In late 2013, Oleg Deripaska’s Basel Aero (part of his network of entities under the Basic Element parent company) was looking for ways to ensure that the Sochi airport would be kept safe during President Putin’s prized Olympic Games. In a previously unreported episode, the joint Deripaska-Sberbank LLC that controls the Sochi International Airport turned not to Russian security experts, but rather to a UK-Israeli man with ties to the Netanyahu government and who has recently come under scrutiny by the Senate Intelligence Committee – Walter Soriano.
A small-claims court dispute in Krasnador, Russia revealed the details about Soriano’s work for the Sochi Olympics. If it were not for this dispute – over 800,000 rubles or approximately $12,500 for an Israeli operating without a work permit – these details about Soriano’s work for Russia may have never seen the light of day.
Buried within details about the companies involved and Russian case law were four paragraphs about the work that Soriano’s USG Security Limited did for the Deripaska-Sberbank LLC. “The first stage: from 12/23/2013 to 02/02/2014,” the court wrote, citing a contract signed by the Russian LLC and Soriano’s USG Security, “a study of the existing situation, training of personnel of the aviation security service and airport security technology. Stage two from 02/03/2014 to 03/18/2014 direct control at the facility and consulting assistance during the preparation and holding of the Olympic Games.”
Thus it appears, based on the contract cited in official Russian court filings, that Soriano’s USG Security had “direct control” of the Sochi International Airport during Putin’s crown jewel – the Olympic Games. The entire relevant section of the court filing is translated below:
[P]ersonnel training services were carried out under a consulting services agreement dated December 26, 2013, concluded by the company [Sochi International Airport] and USG Security Ltd (hereinafter referred to as the company).
From the content of the contract dated December 26, 2013 it follows that in accordance with clause 3.4 of the contract services will be provided in two stages. The first stage: from 12/23/2013 to 02/02/2014 – a study of the existing situation, training of personnel of the aviation security service and airport security technology. Stage two from 02/03/2014 to 03/18/2014 direct control at the facility and consulting assistance during the preparation and holding of the Olympic Games.
In clause 3.9 of the contract, the airport is required to provide the company with all the necessary data in written, oral and other form, to provide employees of the company with access to the premises and equipment, to receive for the company, its employees and representatives all necessary permits and other documentation (including visas, permits to work), provide them with housing and transportation.
Clause 12 of Appendix No. 2 to the contract dated December 26, 2013 stipulates that the airport should ensure the receipt of work permits and / or equivalent permits in order to create safe and legally stipulated work conditions for the USG work group.
Forensic News spoke with a number of Russia experts who expressed surprise that Soriano and USG Security were put in charge of such an important task for Russia.
“This is a quite an unusual situation with a foreigner like Soriano in Sochi,” Ilya Zaslavskiy, head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy in the West, told Forensic News. “It suggests that Soriano and his firm possessed some knowledge and/or technology to survey other foreigners and/or Russians that the Russian state could not get otherwise.”
“It also suggests very close links of Soriano with the Russian state and Deripaska as they don’t let random people in such sensitive spheres,” Zaslavskiy said.
Anders Aslund, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy, told Forensic News that there was a massive payoff to those close to Putin surrounding the Sochi Olympics. He also suggested that Soriano may have had the Kremlin’s blessing, given the importance of the Olympics.
“Opposition analysts Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martyniuk found that $25 billion was overpaid to friends or cronies of President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska belongs to this circle. That someone is entitled to be a major security contractor in this circle suggests very close contacts to the Kremlin and Russian security services.”
Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015, with Western leaders largely blaming Putin’s government. His body was found riddled with bullets just steps from the Kremlin. Five Chechens were convicted of his murder.
Mitchell Orenstein, Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, saw a potentially legitimate reason for Soriano’s USG Security being hired for Sochi: “On the one hand, it looks pretty straightforward. Soriano has a security company. He is hired to provide aviation security for the Sochi Olympics. Perhaps they wanted to hire a Western firm because they were likely to achieve the security goal without angering all the international clientele.”
However Orenstein concluded with the same overarching opinion as Zaslavskiy and Aslund: Soriano must have a close relationship with Deripaska and the Russian state: “Of course, it is well known that the Sochi contracts all went to friends, who often asked for kickbacks. So, at the very least, it does show a business relationship of some closeness to Deripaska and Sberbank.”
A friend of Professor Orenstein’s who has worked in Russia and who spoke to Forensic News on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic, raised serious concerns about Soriano’s involvement in Sochi.
“Generally speaking, airport security during the Olympics is an extremely sensitive issue, in particular, since Russia is always under the threat of terrorist attacks that grew exponentially before the games. So, it sounds like the Kremlin very much trusted USG Security.”
The person also expressed concerns about possible kickbacks, similar to the concerns of Aslund and Orenstein, to consultants during the Olympics, saying, “‘consulting’ is a standard way to hide kickbacks and other corrupt payments.”
In April 2019, as previously reported by Politico, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Soriano’s USG Security office in London, requesting an interview and documents relating to any communications with various figures associated with their investigation. Now, for the first time, the entire list of persons/entities can be revealed. They are:
- Oleg Deripaska
- Victor Boyarkin
- Georgy Oganov
- Konstantin Kilimnik
- Paul Manafort
- Erik Prince
- Darren Blanton
- Michael Flynn
- Steve Bannon
- David Bossie
- Psy Group aka Invop Ltd aka IOCO ltd (Joel Zamel + Royi Burstein)
- Black Cube
- George Birnbaum
- Aron Shaviv
- Orbis Business Intelligence (Christoper Steele + Christopher Burrows)
A source familiar with the Senate Intelligence probe wouldn’t comment on most of those involved and/or how they might relate to Soriano, with the obvious exception of Oleg Deripaska. The Committee also did not comment when asked if Soriano had complied with the request.
With regards to George Birnbaum, the source said, the Committee is interested in a pair of Washington, DC companies incorporated in January 2016, weeks before Birnbaum pitched the Trump campaign on Psy Group.
The two companies, JRP LLC and Questia Opinions LLC, were dissolved in April 2017. Records show that the address listed for both entities, 228 S Washington St Ste 115, is shared with numerous PACs, including some headed by David Bossie, who was on the list sent by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In an email to Forensic News, Birnbaum expressed surprise that he would be included in the Soriano inquiry: “to my recollection I have never met, corresponded or had any contact with anyone by that name in my life. I have no idea why my name would be included in the request.”
Rachel Cohen, a spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the Committee does not comment on witness engagements.
Other Russian clients
Soriano’s USG Security had other high-profile Russian clients apart from Deripaska. According to a sworn affidavit in Israeli court by journalist Raviv Drucker (whom Soriano is suing for libel), USG Security has also worked for Roman Abramovich and Dmitry Rybolovlev. This was first reported in English by Seth Hettena.
Drucker has a storied history of investigative journalism that has resulted in police investigations and awards, including a 2008 OMETZ award (Citizens for Good Governance and Social Justice) and a 2012 Transparency International award. Recently, Drucker’s reporting led to Israeli police opening an investigation into potential bribery of the Netanyahu family by an Australian billionaire.
Abramovich and his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova were once very close to Jared and Ivanka Kushner. Rybolovlev purchased a Florida mansion from Donald Trump in 2008 for $95,000,000, a sharp increase from the $40,000,000 Trump had spent on the property just three years prior. Rybolovlev never lived in the house.
From the Israeli journalist Drucker’s affidavit (translated):
USG’s clients were many and varied, including well-known capitalists, such as Mr. Roman Abramovich in his legal dispute against Mr. Boris Berezovsky…Dmitry Rybolovlev in the course of the legal dispute he waged against the art collector Yves Bouvier.
The Rybolovlev connection is further affirmed by a French journalist Marc LePlongeon who obtained correspondences between Soriano and Rybolovlev’s attorney Tetiana Bersheda (both were charged in 2018 in Monaco in a corruption probe).
According to documents obtained by LePlongeon, Rybolovlev hired Soriano in mid 2016 to investigate a former coach and player of his soccer club, AS Monaco. Soriano had a company called Football Universe Limited from 2008-2011, alongside footballer Claudio Canniga, who was one of the two other directors in the company. In 2010, Walter Soriano spoke on behalf of soccer star Diego Maradona. Maradona’s lawyer, Timothy Drukker, was the third director of the company.
As Drucker stated in court,
Some of the services offered by the USG were sometimes carried out using sub-contractors and through operations such as sophisticated tracking, data collection and data acquisition through various technological means, such as hacking, eavesdropping, and more.
The newly revealed Russian contacts and Senate Intelligence list for Soriano adds to a growing mystery about his connections with power brokers all around the world.
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Ties to Netanyahu
Soriano’s ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu run deep and appear to only have been severed after Soriano was publicly named in 2017.
Israeli investigative journalist Ravi Drucker, in the course of his investigation, was able to obtain email correspondences between Soriano and Ari Harow, then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Bureau Chief. In the messages, Harow and Soriano discuss the scheduling of an upcoming Soriano-Netanyahu meeting.
In 2017, Israeli authorities, who are investigating Netanyahu for various crimes, recommended indicting Harow for bribery, breach of trust, fraud and money laundering. Months later, Harow signed a plea deal with the authorities and turned on Netanyahu. Harow was subsequently convicted of only fraud and breach of trust.
After the police commissioner in Israel stated that private investigators collected information on the police forces investigating Netanyahu, Israeli media named Soriano as the culprit.
The reporting about Soriano in 2018 led to Netanyahu himself posting a Facebook status saying in part, “I haven’t met or talked to Soriano in eight years.”
Soriano’s connections to Netanyahu don’t end with Harow. Isaac Molho, a close confidant of Netanyahu’s, had a share in Soriano’s aforementioned Universe Security Group, according to business documents.
Another document, first published by Drucker, shows that Molho received almost $200,000 in finder’s fees for a contract Molho facilitated with the Mexican company Altos Hornos de Mexico (AHMSA). AHMSA is the largest integrated steel plant in Mexico. It is unclear what kind of work Universe Security Group did for the company.
Molho himself was wrapped up in the Netanyahu corruption scandal and was interviewed by police five times, but has thus far escaped charges. Molho has represented Netanyahu since 1996 in various political, legal, and personal matters.
Molho is married to Netanyahu’s cousin, and according to a Haaretz profile his “tendency to be discreet and avoid the press is said to be one of the qualities the prime minister appreciates most in him.”
In explosive testimony in July 2019, a former subcontractor of Soriano’s who was hired to provide security at the AHMSA testified that Soriano claimed that Netanyahu was a “partner” in Universe Security Group. “Because of this relationship with Netanyahu,” Soriano allegedly told the subcontractor in 2006, “his door is open to me.”
I remember that I expressed surprise that a senior elected public official is allegedly his partner in a financial project (Univsere Security Group). But Soriano reiterated, perhaps to impress me – Mr. Netanyahu is a partner in the venture.
The testimony continued, “Mr Soriano said – in the clearest terms- that he orchestrated a meeting between AA [Alonso Ancira, the Chairman/controlling owner of AHMSA] and Netanyahu when Netanyahu was still the Finance Minister (about a year before).”
Both Soriano and Netanyahu, who was the opposition leader of the Likud party at the time of the AHMSA project, vigorously deny the claims that they were ever business partners.
Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel, tweeted about the claim that Soriano and Netanyahu were business partners, but Soriano’s attorney immediately threatened a lawsuit. Barak later deleted the tweet but did not apologize.
What cannot be denied, however, is that Netanyahu’s longtime confidant Isaac Molho received at least hundreds of thousands of dollars from Soriano’s business.
In a groundbreaking 2010 report in Israeli media and picked up by US outlets such as the New York Times and Politico, a partially handwritten list of potential Netanyahu donors was leaked. From Politico, the document was “a list, marked up with now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handwriting, of prospective donors to his 2007 campaign — a remarkable leak…”
“The 1s indicate those whom Bibi thought likeliest to give, 2s a bit less likely, and so on. The top of the list includes big Republican donors Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder; Rupert Murdoch is marked a 2.”
As Forensic News pored over the list in preparation for this article, one name jumped out: Walter Soriano.
With a “1” by his name, Soriano was deemed very likely to be a big donor to the Netanyahu campaign. Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, was also listed as a “1” along with Trump business partner Tamir Sapir and former RNC finance chair Steve Wynn. Donald Trump was listed as a “3.”
In 2018, the Trump administration paid Molho’s law firm $150,000 the same month that the US Embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The law firm stated that it advised the US Consulate on “matters concerning mostly planning and building of the diplomatic compounds in Jerusalem and Israeli labor law for some 20 years.”
Both the Trump administration and the Netanyahu administration deny that the payment had anything to do with the move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
(Hover over the chart, or click if on a mobile device, to see an explanation for each location)
UK business ventures
In the UK, Soriano has been active in the real estate market for years. Currently, Soriano is the director of seven active companies in the UK, four of which are devoted to real estate. Three of those real estate companies have combined assets of around $12 million, but also have debts just under that amount (the fourth company is yet to file public accounting records). Records also indicate that a dissolved company controlled by Soriano took out mortgages on two properties from OneSavings Bank totaling around $1.2 million.
Soriano’s largest active real estate company, WS London Management, appears to have once been active in leasing and selling real estate. The company’s website, which is no longer active, listed seven properties as part of its portfolio as recently as 2014, according to an Internet archive. One of those properties was sold in 2015 to a Panama shell company, for £1.55 million. There seems to be no active website for WS London Management, and the company could not be reached for comment.
Overall, Soriano has been involved in 12 British companies since 1981. The long list displays some bizarre patterns. For example, Soriano registered companies under the names Tov 7, Tov 77, and Tov 777 (“tov” is Hebrew for “good”). Soriano also registered Cross Roads Properties and Cross Roads Properties 2. Nearly all of Soriano’s registered companies list the same London address.
Two of Soriano’s active British companies list Orly Weinberger as a current or former co-director. Weinberger, a former lawyer, is also the director of a London-based property investment firm. In two other ventures, Soriano partnered with Simon Bird, a 76 year-old English historian. Bird and his partner, Winston Churchill’s great-granddaughter in-law, sold their Dorset mansion in 2014 to the Lord Mayor of London for £3 million. Soriano also partnered with the lawyer Shlomo Rechtschaffen, the Executive Director of British Friends of Bar-Ilan University (BFBIU), a non-profit devoted to promoting the Israeli university in the UK. He once appeared with Haim Tomer, an ex-Mossad official, at a 2017 event hosted by BFBIU.