The interests of a wealthy Kazakh fugitive, a company tied to disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the Trump Organization all intersected here Friday in unusual court proceedings.
The courtroom drama also featured the deposition, albeit remotely, of Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former chairman of Kazakhstan’s prominent Bank TuranAlem (BTA), which collapsed in 2009 and was bailed out by the government.
Ablyazov’s daughter Madina is married to Ilyas Khrapunov, stepson of the former mayor of Kazakhstan’s financial hub, Almaty. Lawyers representing BTA and the city of Almaty allege that the two powerful families have comingled stolen bank and government funds, laundering the illicit gains through real estate.
A separate, similar lawsuit against the Khrapunovs in Los Angeles alleges the laundering included the purchase of three condos at the Trump Soho building in lower Manhattan.
Ilyas Khrapunov insisted, in an interview with McClatchy earlier this year, that his family is being persecuted politically by Kazakh strongman leader Nursultan Nazerbayev, who has ruled since 1989.
A series of investigative stories by McClatchy and its reporting partners — Dutch broadcaster Zembla and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project — revealed in recent months that Khrapunov and former Trump Organization employees Felix Sater and Daniel Ridloff have had deep business ties, including investments in Kazakhstan and the United States.
Lawyers allege that when Ablyazov fled to London in 2009, he absconded with as much as $10 billion, squirreling it away in offshore banks and hidden behind layers of shell companies. His son-in-law invested with Sater in real estate in Manhattan, Ohio and Syracuse, N.Y.
For several years, Geneva-based Ilyas Khrapunov has stymied efforts by lawyers trying to make him sit for a deposition, aimed at getting to the facts of the alleged theft.
(An aside: U.S. law firm Bracewell & Giuliani in 2007 helped BTA issue more than $1 billion in corporate bonds to investors shortly before the bank collapsed. The “Giuliani” in the firm’s name was Rudolph, the former New York mayor and Trump campaign surrogate, who himself raised funds in Kazakhstan for his failed presidential bid in 2008.)
Friday’s court hearing dealt with a new and unexpected twist: Someone had leaked the secret transcript of recent sworn testimony. The only person receiving the transcript besides lawyers in the case, said lawyers from both sides, was Ilyas Khrapunov.
The document, which included embarrassing questions about ties between BTA’s current leaders and government officials, appeared in an anonymous Kazakh blog, scoring political points back home for the Ablyazov and Khrapunov families, who are now part of the political opposition.
The Weinstein connection? Hours before Friday’s court proceedings were to begin, lawyers for the Khrapunovs asked Judge Katharine Parker to compel opposing lawyers to reveal if they’d hired the private Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube, which is mostly run by former officers of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
Black Cube admitted it had worked for disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in his bid to stop publication of allegations of sexual harassment and sex abuse. The company issued an apology in early November,
Weinstein hired Black Cube through the the same law firm – Boies, Schilles & Flexner – that represents BTA and Almaty. The letter filed late Thursday cited a Nov. 15 New York Times story in which the law firm said it had hired Black Cube at least one other occasion besides for Weinstein.
“It is important for us to understand whether Almaty, BTA Bank or Kazakhstan is the ‘other client’,” the letter to the judge reads. “This is especially pertinent given BTA and the government's well documented history of employing covert organizations to surveil and hack both Mr. Ablyazov and the Khrapunovs, as well as BTA's history of misleading the court in the related UK litigation.”
Three lawyers present at the hearing represented Ilyas and his stepfather Viktor Khrapunov, who are both on an Interpol detention list.
Over a speakerphone and through a Russian-speaking interpreter, Albyazov, who was detained in France for three years until 2016, confirmed that he has yet to retain counsel and said he had no role in a leak of court documents.
“I purposely refrain from using email so as not to give away my whereabouts,” he said, acknowledging he was calling from an unspecified location described as only a “French territory.”
Khrapunov attorney John Curley nervously confirmed to the judge Friday that only Ilyas Khrapunov received a translated copy of the earlier deposition, and that he took him at his word that he was not the source of the leak.
“No, we did not undertake any investigation beyond that,” Curley admitted.
The long-running and often dramatic proceedings are expected to resume again in January.
-- Paluch is a special correspondent reporting from New York