Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin (a.k.a. “Putin's chef”) has had a spate of bad luck recently. Last week his cover was blown when Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed that Prigozhin's Internet Research Agency, the so-called Troll Factory, had used discovery material from Mueller's own case against Prigozhin to try to launch a disinformation campaign discrediting the probe.
Worse than that embarrassing exposure, Prigozhin's long-time crony Leonid Teyf, the guy responsible for getting Prigozhin billions of rubles worth of contracts with Russia's Ministry of Defense, was indicted in Raleigh, North Carolina in December on charges of murder for hire, money laundering, bribing a public official and owning a gun with the serial numbers obliterated, among other offenses.
The round-faced, gray-mustached 57-year-old Teyf looked bleary-eyed in his mug shot after the FBI’s Dec. 5 raid on his multi-million-dollar white-columned mansion backing onto the greens and sand traps of Raleigh’s exclusive North Ridge Country Club.
If Teyf is not directly involved in the conspiracies at the heart of the Mueller probe, there are only one or two degrees of separation. He and Prigozhin, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s go-to guy for semi-deniable skulduggery, have a long and infamous association.
At a minimum Teyf's case in North Carolina, which will be tried in early April, has drawn renewed attention in Russia to a huge scam he and Prigozhin allegedly were involved in, along with former Russian Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov.
Prigozhin, who enjoys Putin’s unwavering protection—despite being named in Mueller’s Troll Factory indictment and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for interference in the U.S. election—will no doubt survive these upsets as long as he stays home in Russia. But his friend Teyf, who brazenly thought he could get away with mafia-style behavior here in the United States, is facing a grim future.
According to court documents, Teyf was planning on moving back to Russia, where he has several lavish homes—and lots of money in Russian banks. Instead, he is sitting in a Raleigh jail awaiting trial after trying to arrange the murder of his wife’s lover and talking about wiping out the young man’s whole family because, after all, that’s the way he and the mob around Putin are used to doing things.
Teyf's friendship with Prigozhin began in St. Petersburg, where Prigozhin, after a lengthy prison stint during the 1980s for robbery, had already remade himself as a successful entrepreneur, with the help of Russian organized crime and Putin.
Prigozhin and Russian businessmen Igor Gorbenko and Boris Spektor started investing in St. Petersburg gambling casinos in the early 1990s. As the city's deputy mayor, Putin was responsible for the licensing of casinos, several of which were run by former KGB officers with mafia connections.
Two figures who served as a liaison between the mayor's office and organized crime groups were Roman Tsepov and Viktor Zolotov, who were friends of Prigozhin and ran a private security firm, called Baltik-Eskort—connected to the notorious Tambov-Malyshev gang. (Zolotov now heads the powerful Russian National Guard.) Although the city of St. Petersburg owned 51 percent of the casinos, most of the profits were skimmed off in “black cash” to various members of the criminal underworld. But the mayor's office doubtless got its share.
Putin writes in his autobiography First Person that he was unaware of the scam: “The casino owners showed us only losses on the books… If I had stayed in Peter [St. Petersburg] I would have squeezed those casinos to the end and forced them to share their profits with the city.”
That did not prevent Putin as president from promoting the New Island, a restaurant that Prigozhin opened up in St. Petersburg in 1998. Putin brought a cast of global leaders, including French President Jacques Chirac, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, George W. Bush and Colin Powell, to the restaurant and even celebrated his birthday there in 2003. Prigozhin also won lucrative contracts to cater major Kremlin events.
Meanwhile, Teyf had been running a fish processing company, Delta-Plus, in the city of Astrakhan. The company, the largest in the lower Volga region, with a reported annual revenue of $14 million, received acclaim in 2011 when the region's governor gave Teyf an award for “his great contribution to the socio-economic development of the Astrakhan Region.”
In 2009 and 2010, Delta-Plus, which was liquidated in 2015, received contracts from the Russian Ministry of Defense to provide fish to the military. Teyf also had been investing in St. Petersburg. In 2006, his company ZAO Terra Nova, bought for land reclamation, in a dubious auction, 4.7 million square meters of the Gulf of Finland west of Vasilievsky Island, where Prigozhin owned restaurants. The company planned on building passenger facilities for cruise boats and a business center.
Teyf's plan to develop the area did not go forward for whatever reason, and Terra Nova ended up selling the property. But within a few years Teyf had enough connections in Putin's St. Petersburg circles to land, in 2010, a very lucrative Moscow job as first deputy chief of Voentorg, a firm that outsourced catering, laundry and other services for the Russian military.
The idea of outsourcing these services was the brainchild of Anatoly Serdyukov, who became Putin’s Minister of Defense in 2007, after serving as head of the Federal Tax Service.
Significantly, Spanish police investigating the Russian mafia in Spain wrote in a 2009 report that Serdyukov was the principle Russian politician for coordination between Putin's Kremlin circle and the Tambov-Malyshev organized crime group.
Serdyukov, a former St. Petersburg furniture salesman who was known to frequent Prigozhin's restaurants and was the son-in-law at the time of then-Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, supposedly was appointed by Putin in order to “restore order” in the Ministry of Defense. But, in handing over services that were previously administered by the MOD to Voentorg, Serdyukov created the opportunity for a massive fraud.
In 2012, at the instigation of Teyf, Prigozhin's subsidiaries were contracted (without competition) to provide over 90 percent of all food, laundry, and sanitation services to the military for two years, for an estimated 92 billion rubles (almost $3 billion). Teyf not only got kickbacks from Prigozhin; according to the Moscow Post, he was also selling Voentorg management positions in the military districts for $100,000 and up.
The Voentorg fraud did not go unnoticed in the Russian independent media. Novaya Gazeta reported in November 2012: “Leonid Teyf, having moved to Moscow from the shores of the Neva… has already survived the replacement of several leaders, to assume complete control of [Voentorg]. The greatest asset of Leonid Teyf is his relationship of trust with Evgeny Prigozhin. It was Teyf who provided Prigozhin with the first outsourcing contracts for the supply of food to army units... And now the work on the transfer to Prigozhin of the provision of food, sanitary and laundry services to the army has reached the final stage.” (In fact, the paper estimated the total amount of Prigozhin’s contracts to be worth 140 billion rubles (over $4 billion) annually.)
According to the Russian website Meduza: “This was the peak of Prigozhin's career. He flew in private planes and paid for it in cash. In letters, Prigozhin referred to himself as an adviser to the presidential administration and a knight of the ‘For Merit to the Fatherland Order,’ although there's no official record of him ever winning this honor.”
Serdyukov did not fare as well. He was fired in late 2012, ostensibly because of negligence in the case of alleged fraud in the ministry's property department, run by a glamorous lady named Evgenia Vasileva, whom Serdyukov later married. Vasileva cost the ministry several billion rubles worth of losses by selling off military property at reduced prices. (In October 2012, during searches of Vasileva's 13-room apartment in the center of Moscow, police found an impressive collection of antiques and paintings, as well as a stash of jewelry, including diamonds, emeralds and rubies, weighing 19 kilos.)
Serdyukov was investigated and later pardoned for his role in the property department affair, while his bride-to-be was sentenced to five years in prison, but was released within a couple of months. Serdyukov is now director of aviation for the state company Rostekh. ( It was later revealed that in early 2012, Serdyukov received the highest Kremlin honor, the “Hero of Russia” award.)
At first everybody speculated that the new defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, would put a stop to the scheme of kickbacks for military contracts and speculation that the gravy train of Teyf and Prigozhin would dry up. But, although Teyf did leave his post at Voentorg, Prigozhin continued to receive lucrative contracts for services to the military.
According to an early 2016 investigation by Aleksei Navalny's Fund Against Corruption, Prigozhin “found a new niche for receiving billions from the military budget.” On the direct initiative of Shoigu, companies affiliated with Prigozhin had in 2015 received contracts—with no competitive bidding—of more than 40 billion rubles ($606 million) to provide housing and public utilities to military bases in Russia.
It is not hard to explain why Prigozhin kept benefiting from the Kremlin's largesse and also why he escapes any repercussions for his corruption. Prigozhin has become indispensable to Putin, offering his services in two crucial areas.
In 2012, at the height of nationwide street protests against the Kremlin, Prigozhin's employees at his firm Concord started collecting information at rallies that was then used in a controversial NTV documentary “Anatomy of a Protest,” that accused demonstrators of being paid by the West. In the wake of the Voentorg scandal, Prigozhin started a campaign for an "honest media," targeting journalists who exposed the scandal and accusing them of publishing false information. (A bit like Trump's “fake news.”)
Prigozhin even had one of his employees get a job with Novaya Gazeta, where she could secretly collect information on the paper's operations. These efforts might explain why the Kremlin later assigned Prigozhin's Internet Research Agency the task of messing up our 2016 presidential elections, which proved highly successful.
Another hugely important Prigozhin contribution is his sponsorship, together with Russian military intelligence (the GRU), of the Kremlin's private armies—mercenaries who are hired to carry out covert missions for the Kremlin. With his background in contract services for the MOD, it made sense for Prigozhin to support regiments such as Wagner, which has operated in such places as Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Central Africa. A commander of Wagner, former GRU Col. Dmitry Utkin, was identified by Mueller's team as a director of Prigozhin's firm Concord in 2017. And there are now reports that Prigozhin's private jet has been tracked flying regularly over Syria, Libya and Africa over the past couple of years.
As for Teyf, he apparently moved his family to Raleigh, North Carolina in 2010 in order to establish a means of laundering the massive amounts of money he had accumulated fraudulently in Russia—said by U.S. authorities to be $150 million. But Teyf, who never bothered to learn English, continued to live and work in Russia until at least 2013, and traveled there frequently after that. According to court documents in his case, USA v. Teyf et. al., prosecutors learned that:
“TEYF has several properties at various locations in Russia. For example, apartments in Domodedovo, Krasnodar, Sudak, and Moscow; as well as a ‘compound’ outside of Moscow described as including the main home, outbuildings, and security personnel.
“TEYF has both an apartment and a house in Switzerland, which [source] has seen photos of. [Source] is aware that at one point TEYF flew to Switzerland for the sole purpose of obtaining a dog to bring back to the United States.”
Meanwhile, according to the press in Raleigh, bank records presented by investigators showed Teyf and his wife bought nearly $400,000 worth of Mercedes-Benzes in the U.S. and $2.5 million worth of artwork from a New York gallery.
They were the very model of sloppy money launderers, as alleged in the indictments. Starting in 2010, they opened 70 accounts at four different U.S. banks, with money pouring in from Belize, the British Virgin Island, Panama and the Seychelles.
In addition to his mansion next to a country club, according to local press reports in Raleigh citing court testimony, Teyf kept a "safe house" in a more down-market neighborhood where he stashed the money he'd use to pay people off. Investigators found there an array of weapons, including AK-47s and a vintage SKS assault rifle.
Court documents also revealed that Teyf and his family had tickets for travel to Russia on Dec. 15, 2018 and that Teyf had intended to purchase an apartment near the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. He had made arrangements with his son Grigory, a college student in the United States, to oversee his U.S. finances because he did not plan on returning.
Unfortunately for Teyf, his rather messy personal life put the kibosh on his plans.
After finding out that his 41-year-old wife Tatyana (also charged with several counts of fraud) was having an affair with the son of their Russian housekeeper, Teyf enlisted an acquaintance from the Department of Homeland Security, first to have her lover deported and later to kill him, neither of which happened.
The DHS agent was working undercover for the FBI and taped all his conversations with Teyf.
According to a prosecution statement: “Teyf has employment opportunities in place in Russia and is able to influence law enforcement there.” He was planning on using his influence with Russian police to have his wife arrested on her arrival, as well as to target the family of his wife's lover, telling the DHS agent:
“Motherfucker…I don't have any choice but to go to Russia, call on the guys and whack his entire family.” He also said that “if it were in Russia, he'd [the lover] be dead already.” (As prosecutors observed, “violence is Teyf's manner of resolving conflict.” In the past, Teyf had tried to get his confidant to “'take care of someone' or put them in the hospital” because of disagreements over finances.)
If this sounds like something from a scene in “Narcos” or “McMafia” it is not surprising. The entire cast of characters in the Prigozhin-Teyf saga, including Serdyukov and Putin himself, have for years operated in a world of politics dominated by corruption and violence. Just last October, Novaya Gazeta, following months of secret interviews with a former member of Prigozhin's security detail, published a shocking account of the brutal tactics—including beatings, poisonings and even murder—employed by Prigozhin's thugs against his and Putin's perceived enemies.
This explains why, when the question of Teyf's criminal culpability in Russia came up in court in Raleigh on Jan. 22, the response from his lawyer was this: “There is absolutely no evidence that is present that Mr. Teyf violated law in Russia. In fact, when [the judge] asked the government to identify the Russian statute that he had violated, the government said: ‘We can’t.’ They don't know. Because he didn't violate one.”
One thing these guys know how to do is take care of “evidence.”
If Teyf had made it back to Russia, his friend Prigozhin and others who have benefited from Teyf's financial dealings most likely would have made sure he avoided prosecution. Teyf's fatal mistake was his failure to grasp that mafia tactics do not work as well in the United States as they do in his home country.