Politics & Government

Master of selfies with GOP pols, Soviet emigre has a confounding past

This screenshot from Yuri Vanetik’s Facebook page shows him flashing the thumbs-up sign with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
This screenshot from Yuri Vanetik’s Facebook page shows him flashing the thumbs-up sign with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

When Soviet emigre Yuri Vanetik was appointed finance co-chair of New York state’s Republican party last February, it took a few people by surprise. The Southern California-based fundraiser, who had hauled in funds for the past two GOP presidential campaigns, didn’t seem to have deep connections to the Empire State.

But state party officials hailed him in a news release as a “tremendous asset.”

What they didn’t know then was that Vanetik had misrepresented his academic bona fides, been involved in several civil suits —including one in which he and his father were hit with a combined $4.75 million judgment for defrauding investors — and would soon be lobbying Congress on behalf of a controversial Ukrainian politician.

“We were not aware of any issues and had no reason to suspect any given his connections and prior activity with other Republican entities,” said Jessica Proud, spokeswoman for the New York Republican State Committee.

These connections are prolific, if one’s to draw anything from his social media postings, in which the diminutive Vanetik is pictured, Zelig-like, alongside almost every major Republican figure over the past 15 years.

There he was giving the thumbs up with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, posing alongside Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or standing next to the highest-ranking lawmaker in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. His Instagram account pictures Vanetik with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, as well as former President George W. Bush – Bush’s father, too, in fact, and brother Jeb, the former Florida governor who was the establishment favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

The list goes on and on.

Vanetik also has a profile on the Russian social-media site VK. Among the few photos on the public-facing portion is one with former Vice President Dick Cheney.

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This screenshot from his VK profile, a Russian social media site similar to Facebook, shows Yuri Vanetik posing with former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Though Vanetik’s activities might have raised red flags for politicians seeking to limit their social media exposure with self-promoters, they don’t appear to have done so.

Federal campaign finance records show Vanetik served as a bundler for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid and raised money for Mitt Romney’s run for president.

Vanetik has given almost $11,000 from 2013 to 2016 to McCarthy, and he was on the national board of Gen Next, whose Gen Equity PAC gave almost $16,000 to the McCarthy Victory Fund, a PAC, in the 2016 election cycle, about a third of its total giving in that period.

McCarthy and Vanetik intersect once again via controversial Ukrainian lawmaker Serhey Rybalka, who posted a photo last year of himself standing with the majority leader. Weeks later, Vanetik would belatedly register as a foreign agent representing Rybalka.

McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks declined comment for this story.

Vanetik and his family did not respond to numerous attempts to reach him, including through one of his attorneys. There is no evidence that Vanetik is under investigation for election issues, or that he factors into the ongoing probes of possible collusion between Russia and Trump campaign officials.

But Vanetik has operated in the same sphere as some figures in the Trump-Russia saga, including Paul Manafort. And Vanetik’s quite close to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican sometimes derided by opponents as “Putin’s congressman.”

“My daughters were the flower girls at his wedding. I consider him a friend, and he certainly has supported me politically, he donates to my campaign,” Rohrabacher said of Vanetik in an interview with McClatchy.

Politico reported last July that Vanetik and a bodyguard joined Rohrabacher and other U.S. lawmakers on trip to Germany and Holland.

Then there’s the fact that during the Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016, Vanetik’s name appeared on an invitation to a private reception with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a high-profile surrogate for candidate Donald Trump. Vanetik is listed as one of 14 members of a leadership committee for the Great America PAC, the largest pro-Trump PAC in the last election, which reported it raised more than $30 million.

The circumstances of that connection are muddy. “He was never on the board of directors,” said Dan Backer, general counsel for Great America. “As far as I know, I don’t think he’s ever done anything with the organization.”

Backer said the Californian was hit up for a donation and accidentally was placed on the list of bigwigs. But Politico’s reporters in May 2016 had interviewed Vanetik and described him as having signed on to the Great America PAC’s board.

Great America Invite

(Great America hit a rough patch in 2016 when British journalists posing as representatives of a Chinese businessman got a former PAC representative to pledge he’d route an illegal $2 million foreign donation to the PAC through a nonprofit that didn’t have to disclose its donors; Vanetik was not linked to the activity.)

A McClatchy investigation shows that some of the credentials Vanetik claims on his personal website, where he touts philanthropy and his love of fine wines, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

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This screenshot from his personal website boasts that Yuri Vanetik was class valedictorian at UC-Berkeley. The school records do not show that.

For one, Vanetik boasts that he was “class valedictorian” when he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1991. He also claims to have “graduated from the Anderson Business School at UCLA where he studied management.”

However, a list provided by Berkeley of winners of its University Medal for the last 146 years (Berkeley’s equivalent of a valedictorian) doesn’t include Vanetik’s name for 1991 or any other year.

At UCLA, officials said there are no enrollment records for Vanetik and that he did not get an MBA degree there. He did attend an executive program in 1991, which gave a certificate to participants taking one class per week over a period of months.

Vanetik’s claim to have earned a law degree in 1998 from the University of California’s Hastings School of Law was confirmed by the school, but officials there said they could not confirm or deny whether he graduated with top honors. School records show he was appointed to the board of trustees of the UC Hastings Foundation in summer 2016; his apparently embellished biography is included in foundation documents. UC Hastings had no immediate comment.

A few details about Vanetik have emerged in news reports over the past 18 months, including some recent deeper dives on the website Medium. But Vanetik’s apparent misrepresentations and the extent of criminal behavior of some of his business associates haven’t previously been reported.

Vanetik’s official biography also skips over the legal troubles his businesses and several associates have faced over the past 15 years.

He has said he emigrated from Soviet Ukraine in 1976. Online biographies of his father, Anatoly “Tony” Vanetik, boast of his father’s role as a “renowned international businessman” who helped put in place Vladimir Putin’s law allowing charitable lotteries in 2000. Earlier, said one bio, Tony was appointed to head talks on behalf of U.S. engineering firms negotiating with Russia for the destruction of Soviet-era biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. McClatchy could find no publicly available diplomatic documents supporting this claim.

Although Vanetik and his father have set up numerous companies, at least on paper, over the years, NRG Resources Inc. is most frequently cited in court documents and litigation.

According to corporate documents, NRG Resources had at least two board members. One was Serge Lipatov, now a former executive in Russia’s state rail agency. Lipatov was arrested last November in Russia on bank embezzlement charges, according to media reports there.

The other was Lee Samango, a California businesswoman who was surprised to learn she remains connected in records to the company; she told McClatchy she resigned 12 years ago.

She said she was excited when Vanetik, through a friend of a friend, asked her to sit on a company board, but soon learned the company wasn’t what she thought. “I was only put on the board to show credibility, and there was never one meeting, at least one that I knew of,” Samango said, adding she hasn’t had contact with the Vanetiks for years.

She might be grateful for the distance, given that NRG and another Vanetik company have been the subject of multiple lawsuits.

The most striking is a 2008 civil suit brought in California by Kazakh investors claiming to have been cheated out of their stake in a second company, Turan Petroleum Inc. The investors, who allege that Yuri Vanetik set up the company, though on paper it was controlled by his father, said that a fellow Kazakh investor died under suspicious circumstances and directly accused the elder Vanetik and his partner Naum Voloshin of ordering two hits on another investor, Yerkin Bektayev.

Bektayev was stabbed in Kazakhstan outside his office in July 2007, according to the suit, then warned the next time he’d be killed by gunfire. He was shot five times on Oct. 31, 2008, but survived to allege Tony Vanetik was behind both attempts.

The civil suit also alleged Yuri Vanetik sold shares of the company as an unregistered underwriter. It dragged on through 2012 under appeal, never appearing to have been resolved on the underlying allegations. Vanetik never faced regulatory or criminal charges himself, but Voloshin was later barred by the securities industry’s self-regulator, FINRA, from associating with any registered securites dealer.

 

Separately, the California Department of Corporations issued a desist and refrain order in April 2009 that barred NRG Resources, Turan Petroleum and individuals affiliated with the companies from selling securities in the Golden State.

Among the reasons the agency cited was their failure to tell investors that Tony Vanetik had been convicted of a felony for filing false tax returns and that they collectively “failed to disclose that new investors’ funds would be used to pay prior investors.”

In Michigan, Vanetik associate Hiep Trinh pleaded guilty in 2013 to racketeering and theft for selling phony stock there and in California. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said Trinh sold securities for Vanetik-controlled companies NRG, which said it made a biodegradable oil additive, and Turan, a purported oilfield investment in Kazakhstan.

The scam, said Schuette, involved promising investors that these companies would soon offer shares to the broader public and their initial investment would soar. “The company never went public and was actually marketing product purchased from another supplier re-packaging it in NRG bottles,” Schuette said in a Nov. 4, 2013, news release.

By the time of that guilty plea – though not before Trinh’s criminal activity occurred – Turan had ousted the Vanetiks, in May 2008. The company’s new management soon filed suit against them and Trinh, alleging embezzlement. That suit was terminated a year later.

Vanetik is also tied through legal woes to Richard O. Weed. The two men were listed on 2011 Florida incorporation documents as officers for Cold River, Inc., and Fairhaven Industries International, LLC. It is unclear if those companies exist as brick-and-mortar businesses or are shells designed to hold assets like stock and other securities.

A securities lawyer, Weed was indicted in 2013 and convicted in May 2016 on fraud charges involving companies unrelated to the Vanetiks; federal prosecutors outlined a complex pump-and-dump scheme where stock was sold to investors at artificially inflated prices.

Vanetik wasn’t involved in that case, but he and his father are connected to Weed in other litigation. The three were sued in a civil case in 2013 that alleged another of their companies, Terra Resources PLC, defrauded investors. The Vanetiks were eventually hit with a combined $4.75 million judgment, and the judgment against Weed and his law firm was more than $2 million. Public records show Yuri Vanetik has yet to satisfy the 2016 judgment lein against him.

In rejecting a request on June 15, 2016, for a new trial, the court opined that the Vanetiks and Weed were “artful puppeteers” who scammed investors on the promise of Russian oil riches.

“Not a spoonful of dirt was turned in any Russian oil field,” the opinion said. “As near as the court can recall, there was no testimony that either of these defendants ever even visited the oil fields with any of the plaintiff’s money in their pockets.”

Ukrainian Intrigue

Among the dozens of political photographs Vanetik posted on social media last year was one that showed him flashing a thumbs-up sign at a table next to Paul Manafort; both were involved in lobbying for Ukrainian politicians.

The February photo came eight months before charges were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against the one-time Trump campaign chief for alleged financial and lobbying misdeeds, including failing to register as a foreign agent.

About three weeks before Manafort was charged, Vanetik registered on Oct. 7 with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. Like Manafort’s, Vanetik’s filing came well after his lobbying began.

 

In December 2016 Vanetik had quietly opened an office in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to provide legal advice and political consulting. The announcement came on the website of a Ukrainian non-government organization and featured a photo of Vanetik next to President George W. Bush, and includes a video in English of Vanetik heralding his new office.

When Vanetik eventually registered as a foreign agent, he identified himself as vice president of a company called Medowood Management, LLC, which lists its “corporate office” as being in Cheyenne, Wyoming. McClatchy’s Panama Papers reporting in 2016 found that state was favored by overseas Russians using secretive limited liability companies to camouflage their assets. Medowood’s founding predates Vanetik’s registration as a lobbyist and its original purposes are unknown.

Medowood’s filing indicated it had made payments totaling $25,000 to subcontractor Potomac International Partners, a Washington lobby run by Mark Cowan, a member of the Trump transition team and former CIA officer. Potomac’s own FARA filing notes the lobbying was on foreign policy issues and issues of concern to Ukraine’s Agrarian Party. Cowan declined further comment.

The registration documents for Vanetik show he also lobbied on behalf of Serhey Rybalka, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman with farm and snack-food interests who now heads the banking committee in his country’s legislature.

Rybalka is affiliated not with the Agrarian Party but with the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, whose leader Oleg Lyashko claimed last year on his Facebook page that his 10-year U.S. visa had been revoked shortly after it had been issued.

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This screenshot from Ukrainian lawmaker Serhey Rybalka’s Facebook page shows him in the office of California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader.

Rybalka flaunts his wealth in ways common to many who have struck it rich in the post-Soviet economy. A story and photographs of Rybalka frolicking with six women on a luxury yacht off the Mediterranean coast in Saint-Tropez appeared on the online news site Strana last August, causing a stir at home. (One reason for the media attention to Rybalka was his high-profile divorce from the daughter of Ukrainian retail mogul Gennady Butkevich; the custody battle in the courts became tabloid fodder in 2016.)

Media reports in Ukraine allege Rybalka’s snack-food company has been exporting to Crimea against international bans following Russia’s seizure of the peninsula in 2014. That same year, Ukrainian media reported an assassination attempt on Rybalka.

None of this, however, seems to have caught the attention of the people with whom Vanetik posed for countless photos, or who turned to him to raise money for political campaigns.

But at least one doesn’t see any issues with Vanetik’s past. “I don’t know a businessman who hasn’t had those kind of problems so I can’t fence myself off from anybody and allegations of business upheavals like that,” said Rep. Rohrabacher, adding that “allegations are always made by people’s enemies who want to make it sound as bad as they can.”

Vanetik’s background came as an unpleasant surprise to the New York state GOP when McClatchy shared its findings, though.

“It's a volunteer position in which cursory vetting is conducted, but clearly he did not reveal this information otherwise we would have rejected his offer to help,” said Proud.

Vanetik is no longer affiliated with the state party, she said.

-- Reporters Ben Wieder, Greg Gordon and Peter Stone contributed to this report.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

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