A widening scandal surrounding the Russian billionaire who bought Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion — a different one than Mar-a-Lago —for an eye-popping sum has brought the oligarch renewed scrutiny.
Fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev was detained by police in Monaco earlier this week and questioned in an influence-peddling probe that involves the sale of famous paintings, allegations of public corruption and some of the biggest names in the wealthy principality of Monaco.
A resident and owner of the AS Monaco soccer team, Rybolovlev is also believed to have attracted attention in special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
The Russian, reportedly worth more than $6 billion, attracted attention amid reports of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 election because the Russian’s plane had been parked near Trump’s personal jet during a campaign stop in Charlotte, N.C., and later landed at the Las Vegas airport just as Trump’s aircraft was departing.
Rybolovlev and Trump have denied knowing each other and said their only transaction involved the sale of his Palm Beach mansion, described as a gaudy 6.3 acre estate with an indoor pizza kitchen. The estate was eventually torn down and the property put for sale as three lots.
Reporting by McClatchy and the Charlotte Observer showed that Rybolovlev had actually been in Charlotte because he secretly owned a manufacturing plant that was to make huge batteries capable of supplying backup power to the electrical grid. Soon after the reports, the company called Alevo filed for bankruptcy and shut down.
What proved most intriguing about Rybolovlev, however, was his 2008 purchase for nearly $100 million of Trump’s mansion, bought a few years earlier for $41 million. The huge profit for Trump, in a sale to a wealthy Russian with Kremlin ties, later attracted enormous media attention and fueled conspiracy theories.
The details of the sale are among the reason Democrats want a look at Trump’s taxes, in part because Rybolovlev aggressively uses offshore shell companies, which are legal, to keep details of his assets private. Trump has in the past denied using shell companies, favoring incorporation of hundreds of companies in Delaware, whose laws allow similar secrecy.
The Palm Beach mansion transaction does not appear to be under scrutiny in the European cases, where authorities in Monaco are probing Rybolovlev’s relations with former Justice Minister Philippe Narmino.
Narmino has been charged with corruption and influence peddling, allegedly for accepting payments from Rybolovlev, whose lawyer Tetiana Bersheda has also been charged in the case.
The French daily Le Monde last year published a bombshell story, citing text messages, that accused Narmino of accepting presents to favor Rybolovlev in a legal dispute with a Swiss art dealer named Yves Bouvier.
The wealthy Russian claims Bouvier misrepresented and overcharged in the sale of famous works of art, and among other things had sold Rybolovlev two paintings by Pablo Picasso that had been stolen.
On Tuesday, Rybolovlev was detained and questioned, his luxury property overlooking the Monte Carlo harbor searched. He was not arrested or jailed, but under Monaco law remains in a status where he must return to the court if and when summoned.
“This does not mean, however, that sufficient grounds exist for the suspect to be brought before the trial, and even lesser grounds to find him guilty of any offense,” his lawyers said in a statement provided to the Miami Herald. “We do insist on the fact that at this stage Mr. Rybolovlev is presumed innocent, and that this presumption and the rights attached to it should be strictly respected.”
A spokesman for Rybolovlev’s family office, which oversees his numerous businesses, declined to comment on whether there has been contact with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel or next steps in the European court proceedings.
This weekend, a spokesman for Rybolovlev said in a new statement that the Russian faces no travel restrictions and is actually in Moscow now.
“He was neither released on bail nor any travel restriction order has been issued in his respect. Mr. Rybolovlev is subject to judicial control: he is not restricted from leaving Monaco and not limited is his movements,” said Dmitry Chechkin, adding that his only limitations are “not to meet with some of the participants of the case and to appear on the request of a judge for questioning, just as he has done before.”
Rybolovlev has pending matters in U.S. courts. He is winding down the bankruptcy of his North Carolina company, and he brought a New York lawsuit on Oct. 3 against the auction house Sotheby’s, seeking to recover $380 million. That suit alleges Sotheby’s worked with Bouvier to defraud him, and involves at least 12 purchases in which Sotheby’s was involved.
The lawsuit was brought by two shell companies owned by Rybolovlev in the British Virgin Islands — Accent Delight International Ltd. and Xitrans Finance Ltd. These companies drew international attention with the April 2016 publication of the Panama Papers, which showed he relied on offshore shells to camouflage his ownership of works by famous painters, including Picasso, Degas, Monet and others.
Xitrans Finance also figured in Rybolovlev’s bitter divorce battle with his ex-wife, Elena, who alleged he used the shells to transfer his assets offshore and out of her reach of divorce proceedings. Those claims disappeared in a 2015 settlement considered one of the most expensive divorces in history.
Ben Wieder in Washington contributed