(Bloomberg) -- Viktor Vekselberg hasn’t topped the list of Russian oligarchs suspected of ties to President Donald Trump’s circle. But maybe he should.
Columbus Nova, a private-equity fund operator affiliated with Vekselberg, moved $500,000 to an entity set up by Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen last year. The transfer places Vekselberg at the center of an unfolding drama over alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, linking Vekselberg to the Delaware company Cohen used to pay off porn actress Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, before Trump was elected.
Vekselberg, a Ukrainian-born billionaire who made his fortune in oil and aluminum, attended Trump’s swearing-in last year after his cousin donated to the inauguration fund. Through his Renova Group, Vekselberg invested in Bank of Cyprus in 2014 alongside Wilbur Ross, who is now Trump’s commerce secretary.
Notably, Vekselberg has made an effort to signal his loyalty to President Vladimir Putin: Last September, he was one of two dozen Russian businessmen to meet with Putin in a closed-door session at the Kremlin.
The U.S. Treasury placed Vekselberg on a list of sanctioned Russians last month, part of a round of restrictions that cut off Renova, among other companies, from Western economies. Renova holds investments in Russian and European chemicals, energy and metals companies, Little justification was given at the time for the move.
“Viktor Vekselberg is being designated for operating in the energy sector of the Russian Federation economy,” the Treasury said in its announcement.
The blandness of the announcement appears to have hidden the real justification. “More information has come out since the sanctions were announced,” said Dan Fried, who was a sanctions coordinator at the State Department under the Obama administration. “It’s clear the administration had its reasons.”
Payments by Cousin
It remains unclear whether the sanctions were related to the payments to Cohen by Columbus Nova, an investment management firm with $2 billion in assets. In a 2007 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Columbus Nova described itself as Renova’s U.S. affiliate. Columbus Nova is run by Andrew Intrater, a U.S. citizen who is also Vekselberg’s cousin, according to public filings.
“Neither Victor Vekselberg nor Renova has ever had contractual or any other relationship with Mr. Cohen or Essential Consultants,” Andrey Shtorkh, a spokesman for Vekselberg, wrote by email. “As to relationship between Columbus Nova and Mr. Cohen, you have to ask Mr. Andy Intrater, because Columbus Nova is a company owned and managed by him.”
Columbus Nova denied that Vekselberg was involved in the payment to Cohen and said the firm was wholly owned and controlled by U.S. citizens. It said it had hired Cohen after Trump’s inauguration to consult on sources of capital and real estate investments. Columbus Nova has invested in real estate in the U.S., Canada and Europe, according to its website.
Intrater donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund and a subsequent $35,000 to Trump’s re-election fund with the Republican National Committee. Intrater attended the inauguration along with Vekselberg.
As a U.S. citizen, Intrater’s donation to the inauguration was legal, but those donations and payments to Cohen appear to have entangled Vekselberg in U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Federal agents working with Mueller stopped Vekselberg at a New York airport about two months ago, before he was sanctioned, questioning him and searching his electronic devices, the New York Times reported. Mueller’s team has also questioned Intrater, the newspaper said.
Intrater has served as CEO of Columbus Nova since its inception in January 2000, according to court records in a 2011 lawsuit in Seattle. He has been the senior managing partner of the firm’s investment business and a director of Renova, according to the lawsuit. Intrater is related to Vekselberg through his aunt, who made her way to the U.S. after World War II.
Vekselberg has a net worth of about $15.5 billion, making him the fifth-richest person in Russia, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In addition to controlling Renova, Vekselberg heads Skolkovo, a tech incubator financed by the Russian government that’s often touted as being the Kremlin’s answer to Silicon Valley.
In December 2015, he also attended a dinner in Moscow marking the 10th anniversary of the state-funded news channel RT, where Putin sat at the same table as Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Vekselberg has had a lower profile, at least among Americans following Mueller’s probe, than other wealthy Russians. Billionaire Oleg Deripaska did business in Ukraine with Paul Manafort, the now-indicted former Trump campaign chairman. (Deripaska has been, in turns, a partner and rival of Vekselberg in the aluminum business.) Aras Agalarov, a wealthy developer in Moscow, provided the venue for Trump’s 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump made a tidy sum flipping a Florida property to billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.
Vekselberg pocketed $7 billion in 2013 when he sold his stake in Russian oil joint venture TNK-BP to state-controlled Rosneft. The joint venture was marked by years of disputes between the Russian investors, including Vekselberg, and British oil giant BP Plc. Bob Dudley, BP’s current CEO who served as head of TNK-BP, fled Russia in 2008 complaining of “sustained harassment” by Russian authorities and his partners.
At the time, Vekselberg hit back at the notion that Russia’s businessmen operate at Putin’s behest.
“Everyone thinks everything is decided in the Kremlin,” Vekselberg told Bloomberg in a 2008 interview. “They think we’re marionettes in Mr. Putin’s hands and the problems can be resolved not with us but with Mr. Putin. This is a mistake.”
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