To expand his real estate developments over the years, Donald Trump, his company and partners repeatedly turned to wealthy Russians and oligarchs from former Soviet republics — several allegedly connected to organized crime, according to a USA TODAY review of court cases, government and legal documents and an interview with a former federal prosecutor.
The president and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering.
• A member of the firm that developed the Trump SoHo Hotel in New York is a twice-convicted felon who spent a year in prison for stabbing a man and later scouted for Trump investments in Russia.
• An investor in the SoHo project was accused by Belgian authorities in 2011 in a $55 million money-laundering scheme.
• Three owners of Trump condos in Florida and Manhattan were accused in federal indictments of belonging to a Russian-American organized crime group and working for a major international crime boss based in Russia.
• A former mayor from Kazakhstan was accused in a federal lawsuit filed in Los Angeles in 2014 of hiding millions of dollars looted from his city, some of which was spent on three Trump SoHo units.
• A Ukrainian owner of two Trump condos in Florida was indicted in a money-laundering scheme involving a former prime minister of Ukraine.
Trump's Russian connections are of heightened interest because of an FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russian operatives to interfere in last fall's election. What's more, Trump and his companies have had business dealings with Russians that go back decades, raising questions about whether his policies would be influenced by business considerations.
Trump told reporters in February: "I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we've stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia. I have no loans with Russia at all."
Yet in 2013, after Trump addressed potential investors in Moscow, he bragged to Real Estate Weekly about his access to Russia's rich and powerful. "I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room," Trump said, referring to Russians who made fortunes when former Soviet state enterprises were sold to private investors.
Five years earlier, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. told Russian media while in Moscow that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets" in places like Dubai and Trump SoHo and elsewhere in New York.
New York City real estate broker Dolly Lenz told USA TODAY she sold about 65 condos in Trump World at 845 U.N. Plaza in Manhattan to Russian investors, many of whom sought personal meetings with Trump for his business expertise.
"I had contacts in Moscow looking to invest in the United States," Lenz said. "They all wanted to meet Donald. They became very friendly." Many of those meetings happened in Trump's office at Trump Tower or at sales events, Lenz said.
Dealings with Russian oligarchs concern law enforcement because many of those super-wealthy people are generally suspected of corrupt practices as a result of interconnected relationships among Russia's business elite, government security services and criminal gangs, according to former U.S. prosecutor Ken McCallion, as well as Steven Hall, a former CIA chief of Russian operations.
"Anybody who is an oligarch or is in any position of power in Russia got it because (President) Vladimir Putin or somebody in power saw some reason to give that person that job," Hall said in an interview. "All the organized crime figures I've ever heard of (in Russia) all have deep connections and are tied in with people in government."
FBI Director James Comey acknowledged at a congressional hearing into Russian interference in the U.S. election March 20 that many wealthy Russians may have close ties to the Kremlin and may be acting on its behalf.
Trump has not been accused of any wrongdoing in connection to any of the individuals mentioned in this article.
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However, the deals, and the large number of Russians who have bought condos in Trump buildings, raise questions about the secrecy he has maintained around his real estate empire. Trump is the first president in 40 years to refuse to turn over his tax returns, which could shed light on his business dealings.
The White House declined to comment about this article, referring questions to the Trump Organization in New York. Amanda Miller, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, denied any transactions with people named in this article.
"The allegations ... are entirely without merit," Miller said in an email. "The Trump Organization never entered into a single transaction with any of these individuals and the condominium units were all owned and sold by third parties — not Trump."
Trump's privately held company works through a network of subsidiaries and partnerships that make direct connections hard to trace, particularly since he has refused to release his tax filings. In addition, some of the Trump Organization's investors and buyers operate through shell companies and limited liability corporations that hide the identities of individual owners.
Trump and the Trump Organization signed licensing agreements for an ownership stake in properties such as Trump SoHo and Trump International Beach Resort, which bear the Trump name without requiring an investment by him. In the SoHo project, Trump received an 18% share of the profits in return for use of his name, according to a deposition Trump gave in 2007 for a defamation lawsuit he brought against an author.