BY FROMA HARROP
The poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in the English countryside has roused Britons to two truths: Vladimir Putin regards their country as an easy mark, but it’s also an extremely pleasant place for his oligarchs to live. Americans, take note.
Finally, finally, there’s talk of hitting back at Putin where his filthy-rich cronies hurt – their mansions, Bentleys and other baubles of the posh life in Britain. A study released by Deutsche Bank in 2015 says that Russians were a major source of the $129 billion that had made its way into Britain through secret offshore dealings the previous nine years.
So many Kremlin insiders have made opulent nests in the environs of No. 10 Downing St. that an anti-Putin activist runs what he calls a “klepto tour” of London. As one example, Putin sidekick Roman Abramovich owns a $163 million house right across from Kensington Palace.
The Russian loot, much of it stolen under Putin’s wink, flows into Britain greased by laws only pretending to monitor its source. The story repeated itself in Manhattan, where money of murky provenance has spiked the prices of palatal properties.
One cannot discuss Russian money and luxury real estate without touching on the subject of developer Donald Trump. His dealings with the klepto buyers are now legendary.
That helps explain the president’s weak-kneed response to Russian aggression against our democratic institutions. And it helps explain Trump’s apparent panic at special counsel Robert Mueller’s growing interest in the Trump Organization.
There is nothing illegal about foreigners buying U.S. property. People from all over do so, seeing choice real estate in New York, Miami and other elite cities as safe places to stash their money.
But the phenomenon has fostered an elaborate web of intermediaries tasked with cleaning up ill-gotten gains and moving them into respectable real estate. That often involves using shell companies to hide the buyers’ identities. The Treasury Department has begun tightening the rules governing such ownership.
Its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network now requires U.S. title insurance companies to name the people behind all-cash offers for high-end homes in several geographical zones: New York City, Miami to Palm Beach, the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego areas, and the county that includes San Antonio, Bexar County.
Three months before Trump announced his run for the presidency, the Treasury’s financial crimes unit slapped a $10 million penalty against the Trump Taj Mahal casino resort in Atlantic City for “willful and repeated violations of the Bank Secrecy Act” – that is, money laundering.
Whether Trump world colluded with Russia to sway the U.S. election is a question Mueller has yet to answer. However, Trump’s long history of doing business with Putin allies, some also mobsters, is troubling, whatever Mueller’s conclusion.
Trump-branded condos in Sunny Isles Beach, outside Miami, have so many Russian owners that locals call them “Little Russia.” A proposal to seize Russian-owned apartments would obviously not sit well with the president.
That could explain his feeble responses to Russian attacks against the West. Trump hesitated before joining the European Union in supporting Britain’s response to the poison outrage. That led Russian state television to announce, “Trump is ours.”
His recent call for sanctions against Russians suspected of meddling in U.S. elections and other cyberattacks largely named the same entities Mueller has already indicted. This tepid reaction followed shocking revelations that Russian hackers have invaded our water and electric systems, nuclear power plants included.
Trump is obviously steering clear of sharp-toothed sanctions, such as freezing the U.S. assets of Putin’s oligarchs. Others should pursue the idea. Follow the money, they say. And in the case of Putin allies living large on American soil, take it.
– Froma Harrop’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer