On August 21, the New York Times published a report on Rinat Akhmetshin, one of the Russians who met with senior Trump campaign officials in June of last year. Akhmetshin is not just a Russian lobbyist. Lobbyist at Trump Campaign Meeting Has a Web of Russian Connections:
[I]nterviews with his associates and documents reviewed by The New York Times indicate that Mr. Akhmetshin, who is under scrutiny by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, has much deeper ties to the Russian government and Kremlin-backed oligarchs than previously known.
He has an association with a former deputy head of a Russian spy service, the F.S.B., and a history of working for close allies of President Vladimir V. Putin. Twice, he has worked on legal battles for Russian tycoons whose opponents suffered sophisticated hacking attacks, arousing allegations of computer espionage. He helped federal prosecutors bring corruption charges against an American businessman in the former Soviet Union who turned out to be working for the C.I.A.
He also helped expose possible corruption in government contracting that complicated American efforts to keep troops at an air base in Kyrgyzstan — an American presence that the Russians fiercely opposed.
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Mr. Akhmetshin’s meeting with Trump campaign officials is of keen interest to Mr. Mueller, who is investigating the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Of all the visitors who attended the June 2016 session at the Trump Tower, he appears to have the most direct ties to Russian intelligence. The session was arranged by a Russian businessman close to Mr. Putin whose emissary promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The Hacking Campaigns
Few episodes from Mr. Akhmetshin’s past seem more relevant to Mr. Mueller’s investigation than his work for two Russian billionaires accused of infiltrating their adversaries’ computers during nasty legal battles.
The Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 took place less than a week before revelations that hackers had penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s computers and obtained a trove of emails. Investigators have traced digital espionage to Russian spy agencies. There is no public evidence that Mr. Akhmetshin played any role in the D.N.C. hack.
The first hacking case, which has not previously been reported, began when Mr. Akhmetshin served an alliance of businessmen led by Suleiman Kerimov — a financier close to Mr. Putin in a commercial and political dispute with a Russian competitor, Ashot Egiazaryan.
In early 2011, two London lawyers on Mr. Egiazaryan’s team separately received suspicious emails and hired forensic experts to scrutinize them, according to people involved in a Scotland Yard investigation. The experts found that the messages concealed spyware meant to infiltrate their computers, and they fed traceable documents into the spyware that were then opened by computers registered at the Moscow office park of one of Mr. Kerimov’s companies.
After an inquiry of more than 18 months, Scotland Yard investigators concluded in January 2013 that they lacked sufficient evidence to bring any charges, a spokesman said. Representatives of the lawyers targeted declined to comment.
Mr. Akhmetshin has said in court papers that he was paid only by one businessman in the alliance with Mr. Kerimov, but coordinated with Mr. Kerimov’s team.
Two years later, hacking accusations arose in another case, this time lodged directly against Mr. Akhmetshin. He worked as a consultant to a law firm representing EuroChem, a fertilizer and mining company controlled by another Russian billionaire close to Mr. Putin — Andrey Melnichenko. Mr. Akhmetshin’s target was a rival mining company, International Mineral Resources.
Within months, documents stored in International Mineral Resources’s computer systems began surfacing outside the company, leaked to journalists and others. The company concluded that its computers had been hacked, and replaced its servers. In lawsuits filed in federal court in Washington and state court in New York, the company accused EuroChem and Mr. Akhmetshin of computer espionage.
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EuroChem’s information technology chief, Vladimir Chibisov, previously worked in the Russian government. He had written a book promoted as “a hacker’s Bible,” which he described as a book “about us — about Russian programmers, men of the ’80s and ’90s” who “had done programming, and even a bit of hacking.”
Mr. Akhmetshin personally handed a thumb drive containing stolen documents to a lawyer engaged in another matter potentially damaging to the rival company, according to a person familiar with the matter. The same thumb drive was later obtained by investigators, and someone using the initials “R.A.” had gained access to its contents, according to court papers.
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An investigator for the targeted company also testified that he had followed Mr. Akhmetshin in January 2014 to a meeting at London’s Cafe Royal and watched him hand over an external hard drive to another individual. He said he had overheard Mr. Akhmetshin claim that he had paid a team of Russian hackers “a lot of money” for the records.
Mr. Akhmetshin acknowledged in a deposition that he had turned over a hard drive with information about the firm’s owners. But he said he had obtained the data from a Kazakh contact through a loose network he called the “London Information Bazaar.” Asked about computer hacking, he replied, “I do not know a single person who could do that.”
International Mineral Resources dropped the lawsuits without explanation in early 2016, withdrawing all allegations before they could be adjudicated. The company said in a statement Friday that it dropped the charges “after careful consideration.”
There is much more about Rinat Akhmetshin in this Times report, but his history of computer hacking was key.
Now we learn that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had Rinat Akhmetshin testify before a grand jury in recent weeks for several hours. Russian-American lobbyist in Trump Tower meeting spoke to grand jury: source:
A grand jury used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has heard secret testimony from a Russian-American lobbyist who attended a June 2016 meeting with President Donald Trump’s eldest son, The Associated Press has learned.
A person familiar with the matter confirmed to the AP that Rinat Akhmetshin had appeared before Mueller’s grand jury in recent weeks. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret proceedings.
The revelation is the clearest indication yet that Mueller and his team of investigators view the meeting, which came weeks after Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, as a relevant inquiry point in their broader probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The meeting included Donald Trump Jr.; the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Emails released by Trump Jr. show he took the meeting expecting that he would be receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of what was described to him as a Russian government effort to aid the Trump campaign.
The Financial Times first reported Akhmetshin’s grand jury appearance. Reached by the AP, Akhmetshin declined comment. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, also declined comment Wednesday night.
The confirmation of Akhmetshin’s grand jury testimony comes after he spoke at length about his involvement in the Trump Tower meeting in an interview with the AP last month. Russian-American at Trump Jr. meeting is ex-military officer.
It is unknown how coooperative Akhmetshin was as a witness or what he may have testified to under oath before the grand jury. It is always possible that Akhmetshin will discuss his testimony , since he has not been shy about talking to the media.
In related news:
The Wall Street Journal reports Paul Manafort’s political-consulting firm was active for more than a decade doing work that often dovetailed with Russian political interests not only in Ukraine, but also in Georgia and Montenegro, other countries the Kremlin considered to be in its sphere of influence. Paul Manafort’s Overseas Political Work Had a Notable Patron: A Russian Oligarch (Pay wall article).
POLITICO reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has teamned up with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on its investigation into Paul Manafort and his financial transactions. Mueller teams up with New York attorney general in Manafort probe:
The cooperation is the latest indication that the federal probe into President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman is intensifying. It also could potentially provide Mueller with additional leverage to get Manafort to cooperate in the larger investigation into Trump’s campaign, as Trump does not have pardon power over state crimes.
The two teams have shared evidence and talked frequently in recent weeks about a potential case, these people said. One of the people familiar with progress on the case said both Mueller’s and Schneiderman’s teams have collected evidence on financial crimes, including potential money laundering.
No decision has been made on where or whether to file charges. “Nothing is imminent,” said one of the people familiar with the case.
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State and federal prosecutors believe the prospect of a presidential pardon could affect whether Manafort decides to cooperate with investigators in the federal Trump investigation, said one of the people familiar with the matter.
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People close to Manafort say the team has pressured him by approaching family members and former business partners. A number of other firms and people who have worked with him have received subpoenas.
Federal agents also conducted an early-morning raid at Manafort’s home in late July, seizing documents and other items.
Mueller’s team has been looking into Manafort’s lobbying work and financial transactions, including real estate deals in New York. Pressure on Manafort grows as feds track more income, possible money laundering:
Two sources familiar with the inquiry tell McClatchy that investigators are working to confirm information indicating that Manafort and the consulting firms he led earned between $80 million and $100 million over a decade from pro-Moscow Ukrainian and Russian clients.
Mueller’s expanded focus on Manafort’s complicated financial picture is zeroing in on whether he may have evaded taxes or engaged in any money laundering schemes, the sources say, and the hunt for his financial records through a labyrinth of offshore bank and business accounts has become an important prong of the investigation.
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Manafort, who chaired the Trump campaign for three months in mid-2016 and earlier spent two months coordinating the search for pro-Trump delegates, is a prime target as investigators attempt to win the cooperation of key members of the campaign’s inner circle, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiry is confidential.
Given his pro-Kremlin connections and his closeness to the campaign, Manafort was uniquely positioned to play a role in any collusion between the campaign and operatives working on behalf of the Russian government to help elect Trump.
Whether Manafort can be squeezed depends in part on whether he failed to report foreign income and overseas bank accounts annually to the Internal Revenue Service as required by law. The volume of money said to be involved and the time elapsed could put him at significant risk.
“If Manafort is shown to have violated the tax laws and the disclosure laws in connection with his foreign income, then he may be facing substantial jail time and large fines,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and the executive director of Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. If the violations are willful, the penalties go up.
That’s the sort of pressure that could cause Manafort to cut a deal with Mueller under which he might receive leniency in return for divulging what contact he and other Trump aides had with Russian officials and operatives during 2016.
“Based on my experience with prosecutors, it would be typical that they’re getting financial information to pressure Manafort to cooperate in a bigger case,” said former Justice Department prosecutor Barak Cohen, who is now a lawyer at Perkins Coie in Washington.
“There has been no indication to date that Manafort is spilling the beans to the feds.” “Money-laundering charges, of course, would very possibly heighten Manafort’s interest in flipping and cooperating with investigators.”
UPDATE: NBC News reports Manafort Notes From Russian Meet Refer to Political Contributions:
Paul Manafort’s notes from a controversial Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign included a mention of political contributions near a reference to the Republican National Committee, two sources briefed on the evidence told NBC News.
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It is illegal for foreigners to donate to American elections. The meeting happened just as Trump had secured the Republican nomination for president, and he was considered a longshot to win. Manafort was the campaign chairman at the time.
Manafort’s notes, typed on a smart phone and described by one source briefed on the matter as cryptic, were turned over to the House and Senate intelligence committees and to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. They contained a reference to political contributions and “RNC” in close proximity, the sources said.
Correction: NBC News initially reported that the notes contained the word “donation,” but a spokesman for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa — the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose staff has reviewed the notes — disputed that the word “donation” appears. The two sources who initially provided the information then said that the word was not “donation.” One said it was “donor,” and another said it was a word that referenced political contributions, but that source declined to be more specific.