The net is closing around a duo of fugitive oligarchs and their kin accused of laundering Kazakh money in posh U.S. real estate — including Trump Organization properties.
In a complicated case with potential implications for President Donald Trump’s business empire and associates of the real-estate-developer-turned-president, Switzerland has revealed it is considering an extradition request from Ukraine to hand over the son of a former Kazakh energy minister — and both men are facing money-laundering allegations in the United States and charges in Kazakhstan.
It’s the latest development in a saga that is reaching into Bayrock Group, an international real estate and investment company that paid the Trump Organization a license fee for the use of its name and an 18 percent ownership stake in the New York hotel and condo project.
The Khrapunov family is accused in U.S. lawsuits of “cleaning” illicit money through the purchase and quick resale of U.S. luxury properties, including daughter Elvira Kudryashova’s purchase of three Trump-branded condos in New York and a 9,000-square-foot Studio City mansion flipped in months to pop singer Bruno Mars for $6.5 million.
An investigation by McClatchy and reporting partners, involving interviews with officials representing legal matters against the accused in four countries, reveals:
▪ Ukraine has recently asked Switzerland to extradite Ilyas Khrapunov, son of former Kazakh Energy Minister Viktor Khrapunov, for alleged computer hacking.
▪ Ilyas Khrapunov and his wife secured unusual diplomatic posts representing the Central African Republic in Geneva, a move that helped provide them with a means of travel.
▪ Court documents tie Felix Sater — a Trump associate, Bayrock partner and twice-convicted Russian émigré — to some of the Khrapunovs’ transactions.
▪ Kazakh authorities asked the United States for information on Bayrock as part of the ongoing attempt to recover funds.
▪ A New York court decision may further reveal details about the Kazakh family’s financial flows into condos in the Trump SoHo building, developed and sold by Bayrock. Bank records include large transfers from a now-sanctioned Cyprus lender.
Federal lawsuits brought in Los Angeles by the city of Almaty and former business partners in New York are advancing against Ilyas and Viktor, who is also a former mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Both Khrapunovs and Ilyas’ father-in-law, Mukhtar Ablyazov — an uber-wealthy fugitive banker who owned BTA Bank until it was seized by regulators in 2009 — face criminal charges in Kazakhstan. Authorities allege $10 billion went missing from the bank, Kazakhstan’s third largest, and that Ablyazov moved out at least $4 billion.
The trio say they are the victims of political persecution by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled oil-rich Kazakhstan since 1990. The country ranks in the bottom quarter on transparency measures, and Nazarbayev’s family is accused of stashing money in offshore companies.
The gathering legal drama is shining light on Trump business associate Bayrock Group, which involves Kazakh partners who helped develop the Trump SoHo building in New York and projects in Arizona and South Florida. This at a time when Donald Trump’s Russian and foreign ties are under greater scrutiny.
Crucial to Trump and his businesses — and the ability of lawyers to establish whether the Trump Organization had any knowledge of or benefit from any illegal money flows — is whether the United States or Switzerland hears the lawsuits against the Khrapunovs. If prosecutors convince a California court to hear the case, lawyers will have much greater ability to dig for evidence through a process known as discovery; Switzerland’s rules are far more restrictive.
The Ukrainian extradition request from March shows that Ilyas Khrapunov is sought there for allegedly orchestrating a computer hack of a law firm representing BTA Bank.
“The allegations against me are preposterous,” Ilyas Khrapunov said in an interview, dismissing as “political” the accusations that he used malware in an email to gain access to and publish contents from a hard drive.
The Swiss are weighing the matter.
“In the Khrapunov case, an international assistance procedure and a national procedure for money laundering are currently underway at the Geneva Public Prosecutor’s Office,” said Henri Della Casa, a spokesman, confirming two Swiss probes. “We are making no further comments.”
Ablyazov, who uses his Facebook page as a protest site, was arrested by French police disguised as gardeners outside his home in Cannes in 2013. He was freed last December after France dropped an extradition order, determining he could not receive a fair trial, and he remains there.
The net tightening began here. According to allegations in the California lawsuit, Viktor Khrapunov arranged for rigged auctions of state property during his term as mayor of Almaty from 1997 to 2004. He and his wife, Leila, allegedly purchased property at substantially below-market rates using shell companies they controlled, then sold off the properties for a profit estimated at $300 million.
Documents published by the self-described transparency group WikiLeaks show that Viktor Khrapunov was a kleptocracy concern for U.S. diplomats.
“Many observers are puzzled as to how Khrapunov, who is known to be quite corrupt . . . has managed to stay in government,” Kevin Milas, the U.S. embassy’s second in command, wrote back to agency headquarters in a Jan. 17, 2007, confidential memo about a political reshuffling.
The internal note cited an industrialist who had complained of being hit up for a bribe by Khrapunov.
The family fled to Switzerland in early 2008, where Ilyas already lived, seeking political asylum a few years later.
Viktor Khrapunov faced an Interpol detention request beginning in 2012, yet the family was able to buy the property in Los Angeles and the three Trump SoHo condos in New York. Ilyas Khrapunov was put under the same request in 2014.
The Khrapunovs say their fortune is clean and comes from family matriarch Leila, a businesswoman and TV anchor who became owner of Kazakhstan’s first private TV station.
“Switzerland has refused twice to extradite Viktor Khrapunov on the grounds that he would not have an equitable trial in Kazakhstan,” said Ilyas Khrapunov. “Switzerland proposed instead to have the trial delegated to them but Kazakhstan refused, fearing that the truth would come out.”
Friends in low places
The investigation by McClatchy and partners also found that Ilyas Khrapunov and his wife, Madina, Ablyazov’s daughter, were appointed to unusual diplomatic posts representing the Central African Republic at the U.N. Mission in Geneva.
A source tied to the Central African Republic, granted anonymity, said the couple had been appointed by former ruler Francois Bozizé before he was toppled and fled his troubled nation in 2013. Through a land acquisition the couple obtained dual citizenship in the Caribbean haven of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“Due to refusal of Kazakhstan to renew passports of the family, we were forced to apply through legal process to obtain secondary citizenships in order to exercise our rights to travel,” said Ilyas Khrapunov.
The diplomatic appointments and the recent extradition request are just chapters what’s been a complex, decade-long legal battle that is slowly providing more detail on Trump Organization associate Bayrock Group.
Bayrock is an international real estate and investment firm that worked with Trump on at least three known joint projects, and involves Kazakh businessmen.
Trump personally dealt with Bayrock, giving the developer a one-year exclusive right to build a Trump International Hotel and Tower in Moscow. In exchange he’d get a 20-25 percent stake in it.
“I am delighted at having the opportunity to partner with Bayrock Group LLC on yet another world-class development,” Trump wrote in a Jan. 1, 2005, letter to Tevfik Arif, a Kazakh partner of Bayrock, that was entered into evidence in a New Jersey lawsuit. “Moscow is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and offers the best location for a Signature Donald J. Trump development.”
At the time it entered the condo-branding deal with Trump, Bayrock was co-run by a twice-convicted Russian émigré and Trump associate named Felix Sater.
Court documents in New York involving the Khrapunovs tie Sater to multiple transactions by an investment firm in Luxembourg called Triadou SPV S.A., which invested in the United States and elsewhere. People close to the transactions, speaking privately because of ongoing businesses, say Sater had access to Trump and bragged about his Trump connections, even calling him “Mr T.”
In a 2013 videotaped deposition, Trump suggested he barely knew Sater.
“If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump said under oath as witness in a Florida lawsuit against Bayrock Group.
A prospectus shows Triadou was fully owned by SDG Capital S.A., a company on Lake Geneva that operates as Swiss Development Group, founded at the time the Khrapunovs fled to Switzerland. They say, in court documents, that it was sold in March 2013 to a Swiss businessman, who retained Ilyas Khrapunov through 2015.
Former Triadou Director Nicolas Bourg testified under oath last year that his company belonged to the Khrapunovs, who ordered him to sell assets and move money out of the United States after the California lawsuit was filed in 2014. The Khrapunovs say that is not true and that they’ve kept Swiss authorities informed of their purchases.
Bourg further testified that the Khrapunovs and Ablyazov co-mingled investments and used offshore shell companies to camouflage the purchase and sale of properties in the United States and elsewhere.
Another Triadou associate, New York developer Joseph Chetrit, settled with lawyers for the city of Almaty in 2015 and pledged to support their effort to recover what the city calls more than $300 million in stolen funds.
Sater was named in a lawsuit against a Triadou-owned company that was settled in December 2013. He is also being sued by one former Bayrock partner, Jody Kriss. And according to a recent story by The Wall Street Journal, Sater has issued veiled threats to dish on other Kazakhs because of a dispute he has over legal fees with another Bayrock partner of Kazakh origin, Tevfik Arif.
Arif gained international notoriety when he was arrested in 2010 while throwing what Turkish authorities called a lavish sex party on a luxury yacht involving teenage girls. The charges were later dropped.
Leila Khrapunov briefly did business with Arif and Bayrock in a joint venture called KazBay, which was going to invest in Kazakh natural resources but never got off the ground, in part because of revelations in a New York Times story in late 2007 that Bayrock’s Sater had a checkered past.
Kazakh authorities have alleged in their criminal case that Viktor Khrapunov’s stolen money was deposited at Eurasian Bank in Almaty and then transferred to Switzerland. That bank is owned by Alexander Mashkevich, a strategic partner in Bayrock and someone who, according to a report by McClatchy last month, is linked in sealed British court documents to organized crime groups. Mashkevich is not named in the U.S. lawsuits against Khrapunov, and the Khrapunovs banked with several lenders.
U.S. vs. Switzerland
The battle over which court should hear the high-stakes California lawsuit could determine whether the plaintiff’s lawyers establish any involvement in alleged money laundering by Trump associates.
I am convinced that Switzerland could become a model for countries that have recently embarked on the path of democracy.
Viktor Khrapunov on his website
“Switzerland is a perfectly adequate venue for my client,” said John Kenney, Khrapunov’s legal counsel in New York with the firm Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney.
A federal court in California agreed in July 2015, but that decision was overturned this past March 30 on appeal by lawyers for the city of Almaty, allowing the case in Los Angeles to proceed.
“The city of Almaty is confident that when the court reviews the evidence, it will find that Viktor Khrapunov unjustly enriched himself to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by abusing his position as mayor, and with the assistance of his son Ilyas and others, laundered it throughout the world,” said Matthew L. Schwartz, a lawyer with Boies, Schiller & Flexner, which is representing Almaty in the New York case.
The Khrapunovs have until later in June to decide whether to appeal, but for more than two years they’ve avoided sitting for depositions in the U.S. cases.
“The defendants have sought to delay the case at every turn,” said David Schindler, a lawyer who represents Almaty in the California case. “Nevertheless our client remains committed to holding the Khrapunovs accountable for the money they stole from the people of Almaty.”
Trump’s licensing deals on properties typically involved payment of a fee for the use of his name and a Trump property management firm on-site, and Trump often got a small percentage from the first-time sales of condos too.
Depositions could shed light on whether and how the Trump Organization, through Bayrock Group and its Kazakh investors, benefited in any flow of illicit money.
One court document in a related British case shows Kazakh authorities filed a legal assistance request in 2013 to the U.S. government seeking details on the corporate structure of 15 companies it said were tied to the Khrapunovs, including Bayrock Group Inc. and Bayrock Group LLC.
Thus far, Ilyas Khrapunov has resisted providing evidence, but we look forward to the opportunity to question him about his role in his family’s crimes.
Matthew Schwartz, lawyer for the city of Almaty
The Financial Times reported last October that it had seen documents showing Sater had worked closely with Elvira Kudryashova in 2012, a year before she signed the documents for the three Trump SoHo condos. Kudryashova and Ilyas Khrapunov bought the condos so they could vacation in New York, with the properties offered as hotel rooms when they were not there.
Condos in the Trump SoHo building were developed and sold by Bayrock, which also vetted buyers.
Alan Garten, executive vice president and chief legal officer of the Trump Organization said it “was not responsible for the sale of units at Trump SoHo.”
The condos were bought by three companies that were registered in April 2013 within days of each other with the New York Division of Corporations: Soho 3310 LLC, Soho 3311 LLC and Soho 3203 LLC. They were dissolved the following year after the properties sold.
Court records show Kudryashova transferred a total of $3.1 million from a Wells Fargo account for the condo purchases. Bank documents also show her receiving large sums from an offshore company that used the Cyprus lender Federal Bank of the Middle East, which was headquartered in Tanzania. The Treasury Department blacklisted that bank as a “Primary Money Laundering Concern” on July 22, 2014.
A New York court decision in early May granted Almaty access to certain Khrapunovs-related bank transfers from abroad, and that could provide more details about the flow of their money into luxury properties that were held for short periods.
These sorts of purchases led the U.S. Treasury Department last year to begin a project to identify the true owners of shell companies that held luxury real estate in Miami and New York. It was later expanded to large cities in California and Texas.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, cautioned that “these efforts have a long way to go before the federal government has the tools it needs to stop money laundering through shady real estate deals and anonymous shell companies.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong law firm for John Kenney, who is with Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney.
This story involved collaboration between McClatchy and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global journalism network that investigates transnational corruption.
Paluch is a special correspondent.
Aubrey Belford of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project contributed to this article from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.