Russian Oligarch Oleg Deripaska May Have Probed Vladimir Potanin Using Ex-FBI Agent Who Was Thorn In Trump’s Side
The indictment alleges that Deripaska retained a former FBI agent and a former Russian diplomat to investigate the assets of a rival oligarch, which Forbes found likely refers to Vladimir Potanin, Russia’s second-richest person.
Last Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice dropped a bombshell when it indicted a former FBI agent and a former Russian diplomat and interpreter on charges of money laundering and violating sanctions to help sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The 21-page indictment reads like the script of a mobster flick: the defendants refer to their sanctioned client as “our friend from Vienna,” “you know whom” and “the big guy.”
But the most striking allegation is that Deripaska sought to retain the former special agent, Charles McGonigal, and the former diplomat, Sergey Shestakov, to conduct an investigation into another, unnamed Russian oligarch with whom Deripaska was “contesting control over” a “large Russian corporation” in the spring of 2021. The effort allegedly involved looking into the rival oligarch’s assets outside of Russia and the possibility that he held another passport besides his Russian one.
A person familiar with the situation told Forbes that “probably [the oligarch] is Vladimir Potanin.” Vladimir Potanin is one of Russia’s richest people with an estimated $27.5 billion fortune. The “Russian corporation” likely refers to Norilsk Nickel, one of the world’s largest producers of nickel and palladium, also known as Nornickel.
“Deripaska was collecting materials to file a lawsuit in London [against Potanin] in order to force a new shareholder agreement for Norilsk Nickel to be concluded on the same terms,” the person added. A representative for Deripaska did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s not the first time that Deripaska and McGonigal have been in the spotlight: They were both involved in the FBI investigation into the contacts between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. An FBI deputy assistant director stated in 2020 that an email from McGonigal in 2016 regarding Trump campaign advisor George Padadopoulos’ claims to have “political dirt” on Hillary Clinton helped spark the Trump-Russia investigation, while the FBI reportedly attempted to recruit Deripaska as a potential informant, given that he had previously employed Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, as an adviser. In a post on his Truth Social platform on Tuesday, Trump said of McGonigal: “May he Rot In Hell!”
Starting in 2018, the indictment alleges, McGonigal began working with Shestakov and an “employee and agent of Deripaska” cited as “Agent-1.” The indictment lays out the lengths to which McGonigal and Shestakov allegedly went to dig up dirt on the rival oligarch. The effort began in August 2021, when the two defendants, working with “Agent-1,” drafted and executed a contract with a Cyprus corporation that would in turn pay a New Jersey-based firm—owned by a friend of McGonigal—$41,790 a month and $51,280 upon execution of the contract for “business intelligence services, analysis, and research relevant to the [Russian corporation], its business operations and shareholders.” Between August and November 2021, the New Jersey-based firm received a total of $218,440 in payments wired from a Russian bank, according to the indictment.
As part of the investigation, McGonigal allegedly retained a subcontractor to carry out a “soup to nuts” investigation of the oligarch and the Russian corporation. In October 2021, the subcontractor told McGonigal that a third party had located “dark web” files that revealed “hidden assets valued at more than $500 million” and “other information that McGonigal believed would be valuable to Deripaska.” The indictment further alleges that McGonigal and Shestakov negotiated with “Agent-1” to obtain funds from Deripaska to purchase the dark web files between late October and late November 2021; FBI special agents seized their personal electronic devices on November 21, 2021.
The feud between Deripaska and Potanin dates back to April 2008, when Deripaska’s Rusal purchased a 25% stake in publicly traded Nornickel from Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov in a cash-and-stock deal—estimated to be worth $14 billion—that included giving Prokhorov a 14% stake in Rusal. Prokhorov was Potanin’s original partner in Nornickel, with the two men cofounding banking group Oneximbank in 1993 and later acquiring Nornickel through the infamous loans-for-shares scheme in the 1990s—an arrangement in which Potanin and other businessmen provided financial backing for the reelection campaign of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, in return for stakes in state-owned energy and commodities assets obtained at bargain prices if Yeltsin won. (He did.)
Soon after the 2008 deal closed, Deripaska and Potanin clashed over Potanin’s influence over Nornickel’s board, the company’s share buyback plan and purchases of assets from Potanin’s Interros. They first reached a truce that December, when Rusal dropped its legal claim against Nornickel over the company’s share buyback. But the battle had flared up again by August 2010, when Rusal filed a request for arbitration against Potanin’s Interros in the London Court of International Arbitration and launched a website named “Save Norilsk Nickel” the following month.
Another Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, stepped in two years later to cool the tensions. He and his partners, fellow billionaires Alexander Abramov and Alexander Frolov, purchased a 6% stake in Nornickel for $1.5 billion in December 2012. Abramovich, Potanin and Deripaska then agreed to form a board with Potanin and Deripaska nominating four members each plus one for Abramovich. The deal, set to last for a decade (it expired on January 1, 2023), also kept Potanin as Nornickel’s CEO and committed Nornickel to a new dividend policy.
But the deal came under strain in 2018, when Potanin attempted to buy part of Abramovich’s shares in Nornickel—a move challenged by Rusal and halted by a London court in June 2018. Abramovich later sold some of his stake to Potanin in early 2019. By August 2020 Potanin was calling the agreement a “relic of the past” in an interview with Reuters.
Things appeared to have calmed down by April 2021, when Rusal stated it was “satisfied” with a decision by Nornickel’s board to buy back shares worth $2 billion. It was around that same time, the U.S. indictment alleges, that Deripaska had begun to seek an investigation into his rival oligarch in the spring of 2021. For his part, Potanin began expanding his empire after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, re-purchasing Russian banking group Rosbank from French firm Société Générale last April and snapping up Russian bank Tinkoff Bank two weeks later, both for undisclosed amounts.
As recently as last July, Potanin was publicly musing about a potential $60 billion merger between Rusal and Nornickel, months before the January 1, 2023 expiration date of the 2012 agreement. But it became a non-starter after Potanin was sanctioned by the U.S. on December 15, 2022. Deripaska had already been sanctioned by the U.S. in April 2018. (Both men have also been sanctioned by the U.K., but the EU has only sanctioned Deripaska while leaving Potanin untouched—potentially due to Europe’s dependence on Nornickel’s nickel and palladium exports.)
The latest salvo in the Deripaska-Potanin fight came on October 21, when Rusal filed a lawsuit in London’s High Court against Potanin. “Rusal’s claims are based on Mr. Potanin’s failure to fulfill his duties as Norilsk Nickel’s managing partner and CEO,” Rusal said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Under the management of Mr. Potanin, Norilsk Nickel lost a number of assets that played a key role in [the] group’s activities. This resulted in Norilsk Nickel and its shareholders suffering significant losses.” (Potanin owns 37% of Nornickel through his investment holding company Interros, while Deripaska has a 45% stake in publicly traded En+ Group, which in turn owns 26% of Nornickel plus 57% of Rusal.)
In the statement, Rusal also claimed that it “continuously tried to enter in constructive dialogue with Mr. Potanin for an out-of-court settlement” but “these attempts have been unsuccessful.”
Whether that “constructive dialogue” includes Deripaska’s alleged illegal investigation of Potanin’s assets or not, the war between the two oligarchs shows no signs of fading away.
Additional reporting by Elena Berezanskaya.
Source: Fox Business
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