Category: Donald Trump

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 Semion 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.”

This is most likely 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.

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?

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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.

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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.

Update: In 2008, Trump was still sucking up to Tsereteli, and, by extension, Luzhkov, while promoting his Trump-Soho project to Russians in Chayka magazine:

I’m always looking for good partners. In the Trump-Soho project, our partner is Alex Sapir, the son of my friend Timur Sapir. Now we are discussing construction projects in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We conduct negotiations there with potential partners. Apparently, we’ll order a few sculptures from Zurab Tsereteli, the closest to me in spirit, the best sculptor of Russia, the author of a grandiose creation – the statue of Peter the Great.

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

Before He Bought Trump’s Mansion, This Russian Billionaire Was Jailed for Murder

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Dmitry Rybolovlev

It’s a bit suspect, to say the least, that Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier.

The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie was in such bad shape that Rybolovlev got permission to tear it down and sell off the land beneath it. I’ve written how this transaction has the marks of a bribery case I followed here in San Diego.

I decided to take a deeper look at Rybolovlev. Turns out, he’s got an interesting past: He spent nearly a year in jail on murder charges. Depending on whom you ask, Rybolovlev is a man who rubbed out a competitor or an innocent man framed for murder by corrupt Russian officials.

The evidence points to the latter. Rybolovlev, born in 1966, came from a family of doctors in Perm, an industrial city in the Ural Moutains. After graduating from the Perm Medical Institute in Russia in 1990 he joined the cardiology department of a local emergency room.

It was the dramatic upheaval after the fall of the Soviet Union that changed his life and the lives of his patients, who could not afford to pay him. Rybolovlev moved to Moscow and became one of the first licensed brokers in the country.

It was the right place at the right time. The Russian government, desperate to raise cash and stave off collapse, and being totally unacquainted with capitalism, began selling off its companies for mere fractions of their value. It was perhaps the single greatest investment opportunity in history.

In 1995, Rybolovlev started buying up shares of Uralkali, a fertilizer maker that was located back in his home region of Perm, the center of the country’s potash industry. He quickly amassed a controlling interest in the company and was named chairman of the board.

In 1996, Rybolovlev was arrested on a murder conpiracy charge. He would spend his 30th birthday and the next 11 months in jail.

[The definitive account of Rybolovlev’s time in jail comes from an interview he gave to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine about a decade ago.]

Rybolovlev was accused of ordering the 1995 murder of Evgeny Panteleymonov, the general director of Netfchimik, which produced industrial alcohol.  Rybolovlev was chairman of Netfchimik and owned 40 percent of the company, according to Forbes.

Netfchimik generated high cash flows — and attracted attention from criminals. In the summer of 1995, Panteleymonov met with Rybolovlev and told him the criminals had to go. Rybolovlev had offered him bodyguards for his protection. Panteleymonov had refused.

Rybolovlev was not so cavalier. He had grown so worried for his family’s safety that he moved them to Florida and then to Switzerland. He hired bodyguards to protect his family, his parents and his business partners. “From time to time, I had to wear a bulletproof vest,” he told the Russian edition of Forbes.

Unprotected, Panteleymonov was gunned down by a mob-linked businessman named Oleg Lomakin (aka Prokop). Lomakin was arrested for Panteleymonov’s shooting, and, oin exchange for leniency, he accused Rybolovlev of ordering the murder.

It was enough to get Rybolovlev thrown in jail, where he languished. Authorities moved from from cell to cell in an effort, he suspects, to break him. Weeks dragged into months. Offered freedom if he sold his shares in Ukrakali, he refused. He told Forbes he was prepared to serve 10 years, if necessary.

Finally, the case against him began to fall apart. No other evidence linked Rybolovlev to the shooting, and eventually Prokop admitted that he had perjured himself. After nearly a year of incarceration, Rybolovlev was allowed to post bail of one billion rubles (about $200,000). In late 1997, he was acquitted of murder charges.

It turned out that Rybolovlev’s arrest was tied to the politics of the fertilizer industry. There was a familiar Soviet problem of overproduction, and to smooth things out the Rybolovlev’s company Uralkali and other fertilizer producers decided to collude. In 1993, they formed the International Potash Company to channel their exports.

Things were uneventful until 1996. On May 20th, Uralkali shareholders voted to end its relationship with the International Potash Company and export the company’s products through an American company, Transammonia.  The next day, Rybolovlev was arrested.

“I definitely came out a different person,” Rybolovlev told Forbes. “I got an understanding of how the world actually works. ” In prison, the businessman realized that the state can ruin his business at any time. Political risks were too significant and could never be neglected.

Freed from jail, Rybolovlev resumed command of his business. In 2007, he listed Uralkali on the London stock exchange and overnight became one of Russia’s richest men. He sold most of his stake in the company in 2010 to three Russian tycoons. Forbes estimates his fortune today at $7.4 billion.

Another Useful Idiot

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The Washington Post is out with a story about the American right’s ties to Russia and the article centers on the tale of accused Russian Mob boss and Russian Duma member Alexander Torshin and his red-headed friend, Maria Butina, which I’ve written about here. 

In that post, I wrote that David Keene — opinion editor of The Washington Times editorial page and past NRA president — was a useful idiot who allowed a suspected Russian mobster to get close to the president.

Torshin is a member of the Russian Duma and, simultaneously, (while the Post story doesn’t mention it), he was accused by Spanish police of being a ranking member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate. He was slated to meet with President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast until a White House national security aide noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage.”

The Post adds an important new detail: How Torshin met Keene.

At least one connection came about thanks to a conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had done business in Russia for years.

Preston said that in 2011 he introduced then-NRA President David Keene to a Russian senator, Alexander Torshin, a member of Putin’s party who later became a top official at the Russian central bank. Keene had been a stalwart on the right, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who was NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013.

I never realized that Vladimir Putin had such open and effusive admirers in the United States like George Kline Preston.

Preston, born in 1966, is an expert on Russian law who displays a white porcelain bust of Putin in his office, according to the Post.

He believes that we have it backwards: Putin is the good guy in this story. He has told friends for years not to believe reports that Putin murdered journalists or political opponents. Here he is effusively praising Putin to his friend Torshin on Twitter.

Translation: “@torshin_ru Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day in the USA. I want to say that you are fortunate to have President Vladimir Putin.”

Preston’s relationship with Torshin goes back to at least 2009 when Preston briefed Russian legislators on the implementation of immunity agreements in Russia:

Mr. Torshin asked me to briefly describe the concept of a “deal with the investigation,” or, more precisely, the “plea bargaining”, as we used to call this term in the West. (source: archived web page of prestonkline.com)

Preston was an international observer during the 2011 Russian duma elections that led to mass street protests about election fraud. Preston said he concluded the Russian election system was “impressive” and “very well-organized,” but the Western view was overwhelmingly negative. The reason why, he said, lay in the fact the West does not like Vladimir Putin. Asked why, he speculated that “maybe because he’s a strong leader, maybe he’s done a pretty effective job:”

Interestingly, this video was posted to YouTube (and possibly made by) Johan Backman, a controversial Finnish academic. Backman is a Putin cheerleader and Kremlin propagandist (which is detailed in this lengthy expose).  Preston was apparently didn’t know or didn’t mind that he was being used for propaganda purposes.

In 2012, Preston returned the favor and  invited Torshin to be an election observer in Nashville. Both men appear in the picture below (Preston on the left, and Torshin in the middle). Torshin’s tweet below reads: “Standing in line at the polling place. As an ordinary American. 6:45 a.m.”

In contrast to his experience observing voting Russia, Preston said he saw violations of U.S. law during the presidential election: pro-Obama signs posted too close to a polling place.

Preston earned his bachelors degree in Russian language and literature at the University of Tennessee in 1989, the same year he  studied in Leningrad via an Indiana University program at Leningrad State. He and earned his law degree at Nashville School of Law in 1994.  For a time, Preston was involved in trading Russian/Ukrainian securities and importing Kievskaya Rus ultra premium vodka.

Preston’s law practice appears heavily focused on Russia. A version of his website archived in 2011 appears in both English and Cyrillic. On his office web page of is what appears to be a double-headed eagle, the symbol on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation.

A portion of the Preston’s practice involved assisting Americans in adopting children born in the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. (Putin in 2012 signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.) Preston also represented Bering Strait, a classically-trained Russian bluegrass and Russian scholar Mikhail Anikin, who claimed that author Dan Brown stole his idea for the “Da Vinci Code.”

On his Twitter feed, @gittinpaid, Preston often retweets Russian propaganda from RT, Pravda and other news outlets:

I’m not sure what happened to G. Kline Preston, but it’s hard to look at him and see a man who has turned himself, quite happily it seems, into another of Putin’s useful idiots.

Donald Trump and the Russian with the Million-Dollar Watch

Vladimir Resin and his million-dollar watch

Eight years ago, I came across an interesting item in the Russian publication Vedemosti. A reporter decided to take a close look at the ridiculously expensive watches worn by Russian government officials.

Vedomosti found the most expensive watch on the wrist of Vladimir Resin, the former deputy mayor of Moscow.

He was photographed wearing an extremely rare Swiss watch made of platinum called the La Pressy Grande Complication model, which retails for more than $1 million. (The original story is gone, but you see another version here.)

It was interesting to learn that Resin met with Donald Trump during early business forays into Russia in the 1990s. This was an interesting moment for two larger-than-life characters: The Russian city official with the million-dollar watch and the future American president looking to do his first overseas deal in Moscow.

Trump has insisted that he has no loans, no deals, and no business, but it’s not for want of trying. In the mid 1990s, Trump was trying to put his name something in Moscow. But no matter what he wanted to build, renovate or brand, Trump had to go through Resin, who for two decades oversaw construction in Russia’s capital city as deputy mayor.

Resin listed his work as his only hobby in his official biography, but it was a different kind of labor that earned him a $1 million watch. Moscow government officials welcomed foreign partners into their hotels — and demanded their own pound of flesh in return. “Corruption is a very, very big problem,” an anonymous Western hotel executive told Businessweek in a story about the Russian hotel wars during Resin’s time in office.

Trump had reportedly grown interested in the Moscow luxury apartment market after noticing how many Russians were buying space in Trump Palace, Trump Parc and Trump Plaza towers in New York.

In November 1996, Trump traveled to Russia to explore the possibility of replicating the success of Trump Tower in Moscow. In a news conference at Moscow’s Baltschug Hotel, Trump announced he planned to invest $250 million to build two “super-luxury” residential towers to be called Trump International and — surprise — Trump Tower, both of which he said “Moscow desperately wants and needs.”

“Moscow is going to be huge, take it from the Trumpster!” he told Playboy magazine.

donald-trump-visits-a-reception-as-he-checks-out-sites-in-moscow-for-luxury-residential-towers-november-5-1996

Donald Trump in Moscow Nov. 5, 1996

It’s not clear whether Trump had the money to do deals in Moscow because 1996 was a difficult time for the future president. Although Trump claimed to be worth $2 billion, partial tax returns published by The New York Times revealed that Trump declared a loss of $916 million for the previous year. During his Moscow trip with then-wife Marla Maples, Trump had to suffer the indignity of flying commercial airlines. “We had to wait about an hour in London for a flight, right out there with all the other passengers,” Marla told Playboy. “Well, you can imagine how that went over with Donald.”

Trump met with Resin during his 1996 visit to Moscow. The Moscow Times quoted one of Trump’s partners in the deal, David Geovanis, as describing Resin as “one of the key people in charge of attracting foreign invest to the Moscow real estate market.” Geovanis added that the city was “very receptive” to Trump’s developments in Moscow.

Except they weren’t. Maybe the whole build-a-tower-in-Russia was just another in a long series of self-promotion. Or maybe Resin put his foot down. Resin said he wasn’t interested in having a glass-and-steel tower in the middle of Moscow. “We are not building any towers in the old part of the city,” he told the ITAR-Tass news agency. “We are not going to turn the ancient city into a Manhattan.”

hotelrossia

Hotel Rossiya

Resin had other ideas for Trump. In December 1996, Resin offered him the chance to invest in a pair of decrepit Moscow hotels, the Hotel Rossiya, just off Red Square, and the rundown Hotel Moskva. The city controlled the hotels through a joint-stock company.

Back in New York, Trump seemed excited about the prospects of putting his imprint on the Moskva or the Rossiya when he met in with Alexsandr Lebed, who at the time was viewed as a potential successor to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. A profile in The New Yorker quoted Trump telling Lebed:

“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 Moskva was a small, venerable Moscow hotel that is now run by the Four Seasons. The Rossiya was another matter.

The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box and Europe’s biggest hotel, intrigued Trump, but it was a nightmare. The Economist magazine called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.”  The city had tried without success to close it in 1994 because it was overrun by rats and cockroaches. Renovating it would cost a small fortune.

The Rossiya was also plagued by an even more dangerous problem: Organized crime. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period from 1996 to 1998.

Then there were the all-powerful city officials to deal with, like Resin.

Trump wisely passed on the fortresslike Rossiya, and the hotel was eventually razed in 2006 to make way for a new development.

Trump, however, did show some interest in the other Moscow hotel Resin offered him, the Moskva. Trump submitted a proposal for a $175 million renovation of the crumbling Moskva with the top floor converted into luxury apartments. Trump promised to turn the hotel around in 18 months.

In January of 1997, Resin told Interfax that an agreement with Trump’s representatives was “practically reached”.  In the end, the Moskva deal fizzled out, too.

I should note that two of Trump’s friends longtime friends brought him to Moscow, Howard Lorber and Bennnett S. LeBow. Lorber’s New Valley LLC partnered with Trump on Moskva deal and LeBow’s Liggett-Ducat Ltd. subsidiary helped out on the would-be tower in Moscow. Today,  Lorber is president and CEO and Bennett is chairman of the Vector Group, the parent company of both the Liggett tobacco firm and New York real estate giant Douglas Elliman.  Both men are close friends and supporters of Trump.

By 2004, Resin had changed his mind about skyscrapers in Moscow. A $5 billion development plan called for 60 skyscrapers to be built, with the tallest reaching 116 floors. Resin flew to New York to to discuss the project with Trump’s representatives. As far we know, nothing came of that meeting.

Today, Resin serves in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. In 2010, he was named acting mayor of Moscow when President Dimtry Medvedev fired his boss, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.  Resin resigned the following year.

The fact that nothing came of Trump’s meeting of the man with the million-dollar watch is somewhat reassuring, given the president’s questionable judgment as president in foreign affairs and his rumored ties to Moscow.  No doubt Trump could have done a deal in Moscow had he wished. And he probably wanted to — “Moscow’s going to be huge” — and putting his name on one of the world’s biggest hotels might have been tempting. In the end, we hope, he found the cost or the risk of dealing with men like Resin, or both, too high.