Updated with additional details on USG, specifics of Soriano’s work for Deripaska and Abramovich, and links to the CIA.
Natasha Bertrand at Politico was out with a big story earlier this week about Walter Soriano, a mysterious Orthodox Jew who runs a security firm in London.
Bertrand reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to Soriano seeking his communications with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.
The subpoena, sent April 5, also seeks records of Soriano’s contacts with three Israeli private intelligence firms as well as any communications he may have had with Orbis Business Intelligence, a firm co-founded by the former British spy Christopher Steele.
The 51-year-old Soriano is unknown in the United States, but he’s a figure of intense speculation in Israel where his name surfaced more than a year ago in connection with a bribery investigation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Kan TV news reported that Soriano was hired to dig up dirt on the investigators investigating Netanyahu. This work was given to subcontractors, some of whom worked for Israeli military intelligence:
This prompted Netanyahu to write a Facebook post insisting that he had not spoken to Soriano in eight years.
What intrigued me about Soriano was that Bertrand’s story linked him to Oleg Deripaska, whose connections to Paul Manafort were at the heart of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
What hasn’t been reported in the United States is that Deripaska was a client of Soriano’s consultancy, USG Security Limited, according to a court filing by Israeli investigative journalist Raviv Drucker. (Soriano is suing Drucker in Israel for libel.) Drucker wrote that Soriano worked for Deripaska during his long-running legal feud in London with Michael Cherney, who has long faced allegations—which he has denied—that he and his brother, Lev, are connected to Russian organized crime.
Another oligarch, Roman Abramovich, also was a USG client, according to Drucker. USG helped Abramovich in his legal dispute in London with Boris Berezovsky, Drucker’s court filing states.
Drucker claims that USG’s subcontractors carried out “sophisticated surveillance, information gathering and data acquisition by various technological means, such as eavesdropping, hacking, and so on.”
On its website, USG says that its consultants are “all former members of the world’s elite intelligence units, military forces and security organizations, with vast knowledge and practical experience.”
This sounds very much like the work of the three private Israeli security firms who are mentioned in the subpoena: Psy Group, Wikistrat, and Black Cube. Founded by former Israeli military intelligence officers, Black Cube has used operatives with false identities to investigate journalists, victims of Harvey Weinstein, and former Obama staffer Ben Rhodes. Published reports claim Trump aides hired Black Cube for a “dirty ops” campaign to discredit Rhodes and other supporters of the Iran nuclear deal. (Black Cube denied working for Trump.)
Another Soriano client is Dmitry Rybolovlev, another Russian billionaire who purchased a Florida mansion from Trump in 2008 for $95 million. Trump had purchased the mansion for $41 million four years earlier.
Rybolovlev hired Soriano to spy on art dealer Yves Bouvier, according to Drucker and an investigation by Le Point, a French newsweekly. Le Point also obtained correspondence from Soriano to Rybolovlev suggesting he was also hired to deal with problems at the football club the oligarch owns, AS Monaco. (See “L’étrange M. Soriano,” Le Point, February 7 2019.)
The football connection is an interesting thread in this strange world because someone named Walter Soriano emerged in 2010 — the same year that USG Security Limited went into business — as the UK representative of former Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.
“I think Diego would be very open to the idea of coming to England and managing Aston Villa,” a reporter for the Sunday Mercury quoted “Walter Soriano” as saying.
The real Walter Soriano was at one time a partner in a now defunct UK firm called Football Universe Limited. And like Maradona, Soriano is a native Argentinian, the tireless blogger Richard Silverstein reported. (An Israeli judge threw out Soriano’s lawsuit against Silverstein.)
An earlier version of USG’s website names Soriano as director of operations and Simon Bird simply as “UK operations.” The equally mysterious Mr. Bird, who is 76 and not to be confused with an English actor of the same name, gave an address of Ware House in Lyme Regis, a manor immortalized in the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Bird is described as a historian and a longtime partner of Winston Churchill’s granddaugher-in-law.
Both Bird and Soriano were directors of a now-defunct UK firm, Universe Security Group, whose board included Nahum Admoni, a former head of Mossad; Uri Sagi, former head of IDF intelligence; and Albert Raes, formerly Belgium’s top spy. (Issac Molho, a trusted advisor to Netanyahu caught up in the prime minister’s scandals, received about $200,000 in “finder’s fees” from the company.)
Update: A reader who asked not to be named pointed out that Molho did not just receive finder’s fees. He owned 10 percent of the company, according to a letter of intent he signed in 2003. Soriano was the majority shareholder.
In 2003, the Panama Maritime Authority, which manages the world’s largest ship register, selected Universe Security Group as one of three “recognized security organizations” to approve ship security plans. Soriano told Lloyd’s List that company operatives come mainly from the UK, Belgium, Israel, Central and South America, North Africa and the US.
A sharp-eyed Twitter user, @brazencapital, pointed out something I had read many years ago and since forgotten. One of Universe Security Group’s contacts was Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, formerly the No. 3 at the CIA who went to prison in the scandal surrounding Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. (Foggo was one of the subjects in my first book, Feasting on the Spoils.)
Buried in Foggo’s sentencing memorandum from 2008 is a statement from a CIA contractor named Joel Combs:
Universe Security’s reputation suffered a fatal blow in 2009 when one of its customers was robbed, according to an administrator’s report. (The client was not identified in the report but Israeli media reports named Graff diamonds in London.) Admoni, Sagi and Raes all resigned from the company en masse. The company went into liquidation; its assets were acquired by Soriano and Bird’s newly-formed USG Security.
There’s more. Soriano’s USG Security also surfaced in a dispute between wealthy London property developers the Candy brothers and British businessman Mark Holyoake.
“I have reliable information that USG Security has been hired by [Ed Candy] for (sic) investigate and monitor my family, my colleagues and myself,” Holyoake told a London court. He described USG as a “military-based ‘security consultancy and security services provider.'” (See Holyoake v Candy, Queen’s Bench Division)
Holyoake declined to reveal who passed him this information saying it related to security arrangements for his family and “could have consequences for the safety of my source if revealed.” Candy’s representative denied hiring USG.
During trial, Holyoake’s wife testified that among the men in the Candys’ “extended circle who have died mysteriously” is Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch in London who became a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin.
Berezovsky lost his high stakes London court battle with Roman Abramovich in 2012 over control over a major Russian oil company. Seven months later, Berezovsky was found dead in his shower with a scarf around his neck. A coroner could not reach a verdict on the death.
The mysterious Mr. Soriano is much than he seems. Connected to the prime minister, deeply tied to the Israeli security establishment, he adds to the intrigue surrounding Trump and Russia.
Bloomberg reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has decided that Trump’s sale of his Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire is worth a deeper look.
As readers of this site know, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion in 2008 for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier. The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie (House of Friendship), 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.
Not long after the mansion sold, Trump was approaching default on loan from Deutsche Bank. And the $50 million Trump pocketed on the mansion sale was enough to cover the $40 million he had personally guaranteed to the German lender.
Here’s a bit more detail: The Palm Beach mansion sold in July 2008. That fall, Trump was desperately trying to get Deutsche Bank to extend a senior construction loan for the 92-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. The Chicago project was already facing weak sales before the 2008 financial meltdown hit.
Unlike many other Trump Organization projects, the Donald was personally on the hook in Chicago. He hadn’t licensed his name. He had no partners. He arranged all the financing himself: He put $77 million of his own equity into the tower and had given Deutsche Bank a $40 million personal guarantee. (See “In Chicago, Trump Hits Headwinds,” The Wall Street Journal, 29 Oct. 2008.)
Trump’s Deutsche Bank loan came due Nov. 7, 2008 with an outstanding principal balance of $334 million, plus $251 million in interest. Not only did Trump not pay, but with his usual bombast, he sued Deutsche Bank to force them to extend the loan. Deutsche Bank countersued, and demanded Trump cough up his $40 million guarantee. Deutsche Bank ultimately extended the loan for five years and eventually Trump paid it.
There are a lot of dogs sniffing around this tree. The personal guarantees Trump made for his Deutsche Bank loans are also of interest to New York State regulators looking at the president’s relationship with the German lender’s wealth management division: according to The New York Times:
Additionally, the New York regulators recently requested information related to the hundreds of millions in loans Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management division provided Mr. Trump, one of the people said, paying particular attention to personal guarantees he made to obtain the loans. Those guarantees have declined as the loans were paid down and the property values increased, but it remains a source of interest to the regulators.
For those who want even more detail, I’ve embedded Trump’s Deutsche Bank personal guarantee at the end of this post. If anyone with some expertise in these matters finds anything interesting in there, please let me know.
Mueller’s team are also said to be interested in dealings involving the Bank of Cyprus. Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch who bought Trump’s Palm Beach mansion, became the bank’s largest shareholder in 2010 when he purchased a 9.7 percent stake through his British Virgin Islands holding firm, Odella Resources. (Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, invested in the bank in 2014.)
The shady mansion sale is just one of the things FBI investigators and others are examining:
- Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings
- Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates
- The 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow
- Jared Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for some of his family’s real-estate properties.
It seems that Mueller’s team is looking for evidence of a payment disguised as a real estate transaction, fee or gift that would give Russians what the intelligence community likes to call “levers of pressure” that could be used against the US president.
Trump’s Personal Guarantee
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.
by Seth Hettena
When the FBI recently revealed that it was investigating the nature of any links between President Trump, his associates and the Russian government, I was reminded of another scandal involving disgraced San Diego County Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
The story, which began with a report published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, grew into one of the biggest political scandals in county history. In 2006, a federal judge sentenced Cunningham to 100 months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors to whom he steered lucrative Pentagon contracts.
While there are many differences between the two men — Cunningham, unlike Trump, served his country honorably during the Vietnam War and became a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot — there are similarities where their political careers are concerned.
Like Trump, Cunningham had a loose tongue that often got him in trouble. Like Trump, he mocked, taunted, bullied and insulted his political opponents. And like Trump, Cunningham was drawn into far-fetched conspiracies. Look in the Congressional Record, and you’ll find Cunningham denouncing President Bill Clinton as a traitor and a KGB dupe because of a visit to Moscow as a college-aged man.
At the center of Cunningham’s bribery scandal was a real estate deal. Cunningham sold his home in Del Mar to a defense contractor and campaign contributor named Mitchell Wade, one of the shady “friends” the congressman attracted. Wade paid $1.675 million for the congressman’s home in 2003, an eye-popping figure that attracted attention even in San Diego County’s red-hot housing market.
Wade bought the home without ever having set foot in it, and only later found out that it was in sorry shape, darkened by the bars Cunningham installed over every window and skylight to foil Del Mar’s burglars. Wade put the home up for sale a month later, but it languished for a year before he managed to unload it for a $700,000 loss. To prosecutors, it smelled like bribery. And it was.
President Trump also sold a home for more than it was worth — except the house itself and the sale price were both much, much bigger. The property was a sprawling, oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Florida that Trump sold for $95 million after purchasing it four years earlier for $41 million. At the time, it was the most expensive U.S. home sale ever.
The buyer of the 6-acre property was a Russian fertilizer magnate named Dmitry Rybolovlev. The sale took place in July 2008, a time when the overheated U.S. real estate market was showing signs of distress and the supply of luxury homes exceeded demand.
Rybolovlev overpaid. Five years after the sale, Palm Beach County officials appraised the house at less than $60 million.
To be fair, no one has accused Trump or Rybolovlev of bribery, but the similarities between the sale of Cunningham’s property and Trump’s are striking. Not unlike the defense contractor who bought Cunningham’s Del Mar home, the Russian fertilizer king showed little interest in Trump’s mansion before or after he bought it. He never lived in it and is said to have visited it only once.
The home was plagued by mold, and, amazingly, a lawyer for Rybolovlev’s ex-wife told the Palm Beach Post he found no evidence that the Russian billionaire had hired anyone to inspect the property before he paid Trump a $50 million premium for it. In 2015, Rybolovlev got permission to demolish the 61,744-square-foot home, and is now selling off the land underneath it.
Other coincidences link Rybolovlev and Trump. Reporters have tracked the Russian billionaire’s private plane to cities where Trump was traveling during the 2016 presidential campaign and into his presidency. Both men say they have never met.
It could be that the sale of the Palm Beach mansion is an example of Trump’s ballyhooed deal-making skills. And it is also possible that it was something else: that the purchase of the mansion known as Maison de l’Aimitié (House of Friendship) was a covert form of payment from friends unknown in Russia or elsewhere.
The major difference between the two transactions is that at the time of the sale of the Palm Beach mansion, Trump was not a public official. But now that he occupies the most powerful office in the world, the FBI, Senate and House intelligence committees who are examining the president’s ties to Russia should learn the lessons of the Cunningham scandal and give the enormous premium paid for Trump’s moldering mansion — purchased sight unseen — the close scrutiny it deserves.
Hettena, a former military writer, is a freelance writer based in San Diego.