawisha writes in Putin’s Kleptocracy.

The mafia and the KGB had always had points of intersection and conflict — the 1990s were no different, and the mafia had its uses. It was global, it could move money, it could hide money, and in any case, some of the money would come back to St. Petersburg for investment.  So how did Putin operate? First and foremost, he made illegal activity legal.

Most countries, even corrupt ones, go after their biggest criminals. But in Russia,  criminals have their uses.

One of these points where the interests of Mogilevich and Putin merge is in the natural gas trade. RosUkrEngero (RUE), a murky Swiss company that acts as an intermediary in gas sales between Russia and Ukraine is seen as a joint venture of sorts between the two men.

RUE is half owned by Gazprom, the Russian gas giant that is run by Putin’s cronies. The other half is nominally owned by two Ukrainian businessmen: Dmitry Firtash and a minority partner. But the U.S. government suspects that Mogilevich (see here) is the man behind the curtain at RUE.

The world was closely watching in 2008 when Russian police arrested Mogilevich on a tax evasion scheme. He posted bail and was released a year later.  Charges were dropped in 2011.

Mogilevich is part of the story, the tragedy really, of modern Russia.

Russia is a country rich in natural resources. It has great wealth below the ground. Above ground the wealth is shared by a small number of individuals who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin allowed this select few to enrich themselves by siphoning billions out of the country’s natural gas and oil fields, its steel and nickel mills, its fertilizer plants, the state railroads, and many more industries. In return for unimaginable wealth, these oligarchs pledged absolute fealty to Putin.

This is an operation that Mogilevich knew very well. Enriching yourself and your friends in exchange for loyalty — that’s the job of a Mafia Don. Which is exactly what Putin is.

As Sen. John McCain told late night host Seth Meyers, Russia is a “a gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”

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.

Russian Mafia in Trump Tower … and the Mogilevich connection

Since it opened in 1983, Trump Tower has been home to celebrities and billionaires, and the occasional Russian Mobster or those connected to them. And those Russian Mobsters were connected in some way to Semion Mogilevich, who is considered the most dangerous Mobster in the world.

Coincidence? Here’s a look:

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Felix Sater

Felix Henry Sater: Born in the Soviet Union in 1966, Felix H. Sater immigrated with his family to the US at age of 7. Felix became a Wall Street stock broker. Convicted of assault in 1991 for stabbing another broker in the face with a broken piece of a margarita glass. Spent a year in prison. Pleaded guilty in 1998 for his role in a $40 million “pump and dump” penny stock fraud at a Mafia-linked brokerage firm. Avoided prison by becoming a government informer. Provided U.S. federal authorities with “information crucial to national security and the conviction of over 20 individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra,” former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch wrote during her Senate confirmation hearing. Permanently barred from trading stocks, Sater went into real estate. Began working in Trump Tower around 2002 for Bayrock (exact date is unclear). Tried to develop deals for Trump in Russia, where he watched Trump’s children during a 2006 visit. Under oath, Trump said he didn’t believe Sater was in the Mob. Recently involved in a Ukrainian “peace plan” with the help Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen that was delivered to the White House.

the Mogilevich connection: Sater’s father, Mikhail, is a convicted criminal and, according to US Supreme Court petition, a “Mogilevich crime syndicate boss.”

 

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“Vor” Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov

Anatoly Golubchik and Vadim Trincher: Russians serving  five years in prison for running an illegal sports betting ring in Trump Tower that catered primarily to Russian oligarchs. Trincher, a professional poker player, had a $5 million condo on the 63rd floor of Trump Tower. (A co-defendant of Golubchik and Trincher’s, Hillel (Helly) Nahmad, paid more than $21 million for the 51st floor of Trump Tower, where he ran a high stakes poker game that catered to millionaire and billionaire clients. Nahmad was sentenced to a year in prison.) According to an 84-page indictment, Trincher and Golubchik’s sports betting operated under the protection of “Vor” Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a Ukrainian-born Mafia Don who was a VIP guest at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant Trump hosted in Moscow. Tokhtakhounov,who lives in Russia, is also wanted for bribing Olympic officials in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

…the Mogilevich connection: Tokhatkhounov is described as close to Mogilevich by Interpol and other authorities.

 

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Vyacheslav Ivankov

Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov: Born in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Ivankov was a top Russian mob boss who arrived in New York in 1992. According to the FBI, he became one of the most powerful Russian Mafia bosses in America. The FBI 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. Ivankov’s phone book included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower residence, and a Trump Organization fax machine, according to Friedman. 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. After his release he returned to Russia where he was assassinated.

… the Mogilevich connection: Ivankov had a close relationship with Mogilevich, who paid a Russian judge for Ivankov’s early release from a Siberian prison where he was being held for robbery and torture, according to Alan A. Block’s study, All is Clouded by Desire.

 

David Bogatin: Russian native who was identified by law-enforcement officials as a member of Russian organized crime. In the early 1980s he ran a gasoline bootlegging scheme that was so lucrative that he spent nearly $6 million to buy five separate condos in Trump Tower. Trump personally sold him the condos, according to an investigation by journalist James S. Henry.  Bogatin worked with members of the Colombo family, according to Senate testimony.  Pleaded guilty to evading taxes on gasoline but jumped bail before he could be sentenced to prison. (Before he fled, he turned over the mortgages on his Trump Tower condos to a Genovese crime family associate, Friedman writes in Red Mafiya. The mortgages were liquidated and moved through a Mafia controlled bank in New York.) Bogatin surfaced in Poland as the owner of a bank and was extradited back to the United States. Sentenced to prison in 1992.

… the Mogilevich connection: the FBI considered Bogatin a key member of Mogilevich’s crime family.

Five surprises in Glenn Simpson’s testimony

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Glenn Simpson

Well, it took a couple of days, but I finally managed to read through Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson’s 312-page testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Thank you to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for releasing this information last week over the objections of Republicans. Sen. Feinstein said the American public deserve to make up their own minds. Couldn’t agree more. You can find the testimony here.

So I thought I would pick things that jumped out at me from Simpson’s testimony:

1. An internal source in the Trump Organization was providing the FBI with information about Russian collusion.

Simpson learned this from Christopher Steele, the former British spy he had hired to investigate Trump’s links to Russia. Steele’s findings, including the scandalous scene in the Moscow Ritz, were so alarming that he took his findings to the FBI. The FBI told Steele, yes, we’ve heard something similar from our internal Trump source. Simpson refused to answer questions about who this source might have been, but this source was not one of Steele’s source. Huge bombshell. (p. 175)

2. Someone has been killed as a result of Steele’s reports.

Simpson’s lawyer, Josh Levy, drops this on p. 279. “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work,” he says. Curiously, nobody challenges this, which makes it seem an accepted fact. Maybe they were all just tired after 9 hours of questioning. The person is not named, but presumably it’s someone in Russia. Otherwise, it would be a bigger deal, right?

3. Felix Sater is connected to Russian organized crime kingpin Semion Mogilevich  This connection has been alleged in a Supreme Court petition filed in 2012 by lawyers Fred Oberlander and Richard Lerner to unseal Sater’s criminal case. The Website Deep Capture made the same claim, but the sourcing wasn’t very strong, as did two New York attorneys in court filings. (Update: Sources I’ve spoken to led me to doubt this claim.)  (p.69)

4. Chris Steele broke off talks with the FBI in part because of a story in The New York Times. This was the infamous Halloween 2016 story that reported that an FBI investigation of Trump found no ties to Russia. The Times story and FBI Director James Comey’s bizarre decision to reopen the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email made Steele concerned that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by Trump’s people. (p. 178).

5. Bill Browder’s comical efforts to hide from Fusion GPS and Glenn Simpson.
This isn’t a single event. It’s more like a pattern. Maybe Simpson is a liar as Browder says or maybe Browder doesn’t like anybody nosing around in his business practices in Russia. Read it for yourself and see what you think pp 40-48.