30 Nov 2020
By Lily Dobrovolskaya, OCCRP, 27 November 2020
OCCRP – An American airline that has been transporting protected witnesses for the U.S. government was once part-owned by two Russian organized crime figures, and is still owned by the son of their business partner, an OCCRP investigation has found.
These men, Anatoly Golubchik and Vadim Trincher, were jailed in 2014 for operating an illegal gambling and extortion ring out of an apartment in Trump Tower in New York City. U.S. prosecutors said they were part of a “far-reaching Russian-American organized crime ring” known as the Taiwanchik-Trincher Organization, under the protection of notorious Russian crime boss Alimzhan “Taiwanchik” Tokhtakhounov.
Two other investors who ran the airline afterwards also had legal troubles, and one fled a warrant for his arrest in the U.S. and remains on the lam.
Nonetheless, an OCCRP investigation shows Monarch Air Group has won more than 120 U.S. government contracts worth over $6 million, and was making government flights as recently as September.
The airline and its affiliate, WAB International, have been awarded contracts for sensitive jobs such as moving fuel in Israel for the Department of Defense (DoD), flying people around Afghanistan, and transporting protected witnesses in the U.S. for the Marshals Service. WAB International reported earning some $70 million from work for the U.S. military in 2013 alone.
“The negligence is startling,” said Gary Kalman, director of the U.S. chapter of Transparency International. “Airlines with a history of criminal affiliation contracted by the government to transport protected witnesses is something we’d expect to see in a spy novel, not in a news report.”
Vadim Trincher, on the left, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2014 for operating an illegal gambling, money laundering, and extortion ring.
In a 2013 court document, prosecutors claimed Golubchik acted as Tokhtakhounov’s “enforcer,” and accused the men of laundering about $100 million on behalf of “high-level criminals” — some of it through Monarch and another airline company Golubchik and Trincher owned in the U.S. called Skyway International.
On one occasion, customs agents in Miami discovered 16 kilograms of cocaine on one of Monarch’s planes. Prosecutors noted the seizure at Golubchik’s bail hearing in 2013, adding of the airline: “We do not believe this business is legitimate.”
The U.S. Marshals Service told reporters that it placed protected witnesses on Monarch planes through contracts overseen by the General Services Administration (GSA), which provides leasing, management, and other professional services to U.S. government agencies. The GSA did not respond to a request for comment.
Golubchik and Trincher both left Monarch in 2012, before the airline won the DoD and the GSA contracts. Monarch was audited by the GSA in 2013, the same year Golubchik and Trincher’s arrest was widely reported, and the agency awarded the airline a 10-year contract in 2014 under which the U.S. Marshals service employed them to transport protected witnesses. The company is currently owned by the son of Golubchik and Trincher’s former business partner.
A spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the U.S. military’s supply chains, said the agency followed the proper procedures when vetting Monarch for a contract awarded in 2012 to deliver fuel to a military base in Israel. Neither Golubchik nor Trincher were “involved in the bidding or performance of the contract,” he added in an email.
Federal Acquisition Regulations require contractors like Monarch to provide details of any criminal offenses by its employees, even if they don’t relate directly to the contract, according to Jessica Tillipman, a professor at George Washington University Law School with expertise in anti-corruption and government contracting. The agency is then required to make further enquiries, and it is at their discretion to decide whether to work with the company.
Alina Gavrushenko, Monarch’s director of marketing and public relations, said the airline has not been affiliated with Golubchik or Trincher since 2012.
“Like many startups, especially in aviation, the company has changed ownership and evolved its business model over the years,” she said, adding: “Our business operations are conducted with full integrity and transparency.”
The current owner of Monarch, David Gitman, did not respond to a request for comment.
A Russian Takeover
With the 2008 financial crisis threatening to ground Monarch Air, then a small Florida-based air cargo company, its owner, career pilot Paul Slavin needed an injection of funds.
Slavin, who had worked in the aviation industry for 35 years, started looking around for backers. A “trusted aircraft broker” he knew introduced him to two Russians, who agreed to invest while staying out of the airline’s day-to-day operations. For a while, it seemed an ideal solution.
But they soon invited more investors on board, and within three years the clique had taken control of the company. According to Slavin, they started withholding funds and making “operational decisions that conflicted with my standards.” He says he sold his shares in 2011 for a token amount. The new group began aggressively expanding the business, opening new offices and bidding for U.S. government contracts.
Slavin says he didn’t know that two of his investors had ties to Russian organized crime. “If they were involved in any illegal activity outside of the airline it was never revealed to me,” he said in an email to OCCRP.
Read more at OCCRP
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