Russia's money: a timeline
From TrueHoop's series investigating Apollo Global, Jeffrey Epstein, the NBA
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I’m a few years into being haunted by the ways money flows around the NBA, Jeffrey Epstein, Apollo Global, and Vladimir Putin. Apollo Global is the NBA’s most important source of cash, where NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s Duke roommate Jim Zelter is the co-president. Apollo has been the subject of 30ish stories on TrueHoop, which contain a ton of stuff that seems to matter now more than ever, as it suddenly is a global priority to understand Putin’s money and influence.
The subject matter of this series, which starts right here, begins more than a century ago. It stars a former CIA executive who is on the board of Apollo Global right now, and encompasses the Sears fortune, Hitler’s relationship with American bankers, the earliest days of the CIA and much more.
But a smaller part of that story, about the Kremlin’s subterranean global influence and how that comes close to the NBA’s money people, begins with something I learned from reading Craig Unger’s book American Kompromat.
In the mid-1980s, Unger reports, the KGB accurately assessed that the Soviet Union was weak and at risk of breakup. And so they hatched a plan, with the help of Robert Maxwell, to improve their own wealth and power, so that the KGB could outlive the nation.
Unger reports that starting mid-80s, Kryuchkov secretly launched 600 front companies, buying oil, steel, aluminum at a tiny fraction of market prices, which they could then sell on the open market. “Then with billions in profits,” he writes, “they could go on to establish authentic trading relationships that went to the heart of Western capitalism—Wall Street, the Paris Bourse, and London’s Square Mile and Canary Wharf.”
We often think of the effect these kinds of transactions had on Russia. A version of this is how Russia’s oligarchy began. We maybe don’t think enough about how these dollars moved into the heart of Western capitalism, and what they might be doing there now.
Goldman Sachs “actively cultivated a broad-based relationship with Maxwell,” according to the L.A. Times, in an article that suggests many banks did similarly. Many banks did a lot of business with Maxwell, but Goldman was evidently a big player, as evidenced by the hundreds of millions in the bank lost when Maxwell’s business fell apart around the time of his death. Goldman was investigated for criminal wrongdoing in its dealings with Maxwell, and cleared.
Steve Bannon works at Goldman Sachs. While the men who would go on to found Apollo Global were at Drexel Burnham Lambert pioneering new ways to take control of companies, starting in 1985, Bannon worked mainly in helping companies prevent takeovers. A couple of years in, Bannon moved to Beverly Hills, where Drexel was based.
Unger writes in American Kompromat about how the world of business was changing at that time: “These were a new kind of superrich. Theirs was a world with opulent villas, costume balls, private jets, and hookers galore. Excess knew no bounds. Yachts were not just important; they were essential. Size mattered. In 1985, Adnan Khashoggi, who was dubbed ‘one of the greatest whoremongers in the world’ by Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair, gave himself a fiftieth-birthday party that reportedly cost $6 million … Trump and Maxwell were both there. Celebrated in gossip columns the world over, they were also precursors to a new breed of corrupt oligarchs who leveraged ties to intelligence agencies in the United States, the Soviet Union, Israel, Iran, and other countries, all while reaping riches in the world of arms dealing, money laundering, and covert operations related to the Iran-Contra scandal, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International collapse, and various other incidents.”
Buzzy Krongard runs a Maryland-based bank, Alex.Brown, which underwrites many of the IPOs that define Silicon Valley, including Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Starbucks—whose founder Howard Schultz went on to NBA infamy for his time as governor of the Sonics. The one that has been studied and written about for a long time is Microsoft. The 1986 IPO created the wealth that led Paul Allen to purchase the Blazers, Steve Ballmer to purchase the Clippers, and Bill Gates to become one of the most influential men on the planet.
Journalist Jesse Kornbluth says Jeffrey Epstein was spending a lot of time with Leon Black, the multibillionaire investor who was then managing director of Drexel Burnham Lambert, at that point one of the biggest investment banks in the country. … “Epstein and I talked about Leon Black,” Kornbluth told me.
Cocaine has become a huge source of cash in the United States, reportedly generating twice as much revenue as oil. From 1983 to 1987, U.S. hospitalization for cocaine-related issues increases 600 percent. There are accounts that billions of dollars flow into America’s major financial institutions.
John Kerry tries to get the United States government to investigate the appearance of money laundering, drug money, and other violations at BCCI.
Robert Maxwell reportedly gets an Israeli passport for Semion Mogilevich, a reputed Ukrainian mobster with ties to Putin, who has spent much of his adult life on the FBI’s most wanted list.
Michael Milken goes to prison for his work at Drexel Burnham Lambert. A group of his associates at Drexel, including Josh Harris and Tony Ressler, form Apollo Global. They are led by Leon Black, and funded by the French bank Credit Lyonnais.
Apollo Global is founded by Leon Black with a giant loan from the French bank Credit Lyonnais. Credit Lyonnais at that time was on a historically risky lending spree that would eventually land bank executives in prison, and require a massive taxpayer bailout. (One book about the scandal is called “Crazy Lyonnais.”) They did business with, among others:
Robert Maxwell. When Maxwell died, Credit Lyonnais, according to the L.A. Times, was “widely described as the biggest loser.” In other words, Credit Lyonnais was one of Robert Maxwell’s most important banks.
Steve Bannon, according to the reporting of Connie Bruck in the New Yorker.
A man who purchased MGM before being sentenced to four years in prison.
Jeffrey Epstein was in business with Robert Maxwell at the time. Craig Unger’s American Kompromat describes the period before Maxwell’s November 1991 death: “In the last year of his life, Maxwell likely put a significant sum—probably between $10 million and $20 million—in Epstein’s hands … Epstein may have been trying to keep Maxwell’s assets out of the hands of his creditors … the mystery of what happened to Maxwell’s millions may also be the answer to questions about Epstein’s wealth.”
In her book Putin’s People, Catherine Belton reports that in 1990 American attorney Martin Greenberg introduces Trump to Shalva Tchigirinsky, a relationship that “would form the roots of a network of Russian intelligence operatives, tycoons, and organized-crime associates that has orbited Trump almost ever since.”
Belton writes that a list of soviet crony companies was released, with “vast sums” involved in illicit trade. Days before such a list was due to be published, Maxwell was found dead. FBI files, and Belton, arrive at the possibility he was transferring nuclear or other scientific secrets to the USSR.
In 1991, Seymour Hersh reports, in The Samson Option about word of Maxwell’s businesses in arms dealing, and word is Maxwell will soon be eliminated. He turns up dead shortly thereafter.
In November, Unger reports that Robert Maxwell’s widow arrives at Trump’s Plaza Hotel with her daughter Ghislaine, and Ghislaine’s date Jeffrey Epstein.
BCCI is closely tied to the United Arab Emirates, where the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), reports the New York Times, “wanted to buy so much military hardware to protect his own oil-rich monarchy—from Hellfire missiles to Apache helicopters to F-16 jets—that Congress worried he might destabilize the region.”
William Safire calls Attorney General William Barr “The Coverup General” for his role in covering up various scandals, including Iran Contra. The same year, Unger reports, Bill Barr “transferred three hundred FBI agents, many of them Russian-speaking, from counterintelligence work on the Russian Mafia to investigations of gang violence growing out of the crack cocaine epidemic.”
Although at this time, Buzzy Krongard is publicly a banker, another banker—Edwin Hale–claims that in 1992, Krongard recruited him to help the CIA. Also around this time, Buzzy Krongard’s son Alexander is evidently in the Navy SEALS with Erik Prince.
In Putin’s People, Belton reports that, as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin grew close to businessmen like Ilya Traber and Vladimir Kumarin associated with the Tambov crime group, who are active in oil, shipping, and, according to German prosecutors, laundering money for, among others, the Colombian cartel. “With the help of Putin’s men in City Hall,” Belton writes, “the sea port became a major hub for smuggling drugs from Colombia into Western Europe.” Long after he stepped down, Putin’s boss Anatoly Sobchak called for charges for the corrupt officials. Four months later, Sobchak was dead.
An article details Bill Gates’ personal money management, as handled by a convicted felon, who makes regular trades with Buzzy Krongard’s Alex.Brown.
Leon Black is in Moscow, partying with Donald Trump and Howard Lorber. Later in a government disclosure form, Bill Barr will later report dividends from Lorber’s Vector Group.
Buzzy Krongard sells Alex.Brown to Bankers Trust, which is heavily invested in Russia.
Buzzy Krongard joins the CIA as executive director and later cuts a deal with Erik Prince’s Blackwater.
In 1998, as the Russian economy tanks, Bankers Trust was so invested in Russia, and riddled with problems, that Russia’s downturn reportedly almost put it out of business. Deutsche Bank, though, was eager to become the biggest bank in the world, and purchased Bankers Trust for more than $10 billion. 20 years after the fact, the Financial Times’ Tom Braithwaite notes Deutsche’s recent traumas, “police raids, capital calls, and management upheavals,” and their roots in the Bankers Trust acquisition, which led to “a staggering array of flouted rules.” Sixteen years after the fact, Deutsche Bank stunned investors by declaring it had overpaid, by many billions, for Bankers Trust.
The Bank of New York scandal, according to Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People, convinces prosecutors that the KGB and Russian organized crime are working together “using sophisticated offshore mechanisms previously used by cocaine traffickers.”
Trump starts Trump Model Management. Unger reports that Epstein later started his own agency, called MC2, which was so closely modeled on Trump’s operation that it even replicated the same paperwork.
Unger reports that former KGB official Yuri Shvets testified to Congress that “high-ranking officials of the Soviet Communist Party, top KGB leadership, and top bosses of the criminal world” had begun to infiltrate the Western banking system.
Unger describes a trip to Courchevel with Putin, Vladimir Potanin, Boris Nemtsov, and noted Russian pimp Peter Listerman: “Thoughtful and considerate as ever, he had brought extra girls for everyone.”
A UK news report, later quietly unpublished, says that Jeffrey Epstein works for Bill Gates.
Buzzy Krongard’s wife Cheryl Krongard works for Apollo Global.
The richest of all the oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is jailed. Khodorkovsky was the head of Yukos Oil and the richest of all oligarchs, but he had issues with Putin, and he made them known. After a televised trial in which he was kept in a cage, he was jailed for close to a decade. The message taken by several close observers: from now on oligarchs will do what Putin wants.
Trump and Epstein have a falling out over the Palm Beach property “Maison de L'Amitie.” Epstein suspects his police investigation follows a Trump tip. Unger reports Epstein showed a friend compromising pictures of Trump. Trump sells the house for huge profits to oligarch Dmitry Rybovlev.
A 14-year-old and her parents tell police in Florida that Epstein molested her.
Mikhail Prokhorov’s Renaissance Capital invests in Yuri Milner’s Mail.ru.
Alexander Litvinenko is poisoned in England. Unger’s American Kompromat: “A friend and colleague of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, Yuri Shvets helped Litvinenko assemble and analyze a dossier linking senior Kremlin officials, including Vladimir Putin, to the Tambov organized crime group, which laundered money and facilitated drug trafficking for the Colombian cartels.”
Epstein is charged.
Prokhorov is arrested in Courchevel by French police investigating sex trafficking. After a few days behind bars (he says he spent the time doing handstand pushups and the like) and is released without charge.
Epstein gets a secret plea deal from Alexander Acosta, who would later go on to work at the same law firm—Kirkland & Ellis—that represented Epstein, and then the Trump administration as labor secretary.
Former CIA head William Sessions evidently works for Semion Mogilevich.
The United Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi Investment Authority—the same institution that owned a huge percentage of the scandal-plagued BCCI—becomes the biggest outside investor in Apollo Global.
Jeffrey Epstein begins his sentence.
Leon Black meets and begins a relationship with Guzel Ganeiva, a Russian model.
In the wake of a profound global cash crunch, reports that illegal drug money has flooded the financial system.
Yuri Milner becomes one of Facebook’s most important investors, investing money that came largely from now-sanctioned oligarch Alisher Usmanov, and also from Mikhail Prokhorov’s Renaissance Capital, run by one-time Nets executive Christophe Charlier. Charlier went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school about the same time as many members of 76ers’ ownership group, and Milner. In the Atlantic, Julia Ioffe’s sources suggest Milner acted in concert with the Kremlin, and in part to influence public discourse online by cultivating powerful friends in Silicon Valley.
Epstein is freed, and will later register as a sex offender. Bill Gates reportedly attends one of the Edge dinners, which were sponsored by Epstein and Milner.
Mikhail Prokhorov is approved as an NBA owner.
Bill Gates visits Jeffrey Epstein in January in Manhattan, Eva Dubin and her daughter are there. In May he visits again, with JP Morgan’s Jes Staley, Larry Summers, and Gates’ associate Boris Nikolic (who will end up as an alternate executor in Epstein’s will).
Jeffrey Epstein invests in Apollo Global’s IPO.
Buzzy Krongard joins Apollo’s board.
Apollo Global co-founder Josh Harris leads a group of friends from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in purchasing the 76ers.
Apollo founder Leon Black joins the board of Putin’s Russia Direct Investment Fund.
Per Connie Bruck’s reporting, billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah took a shine to Bannon at a 2011 meeting, and the Mercers began to finance many of Bannon’s projects.
Leon Black begins five years of paying Jeffrey Epstein a reported $158 million. Exactly why is a central mystery of Epstein and Black’s lives, and widely seen as the reason Leon Black would eventually step down.
FBI files demonstrate concern Robert Maxwell spied for Russia.
Russian General Valery Gerasimov publishes an essay defining a new approach to war. As described by Molly McKew: “The approach is guerrilla, and waged on all fronts with a range of actors and tools—for example, hackers, media, businessmen, leaks and, yes, fake news, as well as conventional and asymmetric military means. … Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.”
Unger reports: “The personal framed photos in Epstein’s office included shots of Steve Bannon, Bill Clinton, and Mohammed bin Salman, better known today as MBS, the Saudi crown prince who is widely believed to have orchestrated the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was said that MBS was not just an acquaintance, but a real friend of Epstein’s.”
Edward Jay Epstein’s Air Mail describes an April 2013 encounter with Epstein in which Epstein describes his relationships with the leaders of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Also, Leon Black appears at Epstein’s mansion.
Leon Black’s name disappears from the website of Putin’s Russia Direct Investment Fund, although the Wall Street Journal reports his role continues.
Leon Black purportedly assaults Russian model Guzel Ganieva at her Upper East Side apartment. He denies the claim. She says she leaves NY to escape him.
Gates makes a donation to one of Epstein’s favorite causes, the MIT Media Lab.
“Paypal Mafia” member Reid Hoffman reportedly hosts a Palo Alto dinner with Epstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and others.
Apollo purchases the controversial, CIA-tied military contractor formerly known as Blackwater, which would go on to play a big role in the United Arab Emirates, home of one of Apollo’s biggest investors.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency influences the 2016 US election in part by boosting messages from Breitbart, which was run by Steve Bannon and funded largely by the Mercers.
Notorious Russian escort service manager Peter Listerman (with his own TV show) visits Epstein, according to The New York Post. Unger’s sources suggest Listerman has operated in conjunction with Russian intelligence for years.
MBZ defies the Obama administration to meet secretly with the Trump campaign in New York City. After being elected, Trump’s first official visit is to MBZ’s close allies in Saudi Arabia. Bannon takes a job in the White House. Bannon’s benefactors, the Mercers, become arguably the most influential donors to the Trump campaign. After the victory, Rebekah uses her influence, according to Jane Mayer’s reporting in The New Yorker, to advocate for Michael Flynn, who would quickly lose his job over his Russia ties.
In January 2017, before Trump’s inauguration, Erik Prince (whose extended family owns the Orlando Magic) travels to the Seychelles for a secret meeting with the head of the Russia Direct Investment Fund, Kirill Dmitriev. The Mueller Report says it is part of an effort by the Kremlin to establish a back channel to the incoming administration. Apollo Global has many connections to this meeting:
Prince started a company, Blackwater, that has been purchased by Apollo Global.
Prince’s great benefactor at the CIA, Buzzy Krongard, is on the Apollo Board.
Apollo’s founder Leon Black has been on the board of Dmitriev’s RDIF.
Dmitriev is seen as a direct connection to Putin. “Putin wanted Dmitriev to be in charge of both the financial and the political relationship between Russia and the Gulf states, in part because Dmitriev had been educated in the West and spoke English fluently,” the report says.
Apollo’s biggest outside investor is the United Arab Emirates, whose leader MBZ reportedly convened the Seychelles meeting.
Much of the Mueller report’s account of this meeting is blacked out, but there have been reports filling in some of the gaps, including word of some tactics that sound reminiscent of Epstein. A 2018 DailyMail report says that also present were MBZ’s spy chief Hamad al Mazroie, and MBZ’s “personal conduit to Putin’s Kremlin” Mohammed Dahlan. In his testimony about the meeting, Prince never mentioned either. Daily Mail: “According to sources close to the UAE leadership, al Mazroie acts as bin Zayed's right hand man and informal head of intelligence, giving him access to the country's advanced surveillance technology. The sources say he is at the center of an Emirati plan to exert influence on both western democracies and its neighboring Gulf states. … Leaked text messages have claimed to show the spymaster threatening to release naked photos of Kuwaiti politicians in an attempt to influence the country's parliamentary elections.”
The Daily Beast later obtained what is evidently a memo that Dmitriev drafted after the meeting; one of the topics is how the Trump and Putin administrations could reimagine their partnership on various topics, including Ukraine. Trump’s second impeachment, years later, would later be impeached for his role in holding up military aid to Ukraine.
Jared Kushner’s brother Josh, (who would purchase a chunk of the Grizzlies in 2020), leads the round that makes Robinhood a “unicorn” with a valuation north of $1 Billion. Kushner’s firm Thrive set the terms, but two other firms participated: Greenoaks Capital and Yuri Mlner’s Digital Sky Technologies (known as DST). Also investing in Robinhood: Warriors investor Mark Stevens and Celtics investor Jim Breyer.
According to Dexter Filkins’ reporting in the New Yorker, Mercer’s SCL Group secretly works for the United Arab Emirates.
Bill Gates visits Saudi Arabia’s MBS, then MBS becomes an MIT Media Lab member.
Rolling Stone’s Seth Hettena quotes former Breitbart employee Charles Johnson, who says Bannon visited Epstein often after he was ousted from the White House in August 2017. “What I was told about that meeting by people close to Bannon was that he was trying to replace Epstein as a source for information from various intelligence networks. He saw Epstein as a rival or a partner but he wanted what Epstein had.”
The Verge @vergePutin says the nation that leads in AI ‘will be the ruler of the world’ https://t.co/npT6ilfx4C https://t.co/keiKuzxasm
Putin says on RT: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind … whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Unger reports Shvets saying: “This is, for Putin, as essential to the survival of his regime as it was for Stalin to get the A-bomb. There are seventeen thousand Russian IT guys working in the United States, and a great number of them are connected to Russian intelligence--bright people who’ve been working inside Apple, Microsoft, and other companies for years.”
Leon Black’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee includes: “Steve Bannon and I have a common friend and I went over to see my friend and Bannon was meeting him for breakfast. And so on two occasions I spent time talking to Steve Bannon.” The friend they have in common is Allen Vine, whom Black describes as the “consigliere” for oligarch Suleiman Kerimov. Kerimov is a) seen as close to Putin and b) someone who invested billions in Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, and other blue-chip financial institutions. Epstein had ties to all of those institutions. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, Leon Black also knows Putin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
MBZ’s closest ally—Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—visits Bill Gates’ house in Washington. MBS is also, according to several reports, close to Epstein.
Jamal Khashoggi is killed, reportedly by a team that works for MBS and that trained at Tier One, a company owned by a former Drexel investor.
The Miami Herald publishes a decisive Epstein expose.
The head of the United Arab Emirates, MBZ, reportedly stops visiting the US because of the Mueller investigation into Russia’s influence in the United States. The New York Times David Kirkpatrick writes: “Today, at least five people working for Prince Mohammed have been caught up in criminal investigations growing out of [the Mueller] inquiry. A regular visitor to the United States for three decades, Prince Mohammed has now stayed away for two years, in part because he fears prosecutors might seek to question him or his aides, according to two people familiar with his thinking.”
According to Michael Wolff’s book Too Famous, Bannon called Epstein and told him he was scared that Epstein had dirt on Trump, and Epstein replied: “As well you should have been.”
Later that year, Epstein is arrested, then dies in jail.
Apollo Global completes its investigation of Leon Black’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and it’s hard to find anyone who believes the conclusion that Black paid $158 million for tax advice.
Melinda divorces Bill Gates.
Leon Black leaves Apollo Global, but remains as the largest stockholder. Josh Harris also steps away and moves to Florida. Sources suggest that (after news about Epstein) the firm could be vulnerable to a derivative lawsuit by stockholders. Such a suit could force the firm’s board to essentially pick a side between its founder and investors. The seven-member board of Leon Black’s time has been radically expanded, and today stands at 16.
The December 2021 issue of The Atlantic cover story by Anne Applebaum is called “The Bad Guys Are Winning: How a new league of autocrats is outsmarting the West.” It’s about the march of fascism, as propelled by Putin, among others, in places like Ukraine’s neighbors like Belarus and Poland.
Like so many other ordinary people propelled into injustice by the experience of injustice … like the leaders of the extraordinary Hong Kong protest movement … they are fighting against people who control state companies and can make investment decisions worth billions of dollars for purely political reasons. They are fighting against people who can buy sophisticated surveillance technology from China or bots from St. Petersburg. Above all, they are fighting against people who have inured themselves to the feelings and opinions of their countrymen, as well as the feelings and opinions of everybody else. Because Autocracy Inc. grants its members not only money and security, but also something less tangible and yet just as important: impunity.
Apollo Global closes important deals just before Russia invasion: Tenneco acquisition has a prescient carveout, protecting Apollo in case of unrest in Ukraine or Russia. A giant UAE partnership grows even bigger. And Apollo is reportedly getting big into sports investing in an even bigger way, an announcement with big implications for the NBA.
Putin’s Russia invades Ukraine, prompting immediate repudiation by seemingly the whole Western world. But some firms are notably unable to condemn Putin or his associates.
A number of Silicon Valley titans take Russia-friendly positions as Russia invades Ukraine.
Russia passes new laws cracking down on independent media, social media, and the language of all media in reporting on the war in Ukraine. Russian officials, the New York Times reports, “claim that journalists writing critically about the war—or calling it a ‘war’ or an ‘invasion’—are undermining the national interest, even referring to them as traitors.”
In the first week after the invasion, the NBA doesn’t return a request for comment from TrueHoop, nor make any public statement about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that we can find. More recently, the NBA posted a statement about its charitable efforts. The entire statement:
The NBA family is supporting a number of organizations that are providing essential services and humanitarian aid to those affected by the crisis in Ukraine.
There’s no suggestion the statement was vetted by the Kremlin, but by avoiding the words “war” or “invasion,”—and even failing to clarify the perpetrators and victims—it’s certainly carefully crafted.
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