On Sept. 25, 2017, a windowless room in the basement of the Capitol Building became the site of one of Washington’s more mysterious recent events.
On hand: an investor who was once unsuccessfully sued for allegedly helping murder his own boss, a former congressman from the Florida panhandle, and a former Trump campaign staffer. One of two Ukrainian media outlets to cover the event is owned by an old associate of Paul Manafort’s—a man who federal prosecutors allege to be an “upper-echelon associate of Russian organized crime.”
Oh, and the former director of the CIA was involved.
The former CIA director told The Daily Beast he wouldn’t have gotten involved if he had known what was going on. One of the American lobbyists said the event was used for propaganda. The guy who got sued over his boss’s death? He now takes credit for the whole shebang.
This story starts in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 19, 2014. That’s when a woman named Valeriya Gontareva became the chair of the country’s powerful central bank. Ukrainian politics is rife with corruption, especially by American standards, and is dominated by the country’s powerful oligarchs. As chair of the national bank, Gontareva made a host of changes to the country’s financial system—and some powerful enemies.
One of the biggest changes she oversaw was a government takeover of the country’s biggest commercial bank, Privatbank. The oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky (who The Wall Street Journal once described as “feisty”) co-founded it. When Gontareva presided over the bank’s nationalization, its accounts were missing more than $5 billion, according to the Financial Times, in large part because the bank lent so much money to people with connections to Kolomoisky.
“International financial institutions applauded the state takeover,” wrote FT. “It has been widely seen as the culmination of Ukraine’s efforts since 2014 to clean up a dysfunctional banking sector dominated by oligarch-owned banks.”
The bank’s founders weren’t pleased.
After the bank takeover, Gontareva received numerous threats. One protester put a coffin outside her door, according to Reuters. On April 10, 2017, she announced at a press conference that she was resigning from her post. She touted her accomplishments at the event, but cautioned that in her absence the country’s financial sector could fake greater troubles.
“I believe that resistance to changes and reforms will grow stronger now,” she said.
Five months later, in Washington D.C., something odd happened: American lobbyists hosted an event, ostensibly on anti-corruption issues, in the basement of the Capitol Building. The event vilified Gontareva. Organizers distributed literature featuring a grim close-up of her face, calling her a threat to Ukraine’s economic security, and asking if she was “CINDERELLA OR WICKED STEPMOTHER?”
Serhiy Taruta, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, is named as the author of the report. In 2008, Forbes estimated his net worth at $2.7 billion. According to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, American government officials believed Taruta played a role in the sale of a majority stake in the sale of one of Ukraine’s largest steel groups—valued at $2 billion—to a powerful Russian businessman. Taruta was a close ally of politician Yulia Tymoshenko at the time, and the cable said she and Taruta wanted to keep the deal “hidden from public view” to avoid criticism. Had the nature of the deal been made public, the cable said, Tymoshenko could have faced “increased attacks from political rivals for ‘selling out’ Ukrainian assets to Russian interests, perhaps to finance her presidential campaign.”
The event’s organizers are adamant that they did not plan for it to look like a fake congressional hearing. But Ukrainian reporters who attended the event covered it that way. Former Rep. Connie Mack, one of the American lobbyists who organized the event, sported the pin that members of Congress wear. James Woolsey, former CIA director, attended and spoke briefly to the group.
Woolsey’s spokesperson, Jonathan Franks, later said he was duped.
“Ambassador Woolsey was deliberately misled about the nature of this event when he agreed to attend,” Franks told The Daily Beast. “He expected to be a member of the audience for a serious discussion of issues facing the Ukraine, an area he’s been interested in for decades. He didn’t agree to be identified a ‘special guest’ nor did he agree to speak. Perhaps he was guilty of being old fashioned, but it never occurred to him the organizers would lure him to an event in the Capitol in order to make him an involuntary participant in a sham.”
Rep. Ron Estes, a freshman from Kansas, booked the room for Mack and Co. His office later told The Daily Beast this won’t happen again.
Mack and Matt Keelen, a lobbyist whose firm’s website boasts of his “well fostered relationships” in the Trump administration, both disclosed in federal registration forms that they put on the event for a shell company based in the British Virgin Islands called Interconnection Commerce SA.
“I never portrayed this as a hearing,” Mack told The Daily Beast. “We didn’t do anything to make it look like a hearing. It was in a very stale room in the basement, no markings of a congressional hearing at all.”
At the event, Mack used the term “we” when referring to Congress, and was emphatic that members should investigate Gontareva.
“One thing is clear: that we, the Congress of the United States—and there are taxpayer dollars at risk, and there are allegations, suggestions, and evidence—should investigate,” he said, according to an audio recording of the event.
Mack blamed BGR Group, a lobbying firm that works for Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, for pushing the narrative that he and Keelen put on a fake hearing.
Two Ukrainian news outlets covered the event. One of those outlets, ChannelOne, described it as a hearing of the nonexistent “U.S. Congressional Committee on Financial Issues.”
“That was pure propaganda on their part,” Mack said. “Whoever those news outlets are, it really is fake news. They had to go a long way to try to make it look like a hearing.”
The other Ukrainian news outlet that covered the event was UkraNews, which—according to the Objective Project, which monitors media ownership in Ukraine—belongs to Dmitry Firtash.
That name should ring a bell, if you’ve been following the far-flung drama into foreign influence on the 2016 election. Federal prosecutors in Chicago are seeking Firtash’s extradition to the United States to put him on trial for racketeering. Manafort, former Manafort deputy Rick Gates, and Firtash worked on a deal in 2008 to buy New York’s Drake Hotel—for a cool $850 million—but the deal fell through.
Lanny Davis—a former special counsel in Bill Clinton’s White House who today represents Firtash—said his client had nothing to do with the hearing.
“Mr. Firtash had and has no knowledge of, no position on, and no involvement whatsoever in the congressional briefing that occurred and takes no position and has no interest in the issues discussed,” Davis said.
So who dreamed up this fake hearing? And who paid for it? For months, the backer of this so-called sham was a mystery. But when The Daily Beast started asking who paid for the event, a little-known figure came forward to take full responsibility: Anatoly Motkin, a one-time aide to a Georgian oligarch accused of leading a coup attempt.
A spokesperson for Motkin, formerly an associate to the now-deceased Badri Patarkatsishvili, told The Daily Beast that he paid for the entire event. Alison Patch, a spokesperson for Motkin, said Motkin paid for the event himself in his personal capacity.
Motkin was an aide to Patarkatsishvili when he reportedly tried to foment a coup in Georgia. After Patarkatsishvili died, Motkin found himself embroiled in a legal battle with Patarkatsishvili’s cousin. The cousin alleged in documents filed as part of a civil suit in New York state court that Motkin was part of a plot to kill Patarkatsishvili (PDF).
A spokesperson for Motkin said he decided to fund the event because Taruta, the Ukrainian billionaire, brought the allegations about Gontareva to his attention.
“Although this report was entirely brought by Mr. Taruta’s initiative, for many years Mr. Motkin has worked on promoting democratic values amongst communities close to the former Soviet Union,” said Patch. “Knowing of his interest in supporting anti-corruption efforts, Mr. Taruta shared the information about his report. Mr. Motkin found the evidence presented compelling and decided that if he could help get the issues in front of people who may make a difference, he would.”
Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council, an expert on oligarchs’ politicking, didn’t quite believe it. Aslund said he believes the driving force behind the event was Ihor Kolomoisky—the Ukrainian oligarch whose cronies lost all that money when Privatbank was nationalized. Kolomisky would have millions of reasons to detest Gontareva, the object of the fake hearing’s ire, according to Aslund.
“This was entirely Kolomoisky,” he said. “Kolomoisky is crooked and clever. He is a person who makes business by doing bankruptcy rather than making profits.”
Kolomoisky has faced allegations of involvement in contract killings, which he denies. An attorney for Kolomoisky did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The short version of all of this: Eastern European politics are circuitous, colorful, and—weird. And last September, a little of that weirdness seeped across the pond and into the basement of the Capitol.