Former U.S. envoy under scrutiny for links to sanctioned Moldovan oligarch, land baron
15 Apr 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump’s most senior intelligence official, Richard Grenell, came under scrutiny last month after it emerged he had carried out work for sanctioned Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Mongabay has since learned that Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, is not the only Washington political figure with alleged ties to the man once dubbed “Moldova’s most-feared figure.”

From 2008 until 2011, Asif Chaudhry was the U.S. ambassador to Moldova, a former Soviet republic on the Black Sea. For the duration of his posting he maintained a reputation as an impartial mediator between the country’s mercurial political parties. In the years since, he appears to have sided with Plahotniuc, observers say.

In mid-2018, Chaudhry accepted a position as an independent director on the board of Trans-Oil, a Moldovan agricultural commodities firm. A recent Mongabay investigation showed how Trans-Oil gained a virtual monopoly over Moldova’s grain market. It was an achievement aided by multimillion-dollar U.S. government loans granted to the company while Chaudhry was still ambassador. The investigation raised questions about overexploitation of Moldova’s agricultural land and the use of offshore companies to avoid agribusiness firms paying tax.

Contacted earlier this year, Chaudhry said there was nothing improper in his working for Trans-Oil: “There is nothing more important for me than my integrity,” Chaudhry wrote in an email to Mongabay, describing Trans-Oil as “unusually transparent.”

In Moldova the line between commerce and politics is often thin, and mutual aid between businessmen and political operators is common.

Trans-Oil’s founder and CEO, Vaja Jhashi, has enjoyed friendly relations with Plahotniuc and his family since they first met in 2001, according to company spokeswoman Tatiana Babakova.

“However, due to recent developments and political complications related to Plahotniuc’s situation and many other related issues there has been virtually no contact between Vaja [Jhashi] and Plahotniuc since Plahotniuc left [Moldova] in June 2019,” Babakova wrote in an email. “Trans Oil never had any business connection to Plahotniuc or any of the Plahotniuc businesses in Moldova or elsewhere.”

Fall from grace

The highest public office Plahotniuc held was deputy speaker of the Moldovan parliament. But his behind-the-scenes role in the country’s business, political and criminal spheres made him the nexus through which all political power flowed, according to a 2016 analysis by the Carnegie Endowment. That changed last summer. Following the electoral ouster of the Democratic Party of Moldova, of which he was leader, Plahotniuc fled the country ahead of corruption charges being filed against him.

In January 2020, the U.S. State Department issued a visa ban against Plahotniuc and his family over the oligarch’s “involvement in significant corruption.” The ban forbids Plahotniuc, his wife, Oxana Childescu, and their two sons from setting foot on U.S. soil. Yet two months later, in March 2020, following a flurry of sightings around Miami, the State Department confirmed to Radio Free Europe that Plahotniuc was indeed in the U.S.

In requests for assistance from U.S. law enforcement to track down the fugitive tycoon, Moldova’s anti-corruption agency listed two Miami addresses it believed Plahotniuc to be frequenting. One of them, Portofino Tower, contains a $2.2 million condo owned by Ukrainian Trans-Oil executive Dmitriy Kurilo.

Shells and proxies

In 2013, Kurilo bought the apartment from a shell company in the British Virgin Islands beneficially owned by a Czech real estate tycoon linked to a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s.

It is not clear whether Kurilo has ever set foot in the condo. The purchase was conducted by his boss, Jhashi, whom Kurilo had granted power of attorney.

Less than a month after buying it, Kurilo took the unusual decision to take out a $700,000 mortgage against the apartment; it was not his but Jhashi’s signature on the loan agreement. From 2016 until today, Jhashi has listed the Portofino Tower condo as his contact address and principal place of business for Energy One International Inc., a company he manages.

Babakova, the Trans-Oil spokeswoman, told Mongabay that Jhashi was “for sure … not beneficial owner” of the Portofino Tower condo. She noted that while Jhashi and his family use the apartment three or four times a year, they pay rent to its owner.

“Plahotniuc was never [a] guest of Vaja [or] our company in the US,” Babakova added. “He independently arranged for his [lodging] and traveling.”

Last February, Jhashi established another company in Miami: Sigmateli Limited LLC. The company shares its name with a Cypriot firm that investigative reporters from Rise Moldova found to be beneficially owned by Plahotniuc’s wife, Oxana. Sigmateli in Cyprus received millions of euros in loans from the oligarch and acts as holding company for a range of luxury properties associated with the Plahotniuc family across Europe.

The Florida Sigmateli has “no assets and no substance and no activity at all,” according to Babakova, who added that it has “no links to any foreign entity.”

By Jack Davies, Mongabay, 14 April 2020

Read more at Mongabay

Photo: Saeima/CC BY-SA 2.0

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