Links Between Trump, Russian Oligarchs, The Bank of Cyprus and Wilbur Ross Uncovered

Posted March 8, 2017

MP3 Interview with James S. Henry, senior fellow at Columbia University's Center for Sustainable International Investment, conducted by Scott Harris

russia

Of the many disturbing questions hanging over the presidency of Donald Trump, perhaps the most potentially serious is the yet unknown connections between Trump, officials in his campaign and billionaire oligarchs linked to the Russian government. Trump’s consistently uncritical views of Russian President Vladimir Putin stands in stark contrast to the bipartisan enmity expressed toward Moscow that’s been prevalent in Washington in most of the years since the end of the Cold War.

With U.S. intelligence agencies concluding that Moscow had hacked America’s 2016 presidential election in an attempt to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and boost Trump, repeated statements by the President and other White House staff that they had no contact with Russian officials have proven false. Through press reports it’s been revealed that senior Trump associates had met or spoken with Russia’s U.S. ambassador Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign, including Trump himself, his senior aide Jared Kushner, ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, advisers J.D. Gordon, Carter Page and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had denied any meetings under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing.

But parallel investigations have revealed another set of Trump-Russian relationships linked to the real estate billionaire’s financial investments. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with James S. Henry, a senior fellow at Columbia University's Center for Sustainable International Investment and Global Justice Fellow at Yale University, who discusses the connections he’s uncovered between Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, The Bank of Cyprus and newly confirmed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. [Rush transcript]

JAMES S. HENRY: I come to this story with a strong interest in offshore banking and Cyprus has for over a decade been the principle conduit of what's called "round-tripping." It's where Russian investors, to protect their assets, they take and book their investments into Russia by way of Cyprus companies or trusts. And they also use Cyprus banks because Cyprus is a member of the EU since 2004. It used the euro currency since 2008, and so there's a lot of Russian money that's been flowing through Cyprus banks. In 2013, this came to a head because the Cyprus banking system basically collapsed. There had been so much funny money coming out of Russia into Cyprus and they had invested this in Greek bonds and all kinds of dubious real estate projects that the banking system something like 12 times GDP in terms of total exposure/total debt and the banking system collapsed.

At that point, it came to light that the largest bank in Cyprus was basically filled to the rim with Russian deposits and they compensated the Russian shareholders who lost their deposits in the banking crisis by giving them shares in the bank. So the Bank of Cyprus basically became majority Russian owned. But they they needed someone to kind of turn this situation around for the bank, and Wilbur Ross is an American investor who's had – some people call him a "vulture capitalist" – some of them call him the "Turnaround King." In any case, he came in with a group of U.S. and European investors and invested enough to acquire 17 percent of the shares of the Bank of Cyprus.

Nothing wrong with that, except that what you are doing basically is turning around a bank that's intrinsically only got a business plan is to launder money for Russia and half of its shareholders at that point – and still are, probably at least a third of the shares are held by Russian investors, including some very well known oligarchs. The largest investor to this day in the Bank of Cyprus is a fellow named Viktor Vekelsberg, who is basically the "aluminum tsar." He owns quite a few companies, but his dominant position is the aluminum industry. By any stretch of the imagination, he is an (oligarch) - he owns 9.3 percent of the Bank of Cyprus.

The other two investors, one was at the time Ross invested for the next year and a half, was a former KGB agent appointed to his position by Putin. Vekelsberg and this fellow, who was vice chairman of the bank with Ross, were both appointed by Putin, in fact to those positions. And the third fellow, is a guy who had bought Donald Trump's house in Florida in 2008. A fellow named Dmitry Rybolovlev, who as the "potash tsar" at that time of Russia. So you had these nefarious Russian interests sort of crowded into this bank. The bank also had a tremendous reputation, and to this day, seems to be engaged in money laundering.

So you know, who did he bring in? Ross personally brought in to run the bank, the former head of Deutsche Bank, Joseph Ackermann who had presided over a period of profound "impropriety" at Deutsche Bank, which Deutshe Bank is still struggling with to this day. They've just announced an effort to raise capital this week. But their latest fine for laundering $10 billion of Russian dirty money through New York and Cyprus, for which they got a $650 million fine in January. So, bringing in this particular guy to run the Bank of Cyprus, sort of raised questions, particularly since Deutsche Bank is the one global bank that loaned money to Donald Trump, and is still his largest creditor.

So what I've been concluded about all this is that we don't have a smoking gun. There's nothing necessarily illegal; we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions about this stuff. But, I also did an article for the American Interest in December, which pointed out Trump's extensive connections with lots of folks who were basically sort of very close to the Russian mafia.

So it isn't just a question of Putin and the spying that 17 intelligence agencies concluded constituted interference in the U.S. election. This involves private connections and money flowing out of Russia, round-trip back into Russia, or being invested in Trump's projects – stuff that really, I think deserves to be investigated by Congress or by a commission.

For more information on Columbia University's Center for Sustainable International Investment, visit http://ccsi.columbia.edu/.

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