The woman Rep. George Santos called his “best friend” is a Republican fundraiser and conspiracy-theory spreader who spent years promoting an Albanian politician barred from entering the United States for corruption—work that raised concerns among legal and ethics experts who spoke with The Daily Beast.
In the space of two election cycles, Evi Kokalari—who sometimes uses her ex-husband’s surname Angelakis—went from a small-time Queens real estate broker whose dabbling in politics never extended beyond a couple gifts to local campaigns, to a jet-setting Republican operative who hosted events for Santos and GOP luminaries including former Rep. Lee Zeldin and Trump acting intelligence director Ric Grenell.
In the same period, beginning around 2019, social media showed her attending parties at Mar-a-Lago, commanding meetings with Eric Trump; ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Ilir Meta, then the president of Albania; and Yuri Kim, former U.S. ambassador to Albania. Posts showed she regularly visited her home country in the Balkans and such destinations as London, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos.
Her access to U.S. politicians allowed her to propagate a narrative in the United States and in Albania that blamed liberal billionaire George Soros for American sanctions against ex-Prime Minister Sali Berisha, whom the State Department had declared persona non grata for his involvement in public corruption. Following her events with Zeldin and Grenell, the two Republicans began to echo her talking points about Berisha’s supposed persecution, and she claimed online to have recruited multiple members of Congress to her anti-Soros cause.
But at the same time that her profile in both her native and adoptive nations rose, and as her lifestyle grew increasingly ostentatious, public records and her own statements show her tiny property sales and rental business faltered.
Albanian news outlets have questioned how the newly minted pundit and activist financed her travel bills and incessant activism, and wondered whether the funds had come from Berisha and his supporters. Experts on U.S. lobbying regulations expressed the same concerns.
“The fact pattern certainly raised additional questions for me,” said Joshua Rosenstein, an attorney with the firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.
Rosenstein, like all of the legal authorities The Daily Beast consulted for this story, stressed that the crucial question is whether Kokalari had met the criteria to be considered an agent of a foreign principal under the federal Foreign Agent Registration Act. Crucial to this is whether Kokalari was ever compensated for her work, and whether she operated under the direction or control of another foreign actor.
“If she’s flying back and forth between the United States and Albania, and coming back here to lobby on behalf of Berisha, and if she’s paid by him or his party, or directed by him, she must register,” said James Thurber, professor emeritus at American University, who has written extensively on foreign lobbying.
Thurber, like other experts, highlighted the broad language of the statute and uneven historic enforcement. “She’s swimming in a gray area.”
In conversation with The Daily Beast, Kokalari cast aspersions on the accuracy and integrity of the Albanian outlets, and insisted she has never accepted any form of compensation, honorarium, or reimbursement for any of her advocacy. However, she declined to provide details about how she paid for her activities.
“I have nothing to report to the Department of Justice,” she said. “If you think that my involvement in politics in America has something to do with Albania, you’re losing your mind.”
Santos did not respond to questions for this story, and Kokalari maintained she severed their relationship in 2021.
Evi Kokalari’s sudden transformation
What is known is that Kokalari’s involvement in U.S. national politics is a recent phenomenon. She made her first federal political contribution—to then-President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign—in September 2019. Soon, she began pouring out thousands to both federal and New York State Republican interests, and her social media pages suddenly came alive with conservative memes and videos from pro-Trump events.
Within a little more than a year, Kokalari was not only attending such events but organizing them. These included a pro-Trump flotilla off Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 that earned her an appearance on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, the fundraisers for Santos and Zeldin, a panel with Bannon on Albanian language television, and—just weeks before the election—a Trump campaign fundraiser with Detroit-area Albanian-American leaders featuring Grenell.
But Kokalari’s sudden explosion in activism, travel, and political giving coincided with desperate times for the New York City real estate market—and for Kokalari’s business, Golden Key Realty—thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns.
“Tourism in New York is dead, office buildings are closed. It’s difficult to survive at this point,” she told the International Business Times that August. A few months before, Golden Key Realty had secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $40,000 to help it bridge the crisis. Early in 2021, Kokalari obtained a $20,833 loan through the program in her own name.
Kokalari admitted to The Daily Beast she has not updated the listings on her business’s website in the nearly three years since the pandemic began. She appears to have last brokered a major property sale in January 2019. StreetEasy, one of the biggest and most popular real estate listing services in New York City, shows Golden Key handled three apartment rentals in 2022, the costliest of which leased for $2,000 a month—and the site shows no other transactions since 2017. Her listings on Zillow are even older than that.
Kokalari insisted she had been involved in other property transactions, though she refused to provide dates or addresses. Industry sources told The Daily Beast there was little evidence of activity by her firm, and the Real Estate Board of New York—a trade group—said that it rescinded her membership in June 2021 for nonpayment of dues. The organization did not answer queries about how long she had been delinquent.
Kokalari’s political activities somehow escalated as her company stagnated. An archived version of her Twitter account from late 2020 shows she represented herself as a member of the finance committee of the Trump Victory Committee, the joint fundraising effort of the Republican National Committee and the then-president’s re-election bid. A person familiar with the committee, however, told The Daily Beast that this was not true and Kokalari had no involvement in the joint entity, though she did bundle contributions for the campaign proper.
Kokalari declined to comment when asked about this discrepancy.
Trump’s 2020 election loss, and his subsequent lies about election fraud, gave her a chance to begin linking American affairs with those in Albania. On Nov. 19, 2020, she appeared on One America News, where an anchor presented her as a person “familiar with communism and socialism and how it works and doesn’t work versus capitalism.”
In this appearance, Kokalari alluded vaguely but ominously to a series of supposed connections between Dominion Voting Systems, the Clinton Foundation, and the Soros family, all of which she claimed had a sinister presence in both Albania and the U.S.
“When you see weak states like those, this is the perfect playground for George Soros,” she said, before repeating debunked claims about a conspiracy between Dominion and fellow voting technology company Smartmatic. “In 2016, right before the election in 2016, Hillary Clinton was so sure she was going to win. The only reason she was sure she was gonna win, is because they knew Dominion and the software, Smartech–Smartmatic was in existence, and that’s how they were going to get the election.”
The Soros springboard
These comments later wound up in the defamation complaint Smartmatic brought against OANN, but the firm did not name Kokalari as a party to the suit. She further outlined her views on Soros and her homeland in a brief piece on the far-right website Revolver on Nov. 30. In the article, she claimed to have fraternized with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and a Soros operative in Paris after the collapse of the country’s communist dictatorship in the 1990s.
Offering what she described as a “cautionary tale,” Kokalari fantastically characterized the Hungarian-born financier as the “master strategist” who had engineered a takeover of the Albanian courts, pro-democracy “Color Revolutions” across Eastern Europe, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and the supposed rigging of the 2020 election.
“Albania’s highly-unpopular Rama will stay in power so long as he maintains his cozy relationship with George Soros,” she asserted. “If we let the election go and hand it to Joe Biden, we know where this is headed—American elections will have the same amount of legitimacy as those in the Balkans, and Biden or the next Soros puppet will remain in power indefinitely.”
Absurd and unsubstantiated as these claims were, they cast the mold for the next stage of her political career. In her author bio on the Revolver piece, she described herself as “the founder of Immigrants for Trump”—a distinction she would continue to tout in the year ahead, later adding the establishment of an “Immigrants for Freedom” political action committee to her list of putative accomplishments.
Neither of these organizations have registered with the Federal Election Commission or maintain a website or other presence online. Kokalari insisted she did form the groups, but later abandoned them, though there is no publicly available evidence to support that.
The coming year would also avail her of opportunities to utilize her newfound American political connections to cultivate relationships with the Albanian elite and to promote Soros-related conspiracy theories on two continents.
Multiple experts on Albania that The Daily Beast consulted for this story agreed that America enjoys overwhelming support and admiration in the small Balkan state, and that access to U.S. political figures can be converted into huge quantities of political capital there. For this same reason, a lack of allies in D.C. can practically disqualify an Albanian politician from holding power.
“No country is more important to Albania than the United States, and the U.S. has no better friend worldwide than Albanians,” said David L. Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, an expert on the Balkans. “Albania doesn't want to do anything that will spoil relations with Washington.”
The Berisha connection
In May 2021, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken barred Sali Berisha, the former Albanian prime minister, and his entire family from entering the United States—citing Berisha’s “misappropriation of public funds and interfering with public processes.” It was a devastating blow to Berisha’s ambitions to recover leadership of the country he led between 2005 and 2013, and threatened even to undercut his bid to resume the chairmanship of the Albanian Democratic Party. In September of that year, Berisha’s former protege and successor as party chair Lulzim Basha expelled him from its conference in the country’s parliament.
According to Fred Abrahams, the author of a book about Albania and a visiting professor at Bard College Berlin, there is little doubt as to Berisha’s guilt; corruption is so pervasive in the country as to be universal and inescapable. But the timing, he argued, reflected a U.S. and European Union effort to strengthen and rejuvenate the Albanian Democratic Party by helping it shed Berisha, who has dominated the organization since its formation in the 1990s.
“The allegations against Berisha landed in a moment when the Democratic Party was trying to move beyond Berisha to new leadership, and the E.U. and US governments were supportive of that,” Abrahams explained. “They wanted a viable, competitive opposition, and they didn’t think Berisha could be that.”
But Kokalari, who had already boosted Berisha in Albanian media, immediately began pushing the notion that the Soros family was behind the U.S. move. Zeldin soon echoed this insinuation when questioning Blinken at a June House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
“For many, this seemingly came out of nowhere,” the congressman said. “He was a guest and ally of the Bushes. He was also known to be an aggressive opponent of George Soros.”
Zeldin also fired off the first of what would ultimately be three letters to the State Department demanding access to the intelligence that led to Berisha’s designation.
In this, Phillips saw the possible influence of Kokalari, who had remained in contact with the congressman.
“It’s fairly routine for U.S. citizens to raise money for members of the House, and then ask those House members to act on behalf of their issues,” he said. “As is the case with anything else in Albania, it was transactional, and there was support provided to Lee Zeldin by Albanian-Americans as a result.”
Zeldin did not respond to calls, emails, or text messages for comment. Kokalari said that she “never, ever” discussed Albanian issues with the then-congressman, and insisted he had come by his concerns about Soros and Berisha through a third party whom she refused to name.
But Kokalari quickly took to Albanian television to promote Zeldin’s comments after the hearing, trumpeting the event she had held for him the year before.
“For Mr. Berisha, we have some very prominent friends in America, who have done a lot for Albanians and will continue to do so in the future,” she told host Cim Peka the night of the hearing. “Today, all it did was give us a voice in Congress.”
She also claimed in a Facebook post that Pompeo had assured her in a meeting that he had had no role in opening a file on Berisha during the Trump administration, and that he vowed to contact Zeldin about the issue. Neither Pompeo nor his political action committee responded to repeated requests for comment.
By fall, Kokalari had launched an all-out multinational campaign advocating for Berisha’s exoneration and return to power. In late September, she held a joint press conference with the former prime minister, where she vowed he and his supporters “will have the help of the American Republicans.”
In late September, she vowed on Albanian television to use her connections in America to sway the government on Berisha’s behalf.
“I have relations with American congressmen. I have Yuri Kim as a friend and I protect Berisha.”
Kokalari’s echo chamber
In October, she interviewed Bannon on Albanian television. A representative for Bannon did not respond on the record to requests for comment.
Days later, Kokalari shared a stage with right-wing provocateur Jack Posobiec at the conservative summit “AMPFest” at the Trump National Doral in Miami, where she talked up her efforts to help Berisha recover control of the Albanian Democratic Party and bewailed Soros’ supposed capture of the State Department.
Just a few weeks later, Grenell—whom Kokalari had feted that June at a cocktail reception attended by New York City Republican donors—penned an article titled “Blinken Acts as Agent of George Soros in the Balkans,” echoing many of the same bizarre talking points favored by Kokalari. Kokalari asserted to The Daily Beast, however, that she never discussed Berisha and his predicament with Grenell.
One day after that piece ran, Kokalari posted a photo of herself at Mar-a-Lago, where the Log Cabin Republicans were holding their Spirit of Lincoln gala, in which the LGBT GOP group presented awards to Grenell, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and former First Lady Melania Trump.
In early December, Kokalari and National Young Republican Federation head Rick Loughery held a virtual conference with Berisha at a Marriott Hotel in New Jersey. Early in 2022, she brought Loughery and conservative author Matt Palumbo—whose book on Soros ‘Man Behind the Curtain’ cites Kokalari’s Revolver article as a source in building a pro-Berisha narrative—to Albania to do multiple media and public events, including at least one with the ex-prime minister himself.
On the dais at one of those events, Loughery presented Kokalari with a flag from the U.S. Capitol, courtesy of Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kansas). On another occasion, the group met with Albanian President Meta, a Berisha ally. Palumbo declined to comment for this piece, while Loughery did not respond to repeated outreach by The Daily Beast. Estes’ office would not comment on the record.
Evi floods the zone
Month after month, right up until she and Berisha had a public falling out at the end of 2022, social media shows Kokalari kept up this frenetic pace: a near-constant presence on Albanian television as well as a regular at Republican functions, broken only by the occasional vacation.
To one Albanian politics insider who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, in order to avoid public reprisals, the strategy was obvious: sell a story to the Albanian public that would make Berisha palatable again, despite the U.S. sanctions. The former prime minister had spent several years as a grey eminence within his party, retaining considerable informal influence, but wanted a cover story to give the populace at large as he returned to his old official position as chairman.
“It strengthened Berisha’s position again to come back. It created a narrative,” the source said. “The whole narrative created was this was not the U.S. government, this is a left-wing conspiracy.”
“What speaks right now in Albania is: ‘Do you have access to government officials here in the U.S.?’ or ‘Do you have money?’” the insider continued.
That narrative was explicit in the speech Kokalari made to the internal assembly of the Albanian Democratic Party, shortly before Berisha successfully recaptured the chairmanship.
“Our loyalty belongs to America and not special interests. We have vowed to protect the U.S. from enemies like Soros,” she told the internal party conclave. “If Trump were still in the White House Berisha would not be non grata, the war in Ukraine would not have happened, and Albania would not be in this political chaos.”
But the press was paying attention to more than her speeches. In July 2022, the Albanian outlet CNA discovered through flight records that Kokalari had taken at least nine trips between the U.S. and Albania as part of her advocacy for Berisha, likely running up bills in the tens of thousands of dollars—and doubtless had incurred thousands more in food and hotel bills. The outlet did not call attention to expenses she would have inevitably incurred while attending political events in the U.S., or on the various vacations she displayed on social media, or note that her real estate business appeared to be all-but defunct.
But the article did note that American law requires persons lobbying on behalf of foreign interests to register with the Department of Justice.
The blame game
In an angry Facebook post blaming the article on a rival within the Albanian Democratic Party, Kokalari insisted that she had consulted legal counsel to be sure she was in compliance with FARA—but added that even if she had violated the law, it was worth it to uplift Berisha.
“I don’t need to declare my travel and personal expenses to the Department of Justice. Your ignorance of how things work in America is astounding,” she wrote in Albanian. “I have consulted with the best lobbying lawyers in America precisely to be precise with the law, and I will remain so until the end.”
“Even if I had broken the rules to help Sali Berisha and the opposition in Albania during such a difficult period, this should have been appreciated and not denounced,” she added.
Kokalari insisted that she had consulted an attorney and was in complete compliance with the law, but she refused to share the lawyer’s name. Some hours after The Daily Beast interviewed Kokalari, an antitrust and business attorney from the Atlanta area—who is also a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association—reached out.
“Ms. Kokalari’s conduct has been reviewed and approved by her counsel, and as she mentioned to you, she has not received any personal benefit for her political activities,” attorney C. Robert Barker wrote. “Your questions are based on no evidence.”
She further maintained that she had self-financed all her activities, thanks to certain “real estate investments.” She declined to provide any details about such investments, but public documents show she co-owns a two-story mixed-use building in Queens with at least one partner, which has served as her brokerage's offices. New York City property tax records reveal that the limited liability company behind the property repeatedly missed quarterly payments during 2021 and 2022.
But Kokalari pointed to her recent falling out with Berisha as proof she has never been on anybody’s payroll.
“If I was paid for lobbying for Berisha or anybody else, how would I turn around and just do this to the guy?” she said, noting she had criticized him on Facebook in recent weeks. “I’m not going to get in trouble in America. I have an excellent life, I have a beautiful life, I have a personal life, I have a business life, I have a political life, and I have plenty of friends, and I’m just not going to get involved with that.”
Kokalari is not the only Albanian-American recently entangled in political scandals on both sides of the Atlantic. The allegations against Charles McGonigal, the former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York office, include charges that he received bribes from a former Albanian intelligence agent residing in New Jersey to take actions benefiting the Rama government—specifically, that he open a probe into a lobbyist hired by Lulzim Basha, Berisha’s protege-turned-rival in the Albanian Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, The Daily Beast revealed last year that the brother of an Albanian politician was deeply involved in the company at the center of the latest federal investigation into Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey). The Garden State-based sibling, who previously served as foreign relations secretary of a fringe monarchist party in Albania and as the operator of an illegal gambling den in the U.S., had previously lobbied Washington to lift sanctions on an Albanian prosecutor.