How a Russian oligarch linked to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen turned a California state park into a mini Moscow

Fort Ross State Historic Park
Source: Fort Ross Conservancy

Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch at the center of a widening scandal over influence peddling by President Donald Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, has been banned from doing business in America under U.S. sanctions. But as of this week, Vekselberg was still the chairman of a U.S. nonprofit group that boasts support from several Fortune 100 corporations and one of Trump's top advisors.

Named for Renova Group, Vekselberg's sanctioned Russian holding company, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation was established in 2010 to preserve an unlikely historic landmark: a California state park situated along the state's wild northern coastline two hours north of San Francisco. The park contains a 19th-century fort built by early Russian settlers in America. At the Kremlin's request, Vekselberg delivered it from dire financial straits.

Under Vekselberg's patronage, the Fort Ross State Historic Park became a cause celebre among corporations and institutions doing business in Russia. Donors and supporters have included U.S. oil giant Chevron, PepsiCo, Cisco Systems, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also among the foundation's donors is American billionaire Steve Schwarzman, founder of the Blackstone Group and former chairman of Trump's Strategic and Policy Council.

The rescue of Fort Ross, and its transformation into a platform for the Renova Group's American outreach efforts illustrates how Russians closely linked to President Vladimir Putin's government have used philanthropy in the United States to gain access to the corridors of American power. But now, with U.S.- Russian relations under ever-increasing strain and American officials targeting Putin's inner circle, Vekselberg's decade-long charm offensive appears to be faltering, with both his companies and his most vocal allies seemingly in retreat.

Covering their tracks

Topping the list of contributors to Vekselberg's cause are his cousin Andrew Intrater and Columbus Nova, the U.S.-based investment firm that Intrater founded and owns. Earlier this month, Columbus Nova confirmed having paid Cohen $500,000 for "real estate" consulting.

Russian businessman and billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

One of Intrater's partners at Columbus Nova sits on the board of Vekselberg's Fort Ross foundation. The remainder of the board, however, is composed of top executives at Renova Group.

After Columbus Nova's payments to Cohen were exposed May 8 by an attorney suing the president on behalf of an adult film star, the firm began scrubbing its website. Any reference to Vekselberg, the Renova Group, or Intrater was removed, along with biographies of its partners.

Like Columbus Nova, Vekselberg's Renova Fort Ross Foundation has also been scrubbing its public face in the wake of questions about Vekselberg. In the past week, the foundation has renamed its Twitter account to remove the word "Renova." The foundation's sole employee did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls from CNBC.

President Trump discloses payment to Michael Cohen
President Trump discloses payment to Michael Cohen

Lawyers for Columbus Nova vehemently deny that the firm served as a pass-through for Vekselberg to funnel money to Cohen in exchange for access to members of the Trump administration. Still, the ties between the firm and the Russian oligarch are close enough that special counsel Robert Mueller's agents reportedly stopped Vekselberg in an airport earlier this year to question him about Columbus Nova's hiring of Cohen.

The costs of being associated with Vekselberg rose sharply in April. That's when the Treasury Department sanctioned both Vekselberg personally and the Renova Group. The moves were part of a sweeping wave of sanctions related to issues such as the poisoning of a former Russian spy and the backing of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. They targeted Russian government officials and some of Putin's closest allies in the private sector.

In a matter of hours, Vekselberg reportedly saw more than $1 billion of his assets frozen by U.S. banks.

The price of preserving 'Russian California'

A continent away from Columbus Nova's New York headquarters, the Fort Ross State Historic Park is a 3,400 acre expanse of forest, set against breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. The park is centered around a 19th century military encampment, Fort Ross, which is the site of the first Russian settlement in what would become the contiguous United States.

The idea of creating a Russian-backed foundation to help preserve Fort Ross arose in 2009 when a statewide budget crisis spurred California's then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to propose closing 70 state parks, including Fort Ross.

But when news of the closure plans reached the Kremlin, the Russian government decided to take action. It sent its ambassador to California to find a way to keep the park open.

Fort Ross State Historic Park
Source: Fort Ross Conservancy

The answer was Vekselberg, who at Moscow's prompting agreed to supplement the park's preservation and upkeep. In the fall 2010, Vekselberg traveled to San Francisco, where he signed a formal memorandum of understanding with the state.

Ever since Renova stepped in to help Fort Ross, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, or RFRF, has served as a hub for Russian-themed events and outreach that extend well beyond the park itself, always aimed at portraying Russia in a favorable light. Festivals, exhibitions and academic projects put on by the foundation in New York, Moscow and San Francisco have helped raise the profile of the Renova Group in the United States. The goodwill that Vekselberg has accrued through his philanthropy has translated into political access.

Rarely was this more evident than in October 2012, when Vekselberg chaired a $2,500 per person gala dinner held in San Francisco's City Hall to mark the bicentennial of Russian settlers' arrival in California. The black-tie fundraiser epitomized how Vekselberg had managed to turn an obscure state park, thousands of miles away from his home base in Moscow, into a centerpoint of his influence.

According to a Forbes article written by a reporter who attended the event, the program featured speeches by Vekselberg and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was seated next to the Russian billionaire. An official greeting from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was read aloud by a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

The Kremlin was also well represented. Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky traveled from Moscow to be there. A greeting from Putin was also read aloud.

The dinner guests were a sophisticated crowd. Former Citigroup Chairman and CEO John Reed was there representing MIT, which had recently agreed to partner with a foundation chaired by Vekselberg in Russia to do high-tech research.

Reed, who chaired the MIT board at the time, was joined by another trustee, tech entrepreneur Diane Greene, now CEO of Google's cloud business. Donald Kendall, a former CEO of Pepsi, was also there, according to the Forbes report.

Cultural diplomacy

In 2017, five years after Feinstein headlined the Fort Ross bicentennial dinner, another powerful California politician, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, spoke at a different event, also sponsored by the Renova Group: the annual Fort Ross Dialogue.

The dialogue is organized by the Fort Ross Conservancy, the nonprofit which operates the park on a day-to-day basis, and has been the chief recipient of the Renova Fort Ross Foundation's largesse.

Direct support for the upkeep and maintenance of Fort Ross is only one of a number of things the Renova Fort Ross Foundation has spent its money on, according to tax filings. It has also financed a children's book about Fort Ross, a documentary on the history of the fort, an international children's art contest and an essay contest,

2017 was the first time the Renova Group had signed on to sponsor the Fort Ross Dialogue, alongside the event's three longstanding sponsors, Chevron and two Russian state-owned oil companies.

During the October 2017 incarnation of the dialogue in San Francisco, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation unveiled an exhibition of prize-winning Russian wilderness photographs from the Russian Geographical Society. The title of the exhibition is "The Most Beautiful Country," and after the dialogue concluded, the photographs traveled two hours north, to be displayed at Fort Ross.

Taken together, the Fort Ross Dialogue and the photo exhibition reflect a kind of soft power cultural diplomacy that Russia has traditionally struggled to pull off in the United States.

The overlapping events were all the more noteworthy because they occurred just weeks after the State Department had ordered the Russian Consulate in San Francisco closed amid rising tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Yet just when Vekselberg and the foundation seemed best positioned to offer a platform for promoting U.S.-Russia relations in the absence of the shuttered consulate, the billionaire himself came under increased scrutiny, both from the Mueller probe and from the Treasury Department.

And unlike Columbus Nova, which technically operates independently of Vekselberg, and can therefore stay in business despite the sanctions, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation appears to be inseparably linked to both Vekselberg and to the Renova Group.

Chaired by Vekselberg, the foundation's board is made up of Renova Group employees and one Columbus Nova partner, according to its most recently available IRS filings, from 2015. Russian nationals on the board include Viktor Nelyubin, CEO of Renova Moscow; Vladimir Kuznetsov, chief strategy officer of Renova Group; and Olga Miller, president of Renova USA. The only apparent non-Renova member is Jay Haft, a partner at Columbus Nova described in a recent SEC filing as "a personal advisor" to Vekselberg.

Miller, based in New York, appears to be the only employee at the Renova Fort Ross Foundation. According to her online CV, as president of Renova USA, Miller runs "the representative office for the Renova Group of Companies in the United States, with prime focus on U.S.-Russia business development, philanthropy, public relations and government relations efforts."

Miller did not respond to emails or phone calls about Renova's other philanthropic efforts in the U.S.

But in October, she delivered a presentation, later posted online, about Renova's U.S. charity work at a conference of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. In it, Miller revealed that since 2008, Renova had spent $34.5 million on "social investments" in the United States.

Friends in high places

Vekselberg, who has an estimated net worth of $14.4 billion, has built the Renova Fort Ross Foundation into an influential entity. In addition to drawing powerful American politicians like Brown and Feinstein to its events, the foundation boasts a donor list featuring blue-chip U.S. companies, prestigious research universities and major Wall Street figures.

Between 2010 and 2015, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation took in at least $3.2 million from donors. While most nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors to the public, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation has posted a list on its website. See below:

One of the supporters listed on the page is Blackstone's Schwarzman, who, as a member of Trump's informal "kitchen Cabinet," reportedly speaks to the president on a regular basis.

Schwarzman also chaired an administration advisory group of CEOs that was disbanded last August after Trump insisted that "both sides are to blame" for deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A spokesman for Blackstone did not respond to an inquiry from CNBC about the donation. But the Renova Fort Ross Foundation's Facebook page publicly thanked Schwarzman in 2015 for supporting an art-related fundraiser it held in San Francisco.

Major corporations like Cisco Systems and PepsiCo are also listed as contributors, as is MIT, which still collaborates with a Vekselberg-led tech institute in Russia. A Pepsi spokesman confirmed that the company donated to the 2012 bicentennial dinner, where its former CEO was among the honorees.

Representatives for MIT and Cisco did not respond to requests for comment from CNBC about what they had donated to the foundation.

As Renova and Vekselberg spent millions building relationships in California, he and his associates were also busy shelling out big bucks for access to power in Washington.

Between 2001 and 2015, the Renova Group and Columbus Nova have spent a combined $1.7 million on Washington lobbyists, according to disclosures filed with the Senate.

After sitting out the 2016 presidential election, Columbus Nova and its CEO, Intrater, went all in for Trump, donating $250,000 to his inaugural committee. Intrater and cousin Vekselberg attended a number of Trump's inauguration events.

It was during these events that Intrater reportedly first crossed paths with Cohen, whom he quickly agreed to hire as a consultant to Columbus Nova for $50,000 a month.

And even though the 2020 presidential election was more than three years away, in 2017 Intrater decided to become a major Republican political donor. On June 26, he gave $35,000 to the Trump Victory Fund and $29,600 to the Republican National Committee. Prior to 2017, Intrater had no significant history of political contributions to either party.

As a foreign national, Vekselberg is prohibited from donating to a U.S. election, and a spokesman for Vekselberg told NBC News this week that the billionaire had nothing to do with Columbus Nova's decision to hire Cohen.

Vekselberg did, however, donate money to the Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit charitable organization founded by former President Bill Clinton. Donor records show that Renova Group has donated $50,000 to $100,000, and a subsidiary of Renova, OC Oerlikon, has donated $10,000 to $25,000. Clinton Foundation records do not show when the donations were made, and none of Renova's U.S. associates returned emails or messages from CNBC.

A self-driving passenger bus outside the Skolkovo Technopark outside Moscow, Russia.
Maxim Grigoryev | TASS | Getty Images

In addition to supporting Fort Ross and the Clinton Foundation, Vekselberg and Renova Group have also funded Stanford University's U.S. Russia Forum, a year-long academic exchange program that pairs American and Russian students to produce research papers.

His funding of academic initiatives has not been without controversy.

In 2010, the same year he created the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, Vekselberg spearheaded the Russia-based Skolkovo Foundation, which he chairs. Funded by the Russian government with the goal of helping advance Russia's tech economy, the academic-exchange project built a high-tech institute designed to help incubate promising research. In 2012, the Skolkovo Foundation and its offshoot, SkolTech announced a formal partnership with MIT a few months before Vekselberg held the fundraiser in San Francisco for Fort Ross.

In 2014, though, the FBI warned that the Skolkovo Foundation's altruistic goals likely masked another purpose: to serve as "a means for the Russian government to access our nation's sensitive or classified research, development facilities and dual-use technologies with military and commercial applications."

The FBI's warning seemed to do little to stop prestigious schools from teaming up with Skolkovo. Six months after the bureau's warning, the foundation hosted the 2014 class of Stanford University's U.S.-Russia Forum at Skolkovo's "innovation hub" outside Moscow. At the time, the director of international cooperation at Skolkovo was Nelyubin — the CEO of Renova Group's Moscow operation.

The future of the Renova Fort Ross Foundation

The future of the Renova Fort Ross Foundation is likewise in doubt.

The foundation's Twitter name, formerly RenovaFortRoss, changed this week to Fort Ross Foundation. Yet while the Renova name was removed from the Twitter handle, it was still present in the account's profile image.

Some tweets featured photos of Brown, the California governor, and senior Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak, who was ambassador to Washington during the 2016 election.

It's also unclear how the loss of Renova money might affect Fort Ross itself.

Sarah Sweedler, CEO of the Fort Ross Conservancy, which manages most of the day-to-day attractions at the park, confirmed to CNBC that the group had stopped working with Renova's foundation due to the sanctions.

"Renova Fort Ross Foundation was extremely beneficial, and I'm grateful for that," Sweedler told CNBC in an intervew. "But in the end, we have a park that is sacred land for many people, and common land with a unique history from the native, the Russian and the ranching period. We're focusing on that history."

Meanwhile, Vekselberg himself appears to be overcoming some of the stigma that typically surrounds being placed on a U.S. sanctions list.

Later this month, Trump's ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, will attend the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where Vekselberg is scheduled to appear on a panel.

Huntsman defended his attendance at the conference in a choreographed video posted on Twitter.

"Some commentators would have you believe that any U.S.-Russian dialogue [in the current climate] is somehow suspect," Huntsman says into the camera. "But dialogue is our only path to progress."