A Ukrainian Oligarch Bought a Midwestern Factory and Let it Rot. What Was Really Going On?

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In recent weeks, the world has learned incredible new details about corruption, illicit financing and money laundering by the super-rich, thanks to the Pandora Papers. The papers are a tranche of nearly 12 million documents, revealed by an international group of journalists, that describe how global elites — from the king of Jordan to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle to an alleged mistress of Vladimir Putin — use shell companies, trusts, real estate, artwork and other financial secrecy tools to squirrel away enormous amounts of money. And much of it is perfectly legal.

Many of the stories in the Pandora Papers follow a playbook that is depressingly familiar at this point: Global heads of state and business elites hide their wealth in pursuits that are emblematic of the super-rich: coveted beachside properties in Malibu, as in the case of the Jordanian monarch, or the Czech prime minister’s $22 million chateau in the south of France, or dozens of pieces of high-value artwork, moved secretly through shell companies by one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful families.

But this kind of transnational money laundering, which we’ve come to expect, is only part of the picture. Recently, wealthy elites have begun looking for other places to park their funds, places they think authorities won’t look. Places that offer all the financial secrecy these elites need, but that few would associate with lives of luxury. As a result, shadowy and sometimes ill-gotten wealth has started pouring not just into yachts and vacation homes, but also into blue-collar towns in the U.S. whose economic struggles make them eager to accept the cash.

One of these small towns appears to have been Harvard, Ill., a depressed factory community that allegedly became part of a sprawling network used by Ukrainian banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky to launder hundreds of millions of dollars earned from a Ponzi scheme. Kolomoisky, who was recently hit with U.S. sanctions for “significant corruption” in Ukraine, is separately accused by the Justice Department and Ukrainian investigators of using a constellation of shell companies and offshore bank accounts to move millions in misappropriated funds out of Ukraine and into a series of real-estate investments in the American Midwest. (Kolomoisky denies wrongdoing, claiming he made the investments with his own money.)

The story of Harvard suggests that lax U.S. laws around shell companies and real-estate purchases, in addition to a broader lack of regulatory oversight, may be putting America’s heartland in the crosshairs of elites like Kolomoisky. It’s a reality of global corruption that U.S. lawmakers are only just starting to grapple with: As money-launderers and illicit financiers hide their money in the American Midwest, they’ve become part of the story of the decline of small-town, blue-collar America.

With a population of just under 10,000, Harvard, Ill., is a speck of a town equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee. Like the other towns in the region, you’ve likely never heard of it — and like other towns in the region, Harvard’s best days are decades behind it. But in the late 1990s, the massive telecom company Motorola announced it would be putting a new manufacturing plant in Harvard. Construction began on what would become the largest building not just in Harvard but the entire region: a 1.5-million-square-foot facility, sprawling over 320 acres, part office and part plant, shaped like a giant wishbone. “It’s a huge, huge building,” one local, Ed Soliz, said at the time. “It looks like a small university.” With a $100 million price tag, Motorola said it would require a staggering five thousand employees to operate the facility — to help craft the next generation of Motorola phones and lead the global telecom market into the 21st century.

But within a few years of finishing construction, the bottom had fallen out of Motorola’s business model. Suddenly, the building in Harvard had no purpose. Rather than a testament to Harvard’s future, it was a testament to corporate blinders. And for years it sat there, like a beached whale, waiting.

Then, in 2008 — as the country began tipping fully into the Great Recession — an investor in his early 20s from Miami named Chaim Schochet showed up. Working on behalf of a firm called Optima International, Schochet offered $16.75 million for the empty building. A far cry from the Motorola investment, but more than locals could have hoped for. They happily accepted. Glimmers of potential sprang once more. “Hope burns eternal,” Roger Lehmann, a member of the Harvard Economic Development Corporation, said after the purchase.

At the time, there was no reason to think Schochet and his colleagues were anything but savvy businesspeople, snapping up properties across the Midwest. Optima International was a parent company to a constellation of related firms (including one called “Optima Harvard Facility LLC”). Prosecutors would later dub this the “Optima Family,” with its American operations overseen by two Americans named Mordechai Korf (Schochet’s brother-in-law) and Uri Laber. As the Justice Department alleged in a series of civil forfeiture cases, this “Optima Family” plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into investments in state after state: commercial real estate in Cleveland and Dallas and Louisville, steel factories in West Virginia and Kentucky and Ohio, production plants in Michigan and New York and Indiana. Time and again, these investors swooped in, pledging jobs, revitalization and a lifeline for towns watching their economic lifebloods dry up.

In just a few years, the “Optima Family” collected over a dozen mills, plants and other facilities across the American heartland. All of them had fallen victim to America’s yearslong manufacturing slump, part of the broader deindustrialization that began in the 1970s. All of them were eager for any injection of financing they could get, and for any promise of a brighter future. And, according to prosecutors, these purchases were all directly connected to a powerful steel and banking tycoon in Ukraine who was buying American properties to hide stolen money.

Shortly after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, investigators in the country alleged that Ihor Kolomoisky was secretly overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world had ever seen, totaling at least $5.5 billion. Legal filings from American prosecutors last year detailed how Kolomoisky allegedly used his control of Ukraine’s largest retail bank, PrivatBank, to loot staggering sums from Ukrainian depositors, and then used a series of shell companies and offshore accounts to whisk the money out of the country and into the U.S.

The idea seems to have been to purchase troubled assets that American sellers were eager to offload. Even if the buyers ultimately took a loss, the assets were still outside the grasp of Ukrainian investigators and could still act as vehicles through which to funnel money. Perhaps most importantly, the properties could be bought without much inquiry into the source of the monies: For two decades, American real-estate professionals have benefited from a “temporary” exemption to anti-money laundering laws, allowing them to avoid performing due diligence on the customer making the purchase.

In subsequent efforts to seize the operation’s assets, American prosecutors laid out a theory that much of Kolomoisky’s operation was overseen by Laber and Korf, who “created a web of entities, usually under some variation of the name ‘Optima,’ to further launder the misappropriated funds and invest them” across multiple states. According to the DOJ, the funds lifted from PrivatBank bounced through a number of shell companies and offshore accounts, before being injected into the Optima network, and from there into assets around the American Midwest. And all of this took place while Kolomoisky — now sanctioned by the U.S. for what the State Department calls “significant corruption” and “ongoing efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes” — grew his power and wealth within Ukraine itself, creating a gargantuan private militia and reportedly manipulating elected officials along the way.

The details gathered by U.S. and Ukrainian investigators and laid out in DOJ filings and court cases around the world, from Delaware to the UK to Israel, comprise what one analyst said might be “the biggest case of money laundering in history.”

Kolomoisky says he bought the American properties with his own money, denying the Justice Department’s allegations about laundering ill-gotten funds. Neither he nor his American associates (who also deny wrongdoing) have been named in any criminal complaints. Reached for comment prior to publication of this article, an attorney for Korf and Laber responded, “Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber have never engaged in money laundering of any kind, and they have no knowledge of anyone else doing so. Any allegations against Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber arise from Ukrainian political disputes they have nothing to do with.” Kolomoisky and Schochet, the Miami investor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Schochet has not been targeted by name in the government filings, and the government has not suggested he is personally a target of their investigations. But the DOJ complaint notes that the Harvard plant purchase was part of the sprawling Optima laundering scheme (including fraudulent loans used to purchase the plant in the first place). The investigators describe how, using investments in steel mills, skyscrapers and industrial plants across the Midwest and Rust Belt, Kolomoisky could take full advantage of America’s permissive climate for money laundering — all, apparently, to help clean the proceeds of his massive Ukrainian Ponzi scheme.

After Schochet finalized the purchase in Harvard, locals say they saw little of him. “Chaim wasn’t around much,” Charlie Eldredge, head of the Harvard Economic Development corporation, told me. “I would see him once a year, once every other year…. Clearly it wasn’t the focus of their interest.” He added that it quickly became clear the Optima network “didn’t really have any real plans [about] what to do with the facility.”

More than five years after the purchase, no jobs had returned and no further investments emerged. Unpaid property taxes kept accumulating, starving the strapped local government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2016, Optima sold the building at a $7 million loss to a Chinese Canadian businessperson. Years of neglect by various owners began to take a toll: Soon, the factory went dark entirely. With a half-million-dollar tab in unpaid electricity bills, the juice was cut off, forcing local officials to visit with flashlights. “It’s just heartbreaking to see that beautiful place sitting vacant,” the McHenry County treasurer said in 2018.

Along the way, the massive building itself — its factory and fitness center, its child care rooms and 500-seat auditorium, even its pair of heliports — continued a slow march toward implosion. Mold began creeping along the walls and roof, into the pipes, into the recesses of the building. The factory’s entire fire suppressant system, including over 20,000 sprinkler heads, began falling apart. “The mechanical [equipment] all needs to be replaced,” Mayor Michael Kelly said. “The roof leaks. No one’s really taking care of it.”

“The building won’t just be valueless — it will be a catastrophe for the town, because it will have to be demolished,” Eldredge told me in 2020. “And the net cost for that, after salvage, is probably three to five times the city’s annual budget. It will be a financial catastrophe.” He paused, pondering the implication: This hundred-million-dollar promise to a small outpost in northern Illinois ended up with a foreign oligarch apparently using it to hide his money from investigators. (The building was sold just last month to a group of developers from Las Vegas for an undisclosed amount.)

Harvard is hardly the only American town that saw Optima swoop in, making big promises that ended in disappointment. In Warren, Ohio, a steel plant purchased by Kolomoisky’s network had so many safety issues that several explosions occurred onsite, with employees repeatedly ending up in hospitals. Other plants and factories have ended up gutted and shuttered, laying off hundreds of American workers. One 70-year-old plant in Kentucky, after shutting its furnaces and tossing its employees to the curb, reportedly even refashioned itself as a Bitcoin-mining operation — without bothering to bring any of the jobs back.

Over and over, Kolomoisky’s team showed up, purchased the properties and seemingly lost interest — leaving broken dreams, busted plants and bleeding economies in their wake. As Harvard’s Eldredge told me, “I think there’s certainly a good many citizens who feel it’s better the building had never been built.”

As it turns out, the decrepit Harvard plant had another chance to avoid falling into disrepair. But the story of how that opportunity collapsed suggests just how deeply kleptocratic networks have become embedded into the American economy. In 2016 — just as Ukrainian officials began investigating the depths of Kolomoisky’s alleged Ponzi scheme — the oligarch and his team somehow found a buyer willing to take on the former Motorola plant. The new buyer was another firm with links to overseas investors, this time headed by a Chinese Canadian businessperson named Xiao Hua Gong.

Gong, who goes by Edward, openly claimed he wanted to transform the plant into a smartphone manufacturing base. According to Eldredge, Gong was initially “very charming and full of conversation of what wonderful things he was going to do.” Not too dissimilar from a certain Ukrainian network that parachuted into Harvard a few years prior, singing much the same tune.

A year after the sale, though, still nothing had happened with the building. And then Canadian authorities dropped a bombshell: They accused Gong of running his own transnational money laundering scheme, charging him with fraud and money laundering. Follow-on allegations from New Zealand authorities detailed how Gong had led a “multi-national pyramid scheme,” eventually resulting in the country’s largest-ever settlement, worth over $50 million. If the various allegations are true, this means the Harvard Motorola plant has entered not one, but two separate dirty-money pipelines.

Following the charges against Gong, the plant remained frozen until its acquisition a few weeks ago. Local authorities couldn’t touch it, as it was part of ongoing investigations attempting to unwind Gong’s network. And the residents of Harvard watched the factory, and its initial promise, sit vacant. “It’s almost as if these oligarchs, that they have so much money that the rules don’t apply to them, they can do whatever they want,” Kelly sighed. “I think the community sees that the Motorola plant has been a huge albatross for us.”

He paused, and took a breath. “The building is f—ing cursed.”

We only know about Harvard because American and Canadian authorities, aided by partners in Ukraine and New Zealand, targeted the specific money laundering networks allegedly linked to Kolomoisky and Gong. But given the miles-wide availability of other American money laundering services — from real estate to private equity, hedge funds to anonymous trusts, artwork to accountants — there’s no reason to think the Motorola plant is the only multimillion-dollar American asset that’s been bandied between parallel kleptocratic networks.

“I’m not sure people do understand how damaging taking dirty money really is to the United States,” former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who has deep experience investigating post-Soviet money laundering networks, testified in 2019. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.”

As Harvard, Warren, and other small towns allegedly targeted by Kolomoisky’s network learned, that flood of money will wash through — but the streambed will dry up just as quickly, with adverse consequences for the people in those towns who hoped to benefit economically from the investments. As Greenaway added, after 2008, Americans sought to unload huge numbers of unprofitable properties, with little idea of who was buying them or whether these purchases might be new nodes in a broader transnational scheme to hide foreign wealth.

Which is exactly what seems to have been the case in each of the overlooked, forgotten towns Kolomoisky and his team touched. Places like the towns in America’s steel-production heartland, reliant on the aging steel plants for another generation of jobs that will now never come. Places like Cleveland, which watched Kolomoisky and his men roll in and dominate an entire downtown, leaving a “gaping hole” behind. Places like Harvard, whose residents are watching this economic lifeline turn into an economic millstone, rotting right in front of them.

“I think it’s hurting small-town America,” Greenaway concluded. “I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.”

And that realization is long overdue. For years, the U.S. has largely overlooked the billions of dollars — and potentially more — in dirty and suspect money flooding into the country every year, stolen from national treasuries or made via bribes, smuggling or trafficking of humans and drugs alike. Much of this money comes to the country to be washed clean, to be transformed into legitimate assets and to obscure any links to its previous criminal owners.

The Biden administration has vowed to take on global corruption, recently elevating it to a core national security threat. But the intertwined stories of Kolomoisky and Harvard suggest there’s much left to do before we can even grasp the scale of the damage in America’s heartland — and figure out what to do about it.

Fortunately, we’ve started seeing movement in the right direction. The U.S. under the last few administrations has finally begun to tackle problems like shell company secrecy and anonymous real estate purchases, and Congress has introduced bill after bill to patch up the U.S.’s anti-money laundering regime. The Pandora Papers themselves have already spurred legislation, dubbed the “ENABLERS Act,” that would specifically require a whole range of Americans helping these networks thrive — “U.S.-based middlemen” like Korf and Laber, if American prosecutors are right — to conduct due diligence on the sources of foreign funds they handle. As of now, the only prominent American industry required to check whether the funds it handles are dirty is the banking sector — leaving the rest of the U.S. economy wide open.

Thanks to the wide number of industries that can freely work with illicit funds, we have no idea how many other oligarchs, warlords and kleptocrats may have sunk their teeth into steel towns, into farming communities, into manufacturing plants and oil hubs and port cities across America. We have no idea how much of a role they’ve played in enervating cities and towns across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. Nor do we have any idea how many towns like Harvard have suffocated along the way, their livelihoods lost, their budgets strangled, their economic fortunes imploded. All because of what we now know to be a notoriously lax legal regime that incentivizes oligarchs, heads of state and other global elites to look to the United States to shelter their money — and to grab the biggest piece of “American Kleptocracy” that they possibly can.



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