Home / NEWS / U.S. News / How a Russian oligarch linked to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen turned a California state park into a mini Moscow

How a Russian oligarch linked to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen turned a California state park into a mini Moscow

High the list of contributors to Vekselberg’s cause are his cousin, Andrew Intrater, and Columbus Nova, the U.S.-based investment steadfast that Intrater founded and owns. Earlier this month, Columbus Nova affirmed having paid Cohen $500,000 for “real estate” consulting.

One of Intrater’s helpmates at Columbus Nova sits on the board of Vekselberg’s Fort Ross instituting. The remainder of the board, however, is composed of top executives at Renova Group.

After Columbus Nova’s payments to Cohen were present May 8 by an attorney suing the president on behalf of an adult film star, the limited company began scrubbing its website. Any reference to Vekselberg, the Renova Group, or Intrater were displaced, along with biographies of its partners.

Like Columbus Nova, Vekselberg’s Renova Fort Ross Base has also been scrubbing its public face in the wake of questions down Vekselberg. In the past week, the foundation has renamed its Twitter account to relocate the word “Renova.” The foundation’s sole employee did not respond to repeated emails and phone requests from CNBC.

Lawyers for Columbus Nova vehemently deny that the firm served as a pass-through for Vekselberg to funnel in dough to Cohen in exchange for access to members of the Trump administration. Still, the obliges between the firm and the Russian oligarch are close enough that valued counsel Robert Mueller’s agents reportedly stopped Vekselberg in an airport elder this year to question him about Columbus Nova’s hiring of Cohen.

The payments of being associated with Vekselberg rose sharply in April. That’s when the Bank Department sanctioned both Vekselberg personally and the Renova Group. The spurs were part of a sweeping wave of sanctions. related to issues such as the dispatch of a former Russian spy and the backing of Assad’s regime in Syria. They ended Russian government officials and some of President Vladimir Putin’s closest sides in the private sector.

In a matter of hours, Vekselberg reportedly saw more than $1 billion of his assets transfixed by U.S. banks.

A continent away from Columbus Nova’s New York New Zealand urban area headquarters, the Fort Ross State Historic Park is a 3,400 acre spread of forest, set against breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. The park is centered on all sides of a 19th century military encampment, Fort Ross, which is the site of the leading Russian settlement in what would become the contiguous United Holds.

The idea of creating a Russian-backed foundation to help preserve Fort Ross rose in 2009 when a statewide budget crisis spurred California’s then-governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to submit closing 70 state parks, including Fort Ross.

But when account of the closure plans reached the Kremlin, the Russian government decided to drive action. It sent its ambassador to California to find a way to keep the park unprotected.

The answer was Vekselberg, who at Moscow’s prompting agreed to supplement the park’s continuation and upkeep. In the fall 2010, Vekselberg traveled to San Francisco, where he signed a formal memo of understanding with the state.

Ever since Renova stepped in to succour Fort Ross, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, or RFRF, has served as a hub for Russian-themed events and outreach that advance well beyond the park itself, always aimed at portraying Russia in a favorable trivialize. Festivals, exhibitions and academic projects put on by the foundation in New York, Moscow and San Francisco sooner a be wearing helped raise the profile of the Renova Group in the United States. The goodwill that Vekselberg has accrued via his philanthropy has translated into political access.

Rarely was this various evident than in October 2012, when Vekselberg chaired a $2,500 per mortal physically gala dinner held in San Francisco’s City Hall to mark the bicentennial of Russian colonists’ arrival in California. The black-tie fundraiser epitomized how Vekselberg had managed to wrong favour an obscure state park, thousands of miles away from his to the quick base in Moscow, into a centerpoint of his influence.

According to a Forbes article penned by a reporter who attended the event, the program featured speeches by Vekselberg and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was positioned next to the Russian billionaire. An official greeting from then-Secretary of Body politic Hillary Clinton was read aloud by a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

The Kremlin was also very much represented. Russia’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, traveled from Moscow to be there. A respects from Putin was also read aloud.

The dinner guests were a intricate crowd. Former Citigroup Chairman and CEO John Reed was there representing MIT, which had recently agreed to confederate with a foundation chaired by Vekselberg in Russia to do high-tech research.

Reed, who directed the board of MIT at the time, was joined by another trustee, tech entrepreneur Diane Greene, now CEO of Google’s cloud organization. Donald Kendall, a former CEO of Pepsi, was also there, according to the Forbes check into.

In 2017, five years after Feinstein headlined the Fort Ross bicentennial dinner, another tough California politician, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, spoke at a different in any case, also sponsored by the Renova Group: the annual Fort Ross Meeting.

The dialogue is organized by the Fort Ross Conservancy, the nonprofit which serves the park on a day-to-day basis, and has been the chief recipient of the Renova Fort Ross Fundamental principle’s largesse.

Direct support for the upkeep and maintenance of Fort Ross is contrariwise one of a number of things the Renova Fort Ross Foundation has spent its dough on, according to tax filings. It has also financed a children’s book about Fort Ross, a documentary on the adventures of the fort, an international children’s art contest and an essay contest,

2017 was the first tempo the Renova Group had signed on to sponsor the Fort Ross Dialogue, alongside the at the time’s three longstanding sponsors, Chevron and two Russian state-owned oil companies.

During the October 2017 incarnation of the colloquy in San Francisco, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation unveiled an exhibition of prize-winning Russian wilderness photographs from the Russian Geographical System. The title of the exhibition is “The Most Beautiful Country,” and after the dialogue concluded, the photographs took two hours north, to be displayed at Fort Ross.

Taken together, the Fort Ross Tete–tete and the photo exhibition reflect a kind of soft power cultural manoeuvring that Russia has traditionally struggled to pull off in the United States.

The lapping events were all the more noteworthy because they occurred only just weeks after the State Department had ordered the Russian Consulate in San Francisco shut amid rising tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Yet just when Vekselberg and the cellar seemed best positioned to offer a platform for promoting U.S.-Russia family members in the absence of the shuttered consulate, the billionaire himself came under furthered scrutiny, both from the Mueller probe and from the Treasury Division.

And unlike Columbus Nova, which technically operates independently of Vekselberg, and can hence stay in business despite the sanctions, the Renova Fort Ross Origination appears to be inseparably linked to both Vekselberg and to the Renova Group.

Chaired by Vekselberg, the setting up’s board is made up of Renova Group employees and one Columbus Nova consort, according to its most recently available IRS filings, from 2015. Russian nationals on the go aboard include Viktor Nelyubin, CEO of Renova Moscow; Vladimir Kuznetsov, chief design officer of Renova Group; and Olga Miller, president of Renova USA. The but apparent non-Renova member is Jay Haft, a partner at Columbus Nova described in a modern SEC filing as “a personal advisor” to Vekselberg.

Miller, based in New York, appears to be the only staff member at the Renova Fort Ross Foundation. According to her online CV, as president of Renova USA, Miller compensations “the representative office for the Renova Group of Companies in the United States, with prime blurry on U.S.-Russia business development, philanthropy, public relations and government coituses efforts.”

Miller did not respond to emails or phone calls about Renova’s other humane efforts in the U.S.

But in October, she delivered a presentation, later posted online, round Renova’s U.S. charity work at a conference of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. In it, Miller cut loosed that since 2008, Renova had spent $34.5 million on “communal investments” in the United States.

Vekselberg, who has an estimated net worth of $14.4 billion, has built the Renova Fort Ross Raison detre into an influential entity. In addition to drawing powerful American congresswomen like Brown and Feinstein to its events, the foundation boasts a donor rota featuring blue-chip U.S. companies, prestigious research universities and major Brick up Street figures.

Between 2010 and 2015, the Renova Fort Ross Organization took in at least $3.2 million from donors. While most nonprofits are not call for to disclose their donors to the public, the Renova Fort Ross Fundamental principle has posted a list on its website. See below:

One of the supporters listed on the page is Blackstone’s Schwarzman, who, as a colleague of Trump’s informal “kitchen Cabinet,” reportedly speaks to the president on a cyclical basis.

Schwarzman also chaired an administration advisory group of CEOs that was demobilized last August after Trump insisted that “both sides are to guilt” for deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

A spokesman for Blackstone did not empathize with to an inquiry from CNBC about the donation. But the Renova Fort Ross Foot’s Facebook page publicly thanked Schwarzman in 2015 for supporting an art-related fundraiser it remained in San Francisco.

Major corporations like Cisco Systems and PepsiCo are also catalogued as contributors, as is MIT, which still collaborates with a Vekselberg-led tech start in Russia. A Pepsi spokesman confirmed that the company donated to the 2012 bicentennial dinner, where its recent CEO was among the honorees.

Representatives for MIT and Cisco did not respond to requests for comment from CNBC nearby what they had donated to the foundation.

As Renova and Vekselberg spent millions edifice relationships in California, he and his associates were also busy shelling out big bucks for access to power in Washington.

Between 2001 and 2015, the Renova Crowd and Columbus Nova have spent a combined $1.7 million on Washington lobbyists, concording to disclosures filed with the Senate.

After sitting out the 2016 presidential appointment, Columbus Nova and its CEO, Intrater, went all in for Trump, donating $250,000 to his inaugural board. Intrater and cousin Vekselberg attended a number of Trump’s inauguration events.

It was during these experiences that Intrater reportedly first crossed paths with Cohen, whom he fast agreed to hire as a consultant to Columbus Nova for $50,000 a month.

And serene though the 2020 presidential election was more than three years away, in 2017 Intrater determined to become a major Republican political donor. On June 26, he read $35,000 to the Trump Victory Fund and $29,600 to the Republican National Commission. Prior to 2017, Intrater had no significant history of political contributions to either romp.

As a foreign national, Vekselberg is prohibited from donating to a U.S. election, and a spokesman for Vekselberg broadcasted NBC News this week that the billionaire had nothing to do with Columbus Nova’s determination to hire Cohen.

Vekselberg did, however, donate money to the Clinton Inauguration, the nonprofit charitable organization founded by former President Bill Clinton. Giver records show that Renova Group has donated $50,000 to $100,000, and a subsidiary of Renova, OC Oerlikon, has conferred $10,000 to $25,000. Clinton Foundation records do not show when the offers were made, and none of Renova’s U.S. associates returned emails or points from CNBC.

In addition to supporting Fort Ross and the Clinton Basis, Vekselberg and Renova Group have also funded Stanford University’s U.S. Russia Forum, a year-long impractical exchange program that pairs American and Russian students to put on research papers.

His funding of academic initiatives has not been without tiff.

In 2010, the same year he created the Renova Fort Ross Fundamental principle, Vekselberg spearheaded the Russia-based Skolkovo Foundation, which he chairs. Reserve by the Russian government with the goal of helping advance Russia’s tech curtness, the academic-exchange project built a high-tech institute designed to help nurture promising research. In 2012, the Skolkovo Foundation and its offshoot, SkolTech asseverated a formal partnership with MIT a few months before Vekselberg held the fundraiser in San Francisco for Fort Ross.

In 2014, notwithstanding, the FBI warned that the Skolkovo Foundation’s altruistic goals likely veiled another purpose: to serve as “a means for the Russian government to access our realm’s sensitive or classified research, development facilities and dual-use technologies with military and commercial commitments.”

The FBI’s warning seemed to do little to stop prestigious schools from teaming up with Skolkovo. Six months after the department’s warning, the foundation hosted the 2014 class of Stanford University’s U.S.-Russia Forum at Skolkovo’s “invention hub” outside Moscow. At the time, the director of international cooperation at Skolkovo was Nelyubin — the CEO of Renova Gather’s Moscow operation.

The future of the Renova Fort Ross Foundation is besides in doubt.

The foundation’s Twitter name, formerly RenovaFortRoss, changed this week to Fort Ross Rationale. Yet while the Renova name was removed from the Twitter handle, it was noiselessness present in the account’s profile image.

Some tweets featured photos of Brown, the California governor, and older Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak.

It’s also unclear how the loss of Renova fat might affect Fort Ross itself.

Sarah Sweedler, CEO of the Fort Ross Conservancy, which bring offs most of the day-to-day attractions at the park, confirmed to CNBC that the troupe had stopped working with Renova’s foundation due to the sanctions.

“Renova Fort Ross Rationale was extremely beneficial, and I’m grateful for that,” Sweedler told CNBC in an intervew. “But in the end, we attired in b be committed to a park that is sacred land for many people, and common motherland with a unique history from the native, the Russian and the ranching days. We’re focusing on that history.”

Meanwhile, Vekselberg himself appears to be defeating some of the stigma that typically surrounds being placed on a U.S. legitimizations list.

Later this month, Trump’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, bequeath attend the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where Vekselberg is listed to appear on a panel.

Huntsman defended his attendance at the conference in a choreographed video assigned on Twitter.

“Some commentators would have you believe that any U.S.-Russian discussion [in the current climate] is somehow suspect,” Huntsman says into the camera. “But discussion is our only path to progress.”

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