Former U.S. envoy under scrutiny for links to sanctioned Moldovan oligarch, land baron
A former U.S. ambassador to Moldova who is employed by the country’s top commodities baron, Vaja Jhashi, has come under scrutiny for the firm’s links to a sanctioned oligarch.
Last month, a Mongabay investigation revealed Jhashi’s firm, Trans-Oil, is allegedly over-exploiting its virtual monopoly on grain exports from the country and using offshore companies to transfer its profits overseas and avoid paying tax.
The fugitive tycoon in question, Vladimir Plahotniuc, has reportedly been living in the United States, despite the sanctions, at a property linked to Jhashi.
A senior Trump administration official, acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, has also come under fire for working for the oligarch, raising fears he was vulnerable to blackmail.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s most senior intelligence official, Richard Grenell, came under scrutiny last month after it emerged he had carried out work for sanctioned Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Mongabay has since learned that Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, is not the only Washington political figure with alleged ties to the man once dubbed “Moldova’s most-feared figure.”
From 2008 until 2011, Asif Chaudhry was the U.S. ambassador to Moldova, a former Soviet republic on the Black Sea. For the duration of his posting he maintained a reputation as an impartial mediator between the country’s mercurial political parties. In the years since, he appears to have sided with Plahotniuc, observers say.
In mid-2018, Chaudhry accepted a position as an independent director on the board of Trans-Oil, a Moldovan agricultural commodities firm. A recent Mongabay investigation showed how Trans-Oil gained a virtual monopoly over Moldova’s grain market. It was an achievement aided by multimillion-dollar U.S. government loans granted to the company while Chaudhry was still ambassador. The investigation raised questions about overexploitation of Moldova’s agricultural land and the use of offshore companies to avoid agribusiness firms paying tax.
Contacted earlier this year, Chaudhry said there was nothing improper in his working for Trans-Oil: “There is nothing more important for me than my integrity,” Chaudhry wrote in an email to Mongabay, describing Trans-Oil as “unusually transparent.”
In Moldova the line between commerce and politics is often thin, and mutual aid between businessmen and political operators is common.
Trans-Oil’s founder and CEO, Vaja Jhashi, has enjoyed friendly relations with Plahotniuc and his family since they first met in 2001, according to company spokeswoman Tatiana Babakova.
“However, due to recent developments and political complications related to Plahotniuc’s situation and many other related issues there has been virtually no contact between Vaja [Jhashi] and Plahotniuc since Plahotniuc left [Moldova] in June 2019,” Babakova wrote in an email. “Trans Oil never had any business connection to Plahotniuc or any of the Plahotniuc businesses in Moldova or elsewhere.”
Fall from grace
The highest public office Plahotniuc held was deputy speaker of the Moldovan parliament. But his behind-the-scenes role in the country’s business, political and criminal spheres made him the nexus through which all political power flowed, according to a 2016 analysis by the Carnegie Endowment. That changed last summer. Following the electoral ouster of the Democratic Party of Moldova, of which he was leader, Plahotniuc fled the country ahead of corruption charges being filed against him.
In January 2020, the U.S. State Department issued a visa ban against Plahotniuc and his family over the oligarch’s “involvement in significant corruption.” The ban forbids Plahotniuc, his wife, Oxana Childescu, and their two sons from setting foot on U.S. soil. Yet two months later, in March 2020, following a flurry of sightings around Miami, the State Department confirmed to Radio Free Europe that Plahotniuc was indeed in the U.S.
In requests for assistance from U.S. law enforcement to track down the fugitive tycoon, Moldova’s anti-corruption agency listed two Miami addresses it believed Plahotniuc to be frequenting. One of them, Portofino Tower, contains a $2.2 million condo owned by Ukrainian Trans-Oil executive Dmitriy Kurilo.
Shells and proxies
In 2013, Kurilo bought the apartment from a shell company in the British Virgin Islands beneficially owned by a Czech real estate tycoon linked to a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s.
It is not clear whether Kurilo has ever set foot in the condo. The purchase was conducted by his boss, Jhashi, whom Kurilo had granted power of attorney.
Less than a month after buying it, Kurilo took the unusual decision to take out a $700,000 mortgage against the apartment; it was not his but Jhashi’s signature on the loan agreement. From 2016 until today, Jhashi has listed the Portofino Tower condo as his contact address and principal place of business for Energy One International Inc., a company he manages.
Babakova, the Trans-Oil spokeswoman, told Mongabay that Jhashi was “for sure … not beneficial owner” of the Portofino Tower condo. She noted that while Jhashi and his family use the apartment three or four times a year, they pay rent to its owner.
“Plahotniuc was never [a] guest of Vaja [or] our company in the US,” Babakova added. “He independently arranged for his [lodging] and traveling.”
Last February, Jhashi established another company in Miami: Sigmateli Limited LLC. The company shares its name with a Cypriot firm that investigative reporters from Rise Moldova found to be beneficially owned by Plahotniuc’s wife, Oxana. Sigmateli in Cyprus received millions of euros in loans from the oligarch and acts as holding company for a range of luxury properties associated with the Plahotniuc family across Europe.
The Florida Sigmateli has “no assets and no substance and no activity at all,” according to Babakova, who added that it has “no links to any foreign entity.”
Former U.S. Ambassador Asif Chaudhry, right, greets fugitive tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc at an event organized by the Atlantic Council in 2018. Photo: Vladimir Plahotniuc/Twitter.
Born in the Soviet republic of Georgia in 1966, Jhashi spent some of his childhood in New York, where his father was posted as a senior representative of Intourist, the Soviet Union’s state travel agency. However, their stay was cut short in 1977 after U.S. authorities suspected the elder Jhashi was attempting to blackmail U.S. citizens on behalf of the KGB.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jhashi became a Russian citizen before returning to the U.S. in the early 1990s to marry a U.S. art history scholar and become a dual national.
On Dec. 29, 2005, a special decree signed by Moldova’s then-president, Vladimir Voronin, made Jhashi a citizen of that country too. Speaking to Mongabay last September in his office at the headquarters of the Moldovan communist party, Voronin said there was nothing untoward in the decree.
A November 2007 cable sent by the U.S. ambassador to Moldova at the time, Michael Kirby, suggests that Jhashi’s longtime friend, Plahotniuc, was politically aligned with Voronin. It notes that Plahotniuc was “a close business associate” of the president’s son, Oleg.
According to Kirby’s cable, a U.S. director of Moldovan cable television provider Sun Communications had reported to the embassy that Plahotniuc had promised he could make Sun’s regulatory issues disappear if it ceased transmission of channels perceived to be in competition with pro-Voronin stations.
Voronin was reaching the end of his second term in office and he no longer enjoyed the levels of popular support he once had. Writing to Washington, Kirby said the end result of Plahotniuc’s request would be to allow “President Voronin and his son [to] dominate broadcast media in the run-up to the 2009 national elections.”
But Sun did not comply, and Voronin would be out of office by the end of 2009. Half a decade later, Jhashi would, in the eyes of many observers, appear to replicate this pattern of backroom support to a controversial political figure.
At the start of 2016, Plahotniuc’s reputation was in tatters. The previous summer a leaked report had identified $1 billion as having been siphoned from and through three major Moldovan banks and into the accounts of offshore shell companies. While Plahotniuc has consistently denied involvement in the scheme, his denials did little to quell the suspicions of ordinary Moldovans — suspicions shared by U.S. congressmen, who, by the end of the year, would introduce a bill seeking to sanction Plahotniuc for his alleged role in the heist.
A nationwide poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute in March 2016 found that 88% of Moldovans viewed the oligarch unfavorably. Of the 20 prominent politicians the IRI asked respondents to rate, none managed to match his levels of unlikability.
Given the levels of public distrust and allegations of impropriety, it came as a surprise to many when, in May 2016, Plahotniuc was invited to Washington D.C. as a guest of the Atlantic Council, a prestigious think tank. It was the first of several times Plahotniuc and his colleagues at the Democratic Party of Moldova would receive invitations to Atlantic Council events.
According to a report by democratic watchdog Freedom House, Plahotniuc owned four out of Moldova’s five national television stations, three radio stations, half a dozen news portals, and advertising agencies “which control most of the advertising market.” This media stranglehold meant he could rely on these visits being favorably portrayed domestically.
In 2018, it emerged that the Atlantic Council’s Moldova program was funded by Jhashi’s Trans-Oil group of companies. Company spokeswoman Babakova told Mongabay the funding “was not in any form connected to Plahotniuc or done as a favour to him.”
However, in a recent op-ed, former Moldovan diplomat Vlad Lupan described the Atlantic Council funding as “payments … on Plahotniuc’s behalf.” Noting that Plahotniuc has also denied the allegation, Lupan writes that such denials allow Trans-Oil and Jhashi to avoid “possible accusations of direct disbursements by a foreign actor.” Under U.S. federal law it is a criminal offense to fail to notify the U.S. Justice Department of such disbursements.
‘He had to know’
For many, such as Valeriu Pasa, who leads the Moldovan accountability NGO WatchDog, it is unlikely Chaudhry, the former U.S. ambassador, would have been unaware of Jhashi’s and Trans-Oil’s links to Plahotniuc.
“When he was ambassador, he would have had access to a lot of information — who’s who and what their connections are,” Pasa said. “To think the company is not connected to Plahotniuc you would have to not know Moldova at all.”
Until 2014, Mihail Gofman had been a senior Moldovan prosecutor investigating money laundering. That year, he fled the country and went to Washington D.C., where he collaborated with the FBI. In a WhatsApp exchange with Mongabay, Gofman described Chaudhry as “shady.”
“[He] combined his status as [a former] ambassador with the activities of an international criminal group,” Gofman wrote.
In an email this week to Mongabay, Chaudhry denied any link between the disgraced oligarch and Trans-Oil existed.
“Based on the visibility I have about TransOil as a board member, I have seen no evidence of any sort that Vlad Plahotniuc has any financial/commercial interest or link with this company,” Chaudhry wrote. “Mr. Vaja Jhas[h]i has always been open and transparent about his personal relationship with Mr. Plahotniuc through Moldovan business or social circles in general.”
By Jack Davies on 14 April 2020, Published on Mongabay
Photo by Anders Kristensen from Pexels