Yuri Vanetik had already shepherded a wealthy Ukrainian lawmaker through the corridors of Congress to meet several GOP leaders last September by the time he belatedly registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, as required by law.
When he finally did submit information to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, he listed an anonymous shell company in Wyoming as the official registrant, identifying himself as its vice president. “Four individuals and one limited liability company” own Medowood Management LLC, the documents say.
But he didn’t name any of those owners, and that could be a problem.
The use of an opaque LLC for a lobbying registration is “definitely unusual and I’d be surprised if there isn’t some follow up” from Justice, said Joseph Sandler, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and FARA expert for the firm Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock. FARA rules call for disclosure of the names of all partners, officers and directors of the registrant.
Another longtime Washington lawyer, Jack Blum, agreed that the document raises red flags. “If you are going to register under FARA and you’ve got to disclose all those things, why would you want to have an (anonymous) LLC unless there is something in this you really want to hide? That’s what you have to assume,” said Blum, an expert on money laundering.
Violations of FARA, passed in 1938 originally to curb propagandists working for the Nazis, haven’t been a high priority for federal prosecutors. But that may be changing. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election and possible Moscow ties to Donald Trump’s campaign, charged former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates with breaking that law by not registering as required (charges against Gates have been dropped).
New FARA registrations went up 50 percent in 2017 over a year earlier as Mueller brought the law higher visibility — and awareness that violating it can bring penalties of up to five years in prison.
The Medowood filing adds to a string of dubious actions and circumstances involving Vanetik, a Soviet émigré. A previous McClatchy report showed that the Republican Party fundraiser, who has brought in campaign money for Republican presidential nominees and other GOP politicians has misrepresented his academic credentials and that he’s been named in a trail of civil lawsuit, including one that resulted in a $4.75 million judgment against him and his father. Several of his business associates have been jailed or sanctioned by regulators.
Still, Vanetik has mingled closely with major leaguers in the Republican Party.
In February 2017, he was named national finance co-chair for the New York Republican Party, with a party press release calling him an “esteemed business leader, political strategist and philanthropist.” State party officials told McClatchy they did little vetting before bringing Vanetik — who posted photos of himself with state party chairman Ed Cox — aboard.
Vanetik joined a congressional delegation in Berlin last April that included his close friend, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who met there with Rinat Akhmetshin. The Soviet-born Akhmetshin, who has links to Russian intelligence agencies and is under scrutiny by Mueller, was present at the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
On that same trip Vanetik posted photos of a dinner he attended along with Rohrabacher and Agrarian Party of Ukraine leader Vitaliy Skotsyk. Six months later Vanetik registered to lobby for the party.
And many nembers of the Republican party elite — everyone from Bush family members to congressional leaders to former Vice President Dick Cheney — have posed for snapshots with Vanetik, who until recently posted the photos regularly on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Among the many shots Vanetik shared was one from February 2017 of him in a restaurant with Manafort, holding up a document and flashing a trademark thumbs-up. By then, Manafort was under Mueller’s microscope. Besides violating FARA, he was charged late last year with fraud and money laundering.
It’s unclear whether Vanetik and Manafort have done business together; both have represented prominent Ukrainian clients.
Medowood and Vanetik’s registrations name two clients: the Agrarian Party of Ukraine and, separately, Serhey Rybalka. Part of a wealthy family that owns a big processed food and farm company called the S Group, Rybalka is a leader in the ultra-nationalist Radical Party. He faces accusations at home of violating the ban on trade with Russian-occupied Crimea, which he denies.
Vanetik’s filing said that he would arrange “meetings with U.S. government officials to discuss U.S. foreign policy relating to Ukraine, international commerce, and related matters” for Rybalka. And indeed, during several days of meetings last September, Vanetik appears to have set up meetings between Rybalka and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California; Vanitek posted a photo of the two on Sept. 14. Rybalka also met with another Californian, GOP Rep. Ed Royce, the influential chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and with Rohrabacher.
Medowood contracted out of some of its work to Potomac International Partners, a D.C.-area lobbying firm, which wrote in its own FARA filing that it was hired to help raise “the positive visibility of Serhey Rybalka among U.S. political, business, and thought leaders.”
Behind the LLC curtain
Limited liability companies are popular because they shield their owners from certain personal liabilities, as the term suggests. Generally the owners’ names aren’t required to be publicly disclosed; Wyoming, in particular, requires minimal disclosure, even to state authorities.
But that lack of disclosure allows LLCs sometimes to be used for a wide array of nefarious purposes, including tax evasion and money laundering, because they can hide their true ownership.
Vanetik and his lawyers have not responded to requests for comment over a period of almost a month.
Justice Department spokespersons declined to discuss Medowood or registration by LLCs.
In an effort to learn whether Medowood’s registration was out of the ordinary, McClatchy searched the Justice Department’s foreign-agent database and turned up an estimated 300 unique LLCs, some of which are inactive. Most are located in or around Washington, D.C., and use the names of known entities such as law firm Arent Fox, public relations giant Burson-Marsteller and former Missouri Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt.
Medowood was the only one McClatchy found that had camouflaged its ownership.
Medowood also is one of just two LLCs in the FARA database that’s registered in Wyoming. The other belongs to a lobbyist with a home address in the Cowboy State.
But the address given on Medowood’s FARA filing is in Los Angeles, at the same location Vanetik gives as his own business address. In both cases a lawyer, John Hamilton, is the designated recipient.
Hamilton, who didn’t respond to numerous phone calls and messages, also represents Vanetik in ongoing civil litigation; he also represented Aksana Cherniavskaia — Medowood’s principal, according to its FARA filing —in a now-settled 2014 lawsuit against a hotel after $75,000 worth of jewelry and belongings disappeared. (Cherniavskaia’s surname is spelled several ways on different documents.)
On his personal FARA registration (filed in addition to the Medowood document), Vanetik listed a home address in Santa Ana, Calif. But a neighbor who knows the family said Vanetik does not live there, only his parents do. His father Anatoly is a convicted felon, and father and son have for years been co-defendants in civil lawsuits alleging fraud.
Cherniavskaia is also tough to track down. The phone number associated with the Newport Beach address listed for her belongs to someone else. She appears in some of Vanetik’s frequent social-media postings and is an active poster herself, but there’s little that points to political activity or overseas ties.
Medowood’s creation predated by almost three years the lobbying activity it later reported. Yet because of its anonymity, it is impossible to know what other purpose, if any, Medowood served.
The company’s Wyoming incorporation documents originally date back to Dec. 10, 2014, when Medowood’s principal office was in Suite 609 at an address in the Southern California city of Orange. The “suite” was actually a mailbox in a UPS store .
A 2016 McClatchy investigation involving the Panama Papers, a massive leak of documents about secretive offshore companies, showed how Wyoming and Nevada’s minimal disclosure requirements enabled Russians and Brazilians to camouflage assets across the globe.
Medowood could be forced to disclose its true owners only if ordered to do so under a subpoena from law enforcement — which, at least initially, would have gone to Box 609 at UPS store No. 2075.
“That is usually a red flag for all kinds of things. If you try to open a bank account registered to a mailbox address, or you try to open a broker account, they are going to bump it back and say we want something real,” said Blum.
Less than a month after its December 2014 incorporation, Medowood changed agents and addresses. In fact, it has changed agents and/or moved offices seven times in just over three years, according to Wyoming records.
Other foreign interests
Vanetik’s opaque and tardy Medowood FARA filing follows by more than a year his apparent work for another foreign client that he didn’t report. Social media postings show that he led around Washington a politician and famous opera singer from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Paata Burchuladze in 2016 was trying — unsuccessfully in the end — to unseat the ruling Dream Party with his newly formed State for the People Party.
Vanetik, true to form, posted photos showing the two men together in a private jet flying from Cleveland on Sept 8, 2016. Later that same day the Georgian appears in separate online postings with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Rohrabacher. A photo from a day earlier showed him with Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
Burchuladze was also in the United States a few months earlier, in July, meeting with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others. Spokespersons for Burr, Rubio and Menendez did not respond to emails from McClatchy.
Burchuladze had no immediate comment when McClatchy attempted to contact him, and is believed to be performing in Moscow while under investigation at home for alleged embezzlement, a probe he labels political. He did respond to a request for comment.
But Vanetik would have been required to register under FARA, whether or not he was paid to introduce Burchaldze to members of Congress.
“Even if you are pro-bono, under the FARA you have to register,” said Sandler.
Until recently, many might have disregarded FARA’s requirements and not been penalized. A critical report from Justice’s inspector general in September 2016 noted weak enforcement of FARA rules and that the agency had brought just seven criminal FARA cases between 1966 and 2015. It also said 62 percent of FARA filings came late, as was the case with Vanetik.
Since the October 2017 charges brought against Manafort, more than three dozen firms have registered, a nearly 10 percent increase in the number of active firms registered under the law.
Mueller cited the FARA rules again on Feb. 16 when indictments were announced against 13 Russians and three Russian companies for alleged meddling in the 2016 elections. The charging documents noted the Russians’ failure to register.
Tom Hart and Ben Wieder contributed in Washington