From Hillary Clinton Donor to Kremlin Bank Flack

Hillary Clinton has regularly criticized Donald Trump for being too close to the Kremlin. But one of her bundlers didn’t get the memo.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

One of Hillary Clinton’s favorite attack lines against Donald Trump is that his relationship with the Kremlin is much too cozy for comfort.

At least one of her campaign bundlers seems to have missed that line of criticism.

Emanuel “Mike” Manatos, a lobbyist who helped raise upwards of $40,000 for her presidential campaign, recently started lobbying for a state-controlled Russian bank. And not just any bank. This one is run by associates of Vladimir Putin—including a former Stasi agent—and has been sanctioned by the U.S. government since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. It’s just another example of the pot/kettle nature of the 2016 presidential race.

Manatos rounded up $39,800 for Clinton’s campaign from his friends and acquaintances in the first three months of this year (PDF), a practice called bundling. FEC records show he also gave $2,950 to Clinton’s campaign in 2015, and $2,300 to her 2008 presidential campaign.

And two months ago, his lobbying firm, Manatos & Manatos, signed a contract to lobby for VTB Group bank regarding its placement on the list of Russian financial institutions sanctioned by the U.S. government (PDF). The bank was penalized as part of a round of sanctions the U.S. and European Union implemented in July 2014 targeting top Russian power brokers after the takeover of Crimea. As a result of the sanctions, it’s taken a massive financial hit.

The contract states that VTB Group will pay the firm a $17,500 monthly retainer, plus expenses. This may not be the firm’s first time lobbying with VTB Group: Manatos & Manatos disclosed last year in Senate lobbying forms that VTB Group was their client, effective April 2, 2015. But filings in the U.S. government’s Foreign Agents Registration Act database indicate the bank only signed its contract with the firm in May. Manatos & Manatos did not respond to a request to clarify their relationship with the bank, and did not offer any information on the nature of their lobbying beyond what the FARA filings show.

Manatos’s contract with the bank comes just as the Clinton campaign amps up its attacks on Trump for his financial ties to Russia. Last week, the Clinton campaign emailed reporters a press release highlighting a Washington Post story about Russia-related business ventures by Trump and some of his advisers dating as far back as the late 1980s.

Trump’s “peculiar and dangerous overtures to the Kremlin cannot be decoupled from the deep financial ties Trump and several of his top aides have to Russia,” the Clinton campaign’s statement said.

VTB Group has close ties to the Kremlin, and the Russian government owns the majority of the bank’s voting shares. Its chief executive, Andrei Kostin, meets regularly with Putin and other top Kremlin officials, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Effectively, the bank is an arm of the Russian government,” Craig Pirrong, a finance professor at the University of Houston, told The Daily Beast. “The government appoints the board of directors and effectively controls the policies of the bank.”

Anders Aslund, an Atlantic Council economist specializing in Russia, said that he has gotten to know Kostin as the two men have attended international conferences together since the early 1990s.

“[Kostin] behaves extremely subserviently to Putin,” said Dr. Aslund. “Even more so now, since VTB is in such a terrible state of affairs.”

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In an interview with television host Charlie Rose last year, Kostin, the bank’s CEO, hedged about exactly how close he is to the Russian president.

“You know, in Russia, when you’re a chairman of the largest bank, you visit the president and see him from time to time,” said Kostin, who added that he has known Putin for nearly two decades. “He knows me very well, I know him very well at least. But my relationship is limited to what I’m doing, we don’t discuss much broader issues.”

VTB Group’s management includes one of Putin’s closest associates: Matthias Warnig, a former officer for the Stasi—the notorious East German secret police. Warnig was named in a New York Times investigation into members of Putin’s inner circle who have become rich during Putin’s presidency.

Warnig has held positions on the boards of multiple major Russian corporations, including state-owned oil company Rosneft. Until 2012, Warnig held a spot on the board of directors of Bank Rossiya—which the Obama administration calls the “personal bank” of top Kremlin officials and has sanctioned even more severely than VTB Group.

Warnig and Putin both worked in Soviet intelligence services in East Germany. When Warnig worked for the Stasi, Putin was also stationed in East Germany as a KGB agent. Despite their proximity during the 1980s, both men have publicly said that they did not meet until later, when Warnig moved to St. Petersburg and opened a bank.

Yet Warnig’s bank facilitated payments for medical care in Germany for Putin’s wife after she was injured in a car accident, according to The New York Times.

VTB Group’s profits plummeted after the Treasury Department prohibited Americans from providing new financing or loans to the bank. The bank’s prospects do not look much better for 2016—it’s expected to eke out a small net profit. In addition to the sanctions, Russia’s shrinking economy has also hurt VTB Group.

So the bank is desperate for the sanctions to get lifted, as one of its top officials told CNBC in October 2015.

So it’s understandable that they’d want a well-connected D.C. lobbyist. And Manatos fits the bill. He and his family have had ties to the Clintons and Democratic politics for years.

Manatos is not the only high-profile lobbyist with ties to the Clinton campaign—and who lobbies on behalf of questionable foreign clients.

Last year, two Clinton White House veterans registered as lobbyists on behalf of the Egyptian government. The former aides—Joel Johnson and Susan Brophy—have donated thousands of dollars to Hillary Clinton’s two presidential campaigns. Johnson and Brophy, both in management at D.C. lobbying firm Glover Park Group, represented a military dictatorship whose country is in a “human rights crisis” according to a Human Rights Watch report on Egypt.

Another lobbyist, David Adams, was chief legislative adviser to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2011-2013. Since he left the State Department, Adams’s roster of clients with the firm Podesta Group has included multiple nations that are known for human rights abuses: South Sudan, Kenya, and Azerbaijan.

For the Manatos family, their relationship with Clinton continued during her tenure as secretary of state.

In 2009, Andy Manatos, his father and partner at the firm, spoke at a ceremony in the State Department and personally presented Clinton an award for her work on “Hellenic and Orthodox issues.” The Manatos family is prominent in the Greek-American community, and Andy presented the award on behalf of the National Coordinated Effort of Hellenes (CEH) and with the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America. Later that year, Andy and Mike Manatos sent an email to Clinton’s then-chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, praising Clinton’s remarks on Greece and Cyprus with the subject line, “Thank you... again.” Mills then forwarded the email to Clinton’s personal email account.

Two years later, Andy Manatos wrote in a mostly-redacted email to Mills that she also forwarded to Clinton’s private account. “Thank you very much for coming through again,” he wrote.