Putin Affiliate Made Suspicious Funds To Nobu

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Exquisite sushi, a celebrity chef and a glamorous clientele have made Nobu, a restaurant and hotel empire with more than 40 branches in 20 countries, one of the most famous luxury brands in the world.

However, one aspect of the chain’s expansion has remained a secret so far: Nobu accepted more than $ 600,000 that his bank considered suspicious under a contract with a close associate of Vladimir Putin, who is also closely associated with the White House .

That employee, billionaire Russian real estate developer Aras Agalarov, was a key figure behind the 2016 Trump Tower meeting where senior members of the Trump campaign were expected to tarnish Hillary Clinton.

Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and billionaire Aras Agalarov were seen at an awards ceremony in Moscow in 2013.

Agalarov’s company, Crocus International, operates two Nobu restaurants in Moscow, one in the heart of the city and one in Crocus City’s glitzy megamall, where Donald Trump hosted the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant. However, confidential government documents show that Crocus International paid Nobus high royalties for a while through undetectable offshore companies, which experts say is a red flag to possible money laundering.

The deal resulted in the bank’s investigators threatening not to accept the payments in full. Some came through a Latvian bank that has since closed for its involvement in a Russian money laundering system.

One aspect of the chain’s expansion has so far remained a mystery.

The suspicious banking transactions were sent to the US Treasury Department’s Financial Finimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). They were compiled, along with thousands of pages of other records, at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Nobu documents published here for the first time contain additional information about the Agalarov family, whose business relationships were discussed in the Mueller report.

The documents are part of the more than 2,100 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that BuzzFeed News released to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 news organizations around the world as part of the FinCEN Files investigation. The law requires banks to file these documents if they discover the characteristics of money laundering or other financial misconduct. SARs are not in and of themselves evidence of a crime, but they can aid investigation and information gathering.

The FinCEN files also open a window on the size and scale of the dirty economy. They show suspicious transactions from undetectable offshore companies like the one Crocus International has used around the world. From Hollywood entertainment to Venezuelan public housing, almost no part of the world economy is untouched by this shadow financial system – not even the A5 Wagyu beef that Nobu rarely serves for $ 38 an ounce.

Artyom Korotayev / TASS / Alamy Stock Photo

From left: Aras Agalarov, Robert De Niro, the Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Emin Agalarov at the opening of the Nobu Crocus City restaurant on November 9, 2015.

Agalarov is an unlikely business partner for a hospitality empire co-founded by Robert De Niro, the actor who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Trump. On the podium at the National Board of Review Awards 2018, De Niro denounced Trump as a “bloody fool”. He has stated that he would never let the president in any of the Nobu restaurants. In contrast, Agalarov is said to have Trump sit at his table at his 58th birthday party.

De Niro did not respond to several requests for comment from his representative.

Agalarov is an unlikely business partner for a hospitality empire co-founded by Robert De Niro, the actor who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Trump.

The SARs do not suggest that De Niro himself was involved in, or even knew about, these financial irregularities, and they do not blame Nobu, whom the bank described as “not of concern”. Nobu’s corporate controller was aware of the irregular payments and repeatedly tried to get the Agalarovs to stop making them.

Scott Balber, Agalarov’s attorney, said all of the offshore companies mentioned in the SARs are owned by Agalarov, along with other similar companies that he uses as part of his business.

When asked about the transactions, he said, “Most people do not conduct business in anticipation of questions from a Buzzfeed reporter years later, based on illegally leaked SARS.” He said there were no problems.

Nobu wanted to expand into Russia back in 2009, and the family of real estate billionaires paved the way.

“Well, it just happened that we found the Agalarovs now,” De Niro told Moscow News when the first Nobu Moscow opened in April 2009. “Without them we wouldn’t have made it.”

As Nobu and Crocus International prepared to open the second restaurant in the Crocus City mall, a U.S. bank reported financial transactions that looked lazy.

Nobu Restaurant Group requires its partners to pay fees for licensing as well as for things like clothing and electric stoves. However, at the end of 2014, payments for the Moscow sites did not come from Crocus International, the company that signed the license agreement, but from companies in offshore ports known for money laundering and tax evasion such as the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and Belize.

In August 2015, Nobus company director wrote to Crocus International that payments would need to be sent from the company’s account, according to a suspicious activity report sent by First Republic Bank to the finance department. He told BuzzFeed News that he had contacted “several times” asking them to stop sending the money through the offshore companies.

The controller, Merrick Rhodes, said he knew First Republic could see payments from unknown third parties askew. “That’s why we asked for it to come through one of the parent companies,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Obviously, our bank wants us to get it from them.”

When Nobu Crocus City opened in November of this year, the bank’s investigators discovered payments totaling more than $ 200,000 that they believed were suspect. Denso Trading Ltd., registered in the UK by a Cypriot company with an unrelated Russian, sent more than $ 90,000 and then broke up. Denso sent payments through Trasta Komercbanka, a Latvian financial institution involved in an infamous money laundering ring.

First Republic continued to file reports of suspicious activity with the Treasury Department – and process those suspicious payments. Documents verified by BuzzFeed News showed the bank filed nine reports between November 2014 and June 2017 that reported $ 602,886 from at least 10 different offshore companies. In its June 2017 report, the bank said that the transactions it reviewed were “affected by transfers due to the opacity of remitters”. Geo Business Invest Corp., which the bank identified as a possible Belize-registered Shell company, sent more than $ 170,000. Other SARs filed by First Republic also mention the use of possible shell companies.

First Republic got more aggressive in June 2017, threatening to withhold payments that did not come from a Crocus International account. First Republic Bank declined to comment on the transactions.

Rhodes, Nobus controller, told BuzzFeed News that in early 2017, the licensing agreements for the two restaurants were transferred to another company, NIME LLC, owned by Aras Agalarov’s son, Emin. Since then, there have been no payments from anyone other than the company named in the contract

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