Russian Tycoon Known for Faberge Eggs Tied to Cohen Payment

Outside the rarified sphere of the super-rich, tycoon Viktor Vekselberg is mostly known in Russia for spending more than $100 million to bring cultural artifacts back to their homeland, including an array of Faberge eggs glittering with gold and jewels.

By Vekselberg’s standards, the money he laid out wasn’t all that much: His fortune has been estimated at about $14.6 billion.

But after his holding company Renova was hit by U.S. sanctions against Russia in April, his worth appeared to shrink markedly, and he reportedly has asked the Russian government for help to stay afloat.

Now Vekselberg is facing new scrutiny.

U.S. news reports said he has been questioned by the staff of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election in 2016 and any possible coordination with associates of President Donald Trump. And documents reviewed by The Associated Press suggest that a company associated with Vekselberg routed money to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s consulting firm in 2017.

Vekselberg, 61, was born in Soviet Ukraine. After graduating from the Moscow Transportation Engineering Institute, he reportedly made his first significant money by selling copper salvaged from scrapped cables during the period of economic reforms under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

He built his fortune by investing in the aluminum and oil industries, taking advantage of the wide-open and often-questionable privatization of state companies after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He secured a controlling interest in the Tyumen Oil company, one of Russia’s largest oil operations, and his holding company Renova Group and two other holding companies later merged their assets and established the TNK-BP joint venture with British Petroleum, which later was acquired by state oil giant Rosneft. More recently, he has expanded his assets to include industrial equipment and high technology.

Renova has sizable investments in the U.S. through its subsidiary, the investment management company Columbus Nova. The firm’s operations include tech investments, real estate management and merchant banking, according to corporate and web documents.

Vekselberg’s U.S. operation, Columbus Nova, is headed by Andrew Intrater. The documents reviewed by AP and other media reports have said the two men are cousins.

Washington influence

Intrater donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration in 2017, presidential finance documents show. And both Vekselberg and Intrater attended Trump’s inauguration, according to a 2017 Washington Post report.

Before reportedly retaining Cohen, Vekselberg’s U.S. corporate entities have spent nearly 15 years trying to gain influence in Washington. Renova, Columbus Nova and its real estate arm combined to pay nearly $1.8 million to lobbyists between 2001 and 2015, at first concentrating on “encouraging trade and cultural exchanges” between the U.S. and Russia and later on small business issues.

A spokeswoman for the Carmen Group Inc., a lobbying operation paid more than $1.7 million by the Vekselberg firms, declined to explain its work, saying, “we do not comment on client matters.”

Vekselberg was one of a group of Russian business leaders who met with former President Barack Obama in Moscow in 2007 during Obama’s visit with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as well as then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Vekselberg was also in attendance when Putin sat during a Moscow gala in 2015 with retired U.S. Army General Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s national security adviser before he was fired. Flynn is now cooperating with the special counsel probe.

Payments to Cohen firm

Official documents reviewed Tuesday by the AP appeared to show that a company associated with Vekselberg routed eight payments totaling about $500,000 to Essential Consultants, established by Cohen between January and August 2017.

Vekselberg’s spokesman Andrey Shtorkh told the AP on Wednesday that “neither Viktor Vekselberg nor Renova has ever had any contractual relationship with Mr. Cohen” or his consulting company. In a statement on its website, Columbus Nova said it has managed assets for Renova, but has never been owned by Vekselberg.

As a wealthy and powerful Russian, Vekselberg is presumed to operate with the tacit approval of President Vladimir Putin. How deep his relations are with the Kremlin is an open question.

Anders Aslund, an expert on Russia’s economy, was quoted by the Russian business portal RBC as saying that Vekselberg’s ending up on the U.S. sanctions list was a surprise because “he has a good reputation. … He isn’t perceived to be especially close to Putin.”

But he apparently is close enough to the top to be willing to ask for help after the sanctions slashed the value of his holdings. According to the business newspaper Kommersant, he recently asked for state-owned banks to refinance 820 million euros ($967 million) in debt that he owes to Western banks and for preferential treatment in receiving state orders.

Vekselberg got wide public attention for buying nine Faberge eggs from the estate of Malcolm Forbes and bringing the czarist-era baubles back to Russia for display in a private museum.

He also heavily funded the establishment of a Jewish museum in Moscow and financed the return to a Moscow monastery of church bells that had been scrapped under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.



Europe Vows to Defend Its Interests in Iran

A transatlantic diplomatic tussle appears to be looming after European leaders pledged to defend their countries’ commercial interests in Iran, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Fellow signatories Russia and China also said they would stick with the accord. Washington says it will begin phasing in sanctions on Iran in the coming months. Henry Ridgwell reports.



US Calls for Efforts to Combat Crime, Corruption, Dictatorship in South America

U.S. officials have called for a concerted effort to fight crime and corruption in South America and stop the erosion of democracy on the continent. At an annual conference on the Americas in Washington on Tuesday, the crisis in Venezuela was high on the agenda as leaders from across the region discussed issues affecting the Western Hemisphere. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports that U.S. officials named corruption and authoritarianism as the biggest threats to the region.



GOP Outsiders In, and Out, as Primary Season Begins

Republican voters rejected ex-convict Don Blankenship Tuesday in a West Virginia Senate primary in which he sold himself as “Trumpier than Trump” but was vigorously opposed by the president. GOP voters in Indiana, meanwhile, chose wealthy businessman Mike Braun over two sitting congressmen to lead the party’s charge against a vulnerable Democratic senator in the fall.

President Donald Trump and his allies cheered the West Virginia result, which helped avert a potential political disaster for a GOP bracing for major losses in the November midterm elections.

In a possible sign of party unrest, however, Rep. Robert Pittenger lost in North Carolina to the Rev. Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor he narrowly beat two years ago. Pittenger is the first incumbent to lose his seat this primary season.

The day’s slate of early season elections tested the limits of the anti-establishment fervor that has defined the Trump era.

Hopelessly behind in West Virginia, Blankenship conceded defeat in the contest to determine Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s general election challenger. The Republican president fought in the campaign’s final days to defeat Blankenship, a retired coal executive, who remained popular among some West Virginia Republicans despite having served a year in prison for his role in a deadly mine disaster and attacked the Asian heritage of the top Senate Republican’s wife.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey claimed the nomination instead, promoting his record of challenging policies of the administration of former President Barack Obama and deflecting criticism of his roots in New Jersey, where he lost a 2000 congressional race.

“Mr. President, if you’re watching right now, let me tell you, your tweet was huge,” Morrisey said in his nomination address, referring to Trump’s election eve call for voters to shun Blankenship’s candidacy. “You’ve been to the state now four times. I’d like you to come back as many times as you can between now and November.”

Key contests

The key Senate contests headlined primary elections across four states on Tuesday that will help shape the political landscape in this fall’s midterm elections. Control of Congress is at stake in addition to state governments across the nation.

In most cases, the Republican candidates on the ballot had competed to be seen as the most conservative, the most anti-Washington and the most loyal to the Republican president.

Indiana

In Indiana, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly will face off in November against Braun, a multimillionaire owner of a national auto parts distribution business who loaned more than $5.4 million of his own money to his campaign. Braun credited his victory to voter disenchantment with “business as usual” and said he hoped to join other Republican senators who came from outside politics.

Another Indiana contest was less contentious: Greg Pence won the primary for the congressional seat his younger brother, Vice President Mike Pence, once held. Greg Pence is a Marine veteran and owner of two antique malls who once ran the now-bankrupt chain of Tobacco Road convenience stores. He’ll be the favorite to win the seat in November.

Ohio

In Ohio’s high-profile governor’s race, Democrats nominated Obama-era consumer watchdog Richard Cordray while Republicans selected state Attorney General Mike DeWine.

An Ohio state senator won the Republican primary to succeed retiring Rep. Pat Tiberi. The race had become a proxy fight between Tiberi, a GOP moderate, and conservative Republican Rep. Jim Jordan. Tiberi’s candidate, Troy Baldersonof Zanesville pulled out a win.

And on the local level, a woman who accused Trump of sexually harassing her more than a decade ago claimed the Democratic nomination in a race to represent an area southeast of Toledo in the state House of Representatives. Democrat Rachel Crooks, a 35-year-old university administrator, ran unopposed, but must next win a November general election to become the first Trump accuser to hold elected office.

A bright spot for Republicans in swing-state Ohio: GOP turnout was considerably stronger than Democratic voting in the open governor’s race. With nearly two-thirds of the vote counted, 567, 000 Republicans cast votes, to 412,000 Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, with Trump’s support, won the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

West Virginia

Yet none of Tuesday’s other contests was expected to have more impact on the midterm landscape than West Virginia, where Blankenship had embraced Trump’s tactics, casting himself as a victim of government persecution and seizing on xenophobia, if not racism, to stand out in a crowded Republican field that included Attorney General Morrisey and Congressman Evan Jenkins.

No matter Tuesday’s winner, Trump’s team was keeping pressure on Manchin. A pro-Trump political action committee America First was airing ads promoting Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to be CIA director, and urging residents to call Manchin to support her confirmation.

Manchin coasted to the Democratic nomination, but he remains a top Republican target this fall.

Speaking Tuesday night at his Charleston headquarters, he said he expects Trump to get involved in the contest, despite Manchin’s “good relationship” with the president. The Democrat said he would campaign as he always has: a bipartisan problem solver who works “for West Virginians.”



Porn Star’s Lawyer Says Russian Paid Trump Attorney Cohen

Stormy Daniels’ lawyer said Tuesday he has information showing that Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, received $500,000 from a company associated with a Russian billionaire within months of paying hush money to Daniels, a porn star who claims she had an affair with Trump.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti also said hundreds of thousands of dollars streamed into Cohen’s account from companies including Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace. AT&T confirmed its connection Tuesday evening.

Avenatti did not provide documents to support the claims and did not reveal the source of his information.

But in a seven-page memo he detailed what he said were wire transfers going into and out of the account Cohen used to pay Daniels $130,000 in October 2016 to stay silent about her alleged affair with the soon-to-be president. Trump denies having an affair with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

The memo, containing highly specific dates and amounts, stated that Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, and his cousin “routed” eight payments totaling approximately $500,000 to Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, between January and August 2017. The reason for the payment was not known.

Speculating without offering proof, the Avenatti memo said, “It appears these funds may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms. Clifford.”

Avenatti’s memo said the deposits into the account controlled by Cohen were made by Columbus Nova, an American investment company affiliated with the Renova Group, which is controlled by Russian billionaire Victor Vekselberg. 

Columbus Nova’s attorney Richard Owens said in a statement that, after Trump’s inauguration, the firm hired Cohen as a business consultant “regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures,” but that it had nothing to do with Vekselberg.

Owens said any suggestion that Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Cohen are false.

“Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else, other than Columbus Nova’s owners, were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement,” he said.

Cohen and his attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

At the time of the payments, there was an active FBI counterintelligence investigation – which special counsel Robert Mueller took over last May – into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Trump associates.

Vekselberg was targeted for U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration last month. He built his fortune, currently estimated by Forbes at $14.6 billion, by investing in the aluminum and oil industries. More recently, he has expanded his assets to include industrial equipment and high technology.

Offering confirmation for at least one of the payments, AT&T said in a statement that Essential Consultants was one of several firms it “engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration.”

“They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017,” the company said.

Such a confidential relationship would not violate federal lobbying laws if Cohen did not seek to influence Trump on the companies’ behalf. But hiring the president’s personal attorney for advice on how to woo Trump would be highly unusual, especially given that Cohen was never formally involved in the campaign or Trump’s administration.

Making the arrangement even stranger, the blue-chip companies’ payments to Cohen were routed to Essential Consultants LLC – the same company Cohen used to buy Stormy Daniels’ silence about her alleged affair with the President.

Novartis and Korea Aerospace did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 



Haspel’s Senate Hearing for CIA Director Opens Wednesday

U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Acting Director Gina Haspel, has been meeting with senators on Capitol Hill ahead of her confirmation hearing Wednesday. A controversial nominee because of her background in running a secret CIA detention center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the White House is defending Haspel as the best person for the job. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports from Washington.



Trump Nominee Haspel’s CIA Past Divides US Senators

U.S. senators considering President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, current acting Director Gina Haspel, are divided between those who see involvement in the CIA’s past detainee interrogation program as a disqualifying stain on her record and those willing to overlook or move past it.

One Republican and dozens of Democrats have declared opposition to Haspel or deep skepticism about her nomination before Wednesday’s confirmation hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Watch related video by VOA’s Jeff Custer:

Opponents have decried the nominee’s oversight of a secret CIA facility in Thailand where detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other forms of enhanced interrogation in the years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America.Many legal scholars view waterboarding as torture under international law.

“I don’t think we should have someone in charge of our CIA who was in charge of a torture camp in Thailand,” Kentucky Republican Rand Paul said last month on CNN.”I think she’s a terrible representative and I will absolutely oppose her nomination.”

“Torture is disqualifying,” Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said in a statement. “We know Ms. Haspel was a willing participant in one of the darkest episodes of the CIA’s history — an episode that degraded our standing in the world, put U.S. captives at greater risk of similar torture, and failed at obtaining significant intelligence gains.”

Offer to withdraw

The White House has not wavered from full-throated backing for Haspel, even as reports emerged that she offered to withdraw her nomination as controversy over her record grew.

Most Senate Republicans and at least two Democrats have signaled they will back Haspel, who, if confirmed, would become the CIA’s first female director, culminating a 33-year career with the agency.

“I will proudly support her,” Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said.”She is an outstanding nominee.”

“I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in a statement.”I’m proud of her work.”

Haspel met privately with Intelligence Committee members ahead of the confirmation hearing and reportedly told senators that the CIA should not be involved in interrogating detainees going forward.

Several Democrats were not swayed by the assurance.

“I believe nominees will say practically anything in the confirmation process,” Ron Wyden of Oregon said.

“That’s not much of a claim to make,”Whitehouse told VOA.”There will be no more waterboarding because it’s God-damned illegal.”

But another Democrat, Florida Senator Bill Nelson, hailed Haspel as a career agency employee with numerous foreign postings under her belt, and suggested her actions 16 years ago should not derail her current nomination.

“That was then and now is now,” Nelson recently told reporters.”They [CIA personnel] were operating under the accepted practice of the day.”

 

Several senators requested additional information from the CIA on Haspel, who reportedly authored a memo on the destruction of videos showing enhanced interrogation sessions.

Democrats have objected to the fact that, as acting director, Haspel has played a key role in deciding which CIA documents pertaining to her own record are provided to the Intelligence Committee.

“Ms. Haspel … is in the conflicted position of serving as the classification authority over potentially derogatory information related to her own nomination,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and three other Intelligence Committee Democrats wrote in a letter to National Intelligence Director Dan Coats.

On Monday, the CIA delivered further documentation of Haspel’s career to a secure place in the Capitol.

“There’s been significant additional information released,” Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said.”I spent considerable time this afternoon reviewing some of that classified information. If there’s information that can be released to the public without compromising [U.S. intelligence] sources and methods, obviously I would support that.”

But Cornyn stressed there is a limit to what intelligence entities can divulge.

“It’s ridiculous to expect somebody who has served their whole professional life in the clandestine service to have a public record that we can talk about in an unclassified setting,” the Texas Republican said.

If confirmed, Haspel would replace Trump’s first pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, who left the post to head the State Department.



Potential Citizenship Question Raises US Census Fears

Mas Yamashita does not remember the moment he and his family left the small apartment or “barn as it was called at the time” where they lived in Oakland, California.

But he vividly recalls where they went: the Tanforan detention facility in San Bruno, California. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were held in confinement there, while a more permanent internment camp was constructed.

“Really, my childhood memories began in the camp,” Yamashita says. He was six-years-old at the time and is now 82.

 

He could not understand why U.S. officials “covered up the [train] windows with black paper. I wasn’t sure if they didn’t want us to look out or people to see us from the outside.”

“I vividly remember this … We didn’t know what time of the day or night it was,” he said.

Yamashita, an American born in California, was one of 120,000 people held in internment camps during the WWII.

Because they could not leave the camp, everything was given to them: housing, food, etc., so “everything that the head of the household was responsible for was taken away from them. They basically lost what they felt was their dignity. They were left with no responsibilities. …It was very, very hard for them to accept.”

Using the census

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the detention of Japanese descendants living on the West Coast in 10 recently built camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

To round up Japanese citizens, the U.S. government secretly used the 1940 census. The census is an official count of the U.S. population taken every ten years. The next census will be 2020.

Though it is illegal to release or use any census information to target a specific population, a pair of researchers found evidence that census officials cooperated with the federal government to identify Japanese Americans.

Historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin and statistician William Seltzer of Fordham University published a pair of papers in 2000 and 2007 that showed census officials released data as specific as names and addresses to the government.

“We want to emphasize to the public that because of what happened to us, it is now safer to participate in the census without the fear of such action happening again,” David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League told VOA.

But Inoue conceded his message may not be enough to override peoples’ fear that the census could still be used against them.

Citizenship question

The Japanese experience takes on new relevance as officials from the U.S. Census Bureau and Commerce Department prepared to answer questions on Capitol Hill Tuesday about the addition of a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 census form.

Asking respondents if they are citizens has not been done since the 1950s.

In addition to gathering statistics about the U.S. population, the census is a tool used to decide the number of representatives each state gets in Congress and how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed. Critics of a citizenship question say that immigrants will be less likely to respond to census questions if they are confronted with one about citizenship. And that will change how much federal aid their communities get.

The Census Bureau has taken this point of view. According to documents in a New York-led lawsuit, Census officials said in a 1980 case that adding a citizenship question would “‘inevitably jeopardize the overall accuracy of the population count’ by significantly deterring participation in immigrant communities, because of concerns about how the federal government will use citizenship information.”

The White House rejects this and U.S. officials say that asking about citizenship will help enforce the Voting Rights Act by determining who is eligible to vote.

“It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide-ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy. A question on citizenship is a reasonable, commonsense addition to the census,” Senator Ted Cruz said in a statement.

But to Yamashita, a citizenship question would be “pretty tragic.”

“You wonder, ‘why do they want to have that information?’ … How can they use that information or if they’re going to use it destructively?” Yamashita said.

Nobody ‘talked about it’

More than 70 years later, it is still painful for Yamashita to talk about the internment experience. His voice broke a few times when he described the time after the family were released from the camp.

 

“I lost touch [with the children in the camp] after we left. I had photographs of friends that I used to play with. There’s a picture of one boy. It was in his birthday party.”

His father wanted him to attend a Japanese school, but he tried to do everything to stay away from his Japanese heritage.

“[There] were a couple of [Japanese schools] in the city, but I lied because I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Japanese,” Yamashita said.

“So I didn’t go. To this day, I don’t speak Japanese. I can’t read or write [in Japanese.] Most of the people I know, my age, don’t speak or write Japanese. I think we all felt the same way in the sense that we didn’t want anything to do with the Japanese culture when we got out,” Yamashita said.

Yamashita recalled fights he had in school, students who made fun of him for being different, and he vividly remembers a teacher who could not pronounce his name.

“I hated my name. … My first year in grammar school after the camp, my class was predominantly Caucasian. There was only one other Asian student in the class and I avoided her. I didn’t talk to her until we reached high school.

Now, after a long career in advertising, he is a volunteer at the Japanese American Museum, to “make up” for all the time he avoided the Japanese community.

“We have to make sure that we record all these stories. We have to keep telling them to future generations. All of my older sisters and brothers are gone and they never got around to do that,” he said.

“After we got out, nobody ever talked about it. Nobody,” he said.




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