A Soviet-born convicted felon who worked on real estate deals with U.S. President Donald Trump was accused in a lawsuit Monday of plotting to use Trump-branded skyscrapers to launder money allegedly stolen from a Kazakhstan bank.
BTA Bank and the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, allege Felix Sater conspired with the son of the city’s former mayor to use some of the $440 million to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Sater, who was due to testify before Congress this week about his work with Trump, started pushing the Moscow project in 2005 and tried to kick-start it during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, but it was never built.
The bank also alleges Sater helped the mayor’s son, Ilyas Khrapunov, mask $3 million as down payments on three condominiums in Trump SoHo, a New York City hotel Sater helped develop as an executive at Bayrock Group LLC.
Sater arranged for Trump and Khrapunov to meet and discuss potential investments, the lawsuit said, avoiding any suggestion that Trump engaged in impropriety or that he was aware Sater and Khrapunov allegedly stole money.
Sater’s lawyer said Tuesday in a written statement that the bank had hired a Sater-owned company to recover some of the assets and that the lawsuit is “cheap and desperate retaliation” after that company sued over an unpaid bill.
Sater’s company helped the bank recover more than $50 million in stolen assets and was owed $10 million for the work, lawyer Robert Wolf said. The bank said in a court filing it did not know Sater was connected to the asset-recovery company until he said so in a deposition.
Messages were left with representatives for Trump and his company, the Trump Organization. Khrapunov is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan. His lawyer noted that all claims against him regarding alleged money laundering have been dismissed by federal courts in New York and California.
Sater’s work on the Trump Tower Moscow project has made him a key figure in the House Democrats’ investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia. The congressional probes are moving forward after Attorney General William Barr on Sunday said that special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence Trump colluded with Russia to influence the election.
Sater’s public testimony, however, will wait.
The House Intelligence Committee postponed Sater’s appearance, scheduled for Wednesday. It wasn’t clear whether he would still meet with the House Judiciary Committee in a closed-door session Thursday.
Khrapunov’s father-in-law, former BTA Bank chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov, is accused of embezzling billions of dollars from the bank and funneling the money into offshore entities. The lawsuit said that, once caught, he turned to Khrapunov to monetize and launder remaining assets.
The Khrapunov and Ablyazov families have been accused, in various forms, of myriad corrupt acts over the years — in response, both claim the charges are politically motivated. While at one point Ablyazov was a member of the Kazakh elite circled around now-former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, he is now head of a political party banned in Kazakhstan and routinely agitates for his followers to protest. It’s unclear how widespread support for Ablyazov is in Kazakhstan.
Khrapunov knew Sater through his family and asked him to join the scheme in 2011, the lawsuit said. Sater had been involved in coal extraction and oil drilling ventures with Khrapunov’s family and attended Khrapunov’s 2007 wedding to Ablyazov’s daughter, the lawsuit said.
Sater and two other people are named as defendants, along with five companies. They include Bayrock Group Inc., a company owned by Sater that is separate from Bayrock Group LLC, the real estate company founded by Tevfik Arif where Sater worked as an executive. Bayrock Group LLC is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
In addition to the money laundering allegations, Sater is accused in the lawsuit of stealing $40 million for himself and an associate.
Sater, 53, is among the more colorful characters in Trump’s orbit. He served 15 months in jail in the early 1990s and permanently lost his stockbroker’s license for stabbing a man in the face with the stem of a broken margarita glass at a Manhattan bar.
A few years later, he got caught in a $40 million pump-and-dump stock fraud, turned state’s evidence against two New York crime families and then continued providing the government with information related to national security and other matters.
In another Trump connection, BTA Bank hired his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen in 2017 to help with litigation over Ablyazov’s alleged embezzlement but dumped him within two months because it says he “did absolutely nothing of value.” Sater and Cohen worked together on the Moscow project in 2016.
By Michael R. Sisak for the Associated Press (@mikesisak). The Diplomat contributed additional reporting.
Corrections: In a story March 26 about Felix Sater, an associate of President Donald Trump, The Associated Press erroneously reported the name of a company named in a lawsuit against Sater. The company that was sued is Bayrock Group Inc., which is owned by Sater, not Bayrock Group LLC, a real estate company founded by Tevfik Arif where Sater was an executive.