the home of online investigations

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link:

U.S. Politicians Can’t Stop Taking Len Blavatnik’s Money

October 21, 2019

By Casey Michel

Last month, leading anti-kleptocracy voices in the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere sounded the alarm about a massive donation that Len Blavatnik, a Soviet-born businessman with close ties to sanctioned Russian figures, made to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Blavatnik’s donation was, as one expert said, a clear instance of the “soft enabling of kleptocracy,” and fit firmly in Blavatnik’s history of using his funds for “image launder[ing].”

As new documents show, Blavatnik’s financial offer to CFR wasn’t the only substantial donation he’s made recently. 

According to new filings with the Federal Election Commission, Blavatnik — who is estimated to be worth approximately $19 billion, and who has U.S. citizenship — has been offering record-breaking donations to American politicians and political committees on both sides of the aisle. Thus far, it appears that Democrats and Republicans alike are willing to take his money, despite major concerns from those who’ve followed Blavatnik’s career and/or those who work in the sphere of anti-kleptocracy. 

As the filings show, just last month Blavatnik issued a $200,000 donation to the “McCarthy Victory Fund,” a joint fundraising committee for House GOP leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Blavatnik additionally offered two further donations to McCarthy’s reelection campaign, totaling $5,600. 

McCarthy recently became one of President Donald Trump’s most ardent defenders regarding Trump’s willingness to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. McCarthy also famously said in leaked audio in 2016 that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin “pays” Trump. 

Per FEC records, the $200,000 filing is the single largest donation Blavatnik has ever made to any single candidate or political committee, almost doubling the $101,700 Blavatnik donated to the Republican National Committee (RNC) in April 2017. (Blavatnik filed two separate donations to the RNC in April 2017, each worth $101,700.) 

Blavatnik’s donation is also the largest single donation the “McCarthy Victory Fund” has received this election cycle.

Blavatnik, however, is not donating exclusively to Republicans. In late June 2019, Blavatnik and his wife Emily each donated $124,250 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Not only was it the second-largest single donation Blavatnik has ever made to a U.S. politician or committee, but, when combined with his wife’s donation, it totaled as much as any other individual donation the DCCC has ever received in its entire history. (Emily Blavatnik’s occupation on the FEC forms is listed as “unemployed.”)

Neither the DCCC nor McCarthy’s office responded to Bellingcat’s questions about why they were willing to take Blavatnik’s funds. Access Industries, which Blavatnik oversees and which he listed on his FEC filings as his employer, also didn’t respond to Bellingcat’s questions. 

Financial Times profile of Blavatnik earlier this year noted that Blavatnik’s “head of press relations asks reporters to confirm that Blavatnik will not be referred to as an oligarch in any article before agreeing to arrange potential interviews. Those who do use that word are left to face complaints from his lawyers, who also protest when the fact of his Ukrainian birth is publicized without clarity about his U.S. and U.K. citizenships.” There is no indication any of the entities mentioned in this article committed any illegal acts.

As Bellingcat previously reported, the growing concerns about financing from Blavatnik are impossible to miss. Blavatnik, who made billions of dollars through investments in Russia, appeared, at least until recently, close to Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch sanctioned last year for his role in Russia’s “malign activity” in 2016 and afterward. Blavatnik’s other former business contacts include Oleg Deripaska, another Russian oligarch and close ally of Putin, who was also sanctioned specifically by the U.S. (As The Hollywood Reporter noted in a recent profile on Blavatnik, the sources of his wealth “aren’t entirely clear[.]”)

While the Soviet-born Blavatnik has kept a relatively low profile politically, he has made a concerted effort to financially back both Democratic and Republican candidates over the years. In 2016, though, Blavatnik split with his prior precedent, and poured some $6 million into Republican coffers, as well as donating $1 million directly to Trump’s inaugural committee. 

New questions about Blavatnik’s wealth were soon asked. Last year it emerged that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office had specifically investigated Blavatnik’s donations to Trump’s inauguration. Vekselberg also told the Financial Times that he attended Trump’s inauguration at a table Blavatnik paid for, although Blavatnik’s spokesperson denied this.

In December 2018, the Washington D.C.-based Hudson Institute accepted a donation from Blavatnik — and then returned the donation, following an outcry from anti-kleptocracy voices. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter is a member of the advisory council of the Kleptocracy Initiative, which is housed out of the Hudson Institute.) 

As Ann Marlowe wrote in The New York Times, “Mr. Blavatnik is entitled to spend his money how he pleases. But institutions like the Hudson Institute and Harvard [to which Blavatnik has also donated], which at least in principle stand for the ethical pursuit of knowledge, sully themselves by accepting it.” 

As Sarah Chayes, one of the leading anti-corruption voices in the U.S., told Bellingcat about Blavatnik’s donation earlier this year to CFR, it illustrates that “it’s frankly open season. It broadcasts to the Kremlin that if you just disguise your money a little bit, the U.S. system is still fully penetrable.” And as a group of nearly 60 of the leading anti-kleptocracy voices in the U.S. and elsewhere wrote in a letter last month, “We regard [Blavatnik’s recent donation] as another step in the longstanding effort of Mr. Blavatnik — who, as we explain below, has close ties to the Kremlin and its kleptocratic network — to launder his image in the West.” 

Correction: This story initially noted that Blavatnik had issued multiple donations to the DCCC. After Bellingcat published this story, Blavatnik’s spokesperson clarified that the FEC documents show that the DCCC specifically assigned $88,750 to the DCCC’s ‘Building Fund/Headquarters’ account, not that Blavatnik attempted a second donation to the DCCC. We regret the error. 
Casey Michel

Casey Michel is an investigative journalist based in New York. His prior writing has been published with Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and The New Republic, among others. He’s on Twitter at @cjcmichel

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.

30 Comments

  1. Magnus Helin

    There are also strong indications that the Clinton Foundation received money from unsavoury regimes in the Middle East. Glad that that money didn’t buy Hillary Clinton the presidency of the USA.

    Reply
    • Servus

      Dear Magnus
      If you fancy digging up garbage, use Google!
      Clinton foundation finance records are public so no secrets there.
      An old NYT article will provide you with more synthetic information on donors and possible conflicts of interests, that is possible future favors to donors.

      The foundation is a charity so the funds can’t be used for financing a presidential campagne as you insinuate.

      …and your dirt is bit late….

      The oligarch’s Blavatnik cristalline fund go directly to US politicians and institutions, with (.-))) no string attached!

      Reply
      • Nuno

        I`m getting really tired of all the trolls and whatabouters that have been plaguing this site….I sometimes wonder if Bellingcat does well to keep these commentary boxes open…..

        Reply
        • Gerhard

          But what would you have to troll about if they closed the comment boxes then, Glavset? We would probably all “do well” if you just moved on to another site.

          Reply
      • Magnus Helin

        It seems that our Dear Leader also have some more up-to-date compromat on Ms. Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawai Democrat. According to Hillary she is a Russian agent. I don’t need NYT, I just listen/read the truth from Hillary herself.

        Reply
        • Servus

          Of corse you don’t, Clinton didn’t say your silly travesty.
          She said that rep Gabbard was ‘groomed’ by the Russians.
          Meaning actively supported, no real news either. Russian ambassador to South Africa said that openly, RT and Sputnik talk a lot about her and even at this site, a wave of trolls supported her recently.
          IMHO they just use Gabbard as a mean to disrupt the democratic debate. And in reality damage her position, just like the support from Steve Bannon and extreme right.

          Unless some more information surfaces or if she runs as independent, IMHO she is being used to be discarded once not useful anymore, no need of any ´kompromat’ in here.

          Reply
          • Gerhard

            Let’s be clear about a few things:

            FACT: This line of “Bill and Hillary have blood on their hands” is an established Russian propaganda narrative, as seen on Facebook and Twitter during election. There is no basis in fact or even any real meaning other than to obfuscate/misdirect/disrupt political conversations. Anyone who uses this line or variation thereof without further explanation is likely doing so at the behest of Russian intelligence.

            FACT: Tulsi Gabbard’s public statements and policy positions largely align with many of Trump’s and various GOP voters and supporters despite her political affiliation. Issues include political and military isolationism, support for Assad and Russia, dissatisfaction boiling over into open conflict with DNC leadership, substantive attacks on other Democratic candidates’ [largely traditional] platforms.

            FACT: Gabbard is mentioned in Russian media far beyond a share proportionate to her standing in polls, popular culture, and political influence. Why would they even bother one mention of a seventh-tier candidate from Hawaii?

            FACT: Gabbard has publicly ruled out a third-party run, but her politics do not seem to align with the Democratic base, while her popular support comes from a hodgepodge of self-described liberals and libertarian-minded right-wing voters. It is apparent that she will never win the Democratic nomination, but she will also not likely quit until the bitter end. Where does that leave her? With a little nudging [from her friends], she could easily be encouraged to run as a Green Party, etc.

            FACT: Splitting liberal voters off from the eventual Democratic nominee would benefit Trump or the Republican candidate as in most prominently 2000. The fly in the ointment is if Trump is removed, then how could Russia secure that the Republican nominee would also be favorable to their interests?

            FACT: Tulsi Gabbard is valuable as a mouthpiece for Moscow whether she wins or not or even meaningfully disrupts the election. Just having her (as a Democratic candidate, no less) spouting pro-Assad Postol garbage is better than 5,000 Russian trolls posting 24/7.

            FACT: Russia runs unwitting parties as agents [in intelligence parlance] all the time, and she may not even have been turned or compromised. Just because she denies it doesn’t mean she’s too naïve to realize that much of the influence surrounding her may have interests that conveniently intersect with Russia’s. Therefore the substance and net effect, if perhaps not the exact details, of Hillary Clinton’s statements are absolutely correct.

            We against Russian influence should be careful not to lose sight of the message, not the messenger. There are markers just as in Orwell’s 1984 as to their design, and these markers act as a sort of digital imprint as to its
            origin. Anti-“hate speech” organisations look for “dog-whistle” terminology to track influence, and the same goes for Russian intelligence operations. Any message that perfectly aligns with Moscow’s line coming out of the mouth or pen of a Westerner is suspect. If it looks and smells like propaganda (regardless of the speaker’s actual beliefs or intent), it probably is.

            Here is the refreshingly insightful yet not alarmist NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/12/us/politics/tulsi-gabbard.html

          • Servus

            Gerhard ,
            Nice write up.
            Tulsi G. is certainly an ´useful idiot ´ as they have probably categorized her. A lot can be explained by ignorance. low education, nativity and not being too smart. It will be interesting to see if she gets ever re-elected again….

    • Patrick

      Kill + Bill worked hard to obscure their sources of funds. Kill has American blood on her hands!

      Reply
      • Christopher Carter

        You mind explaining what blood is on Bill and Hillary’s hands. If you are referring to Benghazi the 8 investigations that your corrupt GOP conducted for 4 years turned up nothing against Hillary. If you want talk about blood on their hands lets talk about the betrayal of the Kurds who are getting slaughtered by the Turks and the the American soldiers who were being shelled by the Turks, before they could pull out all thanks to your idiot president Trump.

        Reply
        • The Carter III

          Let’s be realistic. The investigation didn’t “turn up nothing” against Hillary. It resulted in what all of these investigations result in, a lack of prosecution, namely because it would be more damaging for the country itself than anything else.

          There are still facts that came out of it that do present that she was responsible for turning the other way upon receiving requests for more advanced facilities, more security personnel, and ignoring emails/phone calls while the scenario was developing and escalating in Benghazi.

          Of course, this isn’t the only reference in a long list of issues she’s been linked to. Again, just because someone isn’t prosecuted, doesn’t mean they didn’t do it. Obviously, it is proper in the USA to believe in innocence before an assumption of guilt, but at the same time, some evidence shines a light on reality that our justice system just simply can’t handle. For example, we all know OJ did it… He wrote a book explaining how he would have done it, which was really fitting considering it matched up with the criminology reports.

          Let’s also talk about our “allies” in the Kurds. Tell me, if the US was invaded, would the “allies” come to the rescue? I can all but guarantee the Kurds would not find their way over to the US in defense. Luckily, in talking about this 6 days after your comment, it appears some trickery has mocked everyone that’s all but freaked out over the defense of the Kurds. Look at Syria now, not even a week later. The military situation is completely different, and one of the first ever long-term cease fires is operating (successfully) between the Turks and Kurds.

          Reply
          • Servus

            You forgotten to mention that a fact that Clinton’s conspiracies were not discovered just proves how deep and well hidden they were…
            Benghasi trial was conducted by extremely hostile prosecutors and nothing came out of it.
            What has OJ with this thing to do? Just a lose association? But he lost the civil case anyway.
            Your hypothetical case of Kurds rescuing US is a sheer idiocy not worth arguing with .
            There was a long peace at the Turkish/Syrian Kurds border when US Army was patrolling jointly with Turkish Army.
            BTW there are other sources of information than Russia Today.

          • Gerhard

            Hillary..Benghazi..OJ…curiously random misdirection? Check.
            Calling US justice system into question with non sequiturs? Check.
            Unnatural English syntax and odd usage as in “it is proper in the USA” ?Check.
            Use of “our ‘allies'” as if an American? Check.

            Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe we have passed the smell test for a Russian operative posing as an American.

            Reminder: THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT LEN BLAVATNIK, NOT BILL OR HILLARY CLINTON OR BENGHAZI OR O.J. SIMPSON.

            Note to Russians: actual Americans other than Trump do not use terms such as “in the USA” or even the word “proper” much at all. Just because you took an English course or two before being deployed doesn’t make you fluent or believable when opining about “our” justice system.

            YOUR justice system is nonexistent and run by capricious, corrupt kleptocrats. But nice try, I give you a 6/10 for effort.

          • Servus

            Let’s just note that the professional internet propagandists got instruction to defend and disturb any discussion about the oligarch, Leonid Valentinovich Blavatnik.

            The desinfection ability of the daylight is just amazing!

      • Electra

        To Gerhard: You did a really nice and useful post on Tulsi Gabbard. To this I add, from the Washington Monthly on 22 October:
        “22 Oct 19–…When it comes to Gabbard’s voting record in Congress, she is one of only a handful of representatives who voted against the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned Russians involved in the murder of tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009. In addition, she was one of only three representatives listed as “not voting” on two other bills related to Russia.
        Last week, the House voted on a bill honoring slain Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in Moscow in 2015. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), came with a number of provisions, including calling for an investigation into Nemtsov’s death and sanctions against those responsible. The bill also condemned Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin for persecuting political opponents…

        Soon after, the House voted on a bill sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) that reiterated America’s position of not recognizing Russian sovereignty over Crimea.”

        https://washingtonmonthly.com/2019/10/22/the-overwhelming-evidence-in-support-of-clintons-claims-about-gabbard/

        Reply
        • Servus

          Thanks, this was the second shoe..,, not voting Magnitki act…I have no questions , she is a de facto Russian agent.

          We will certainly learn more about it when next GRU/FSB archivist jumps the fence with terabytes of data.

          Reply
        • Gerhard

          Article lays it all out..she doesn’t even really know what she’s saying or what her position is, so she’s the perfect empty vessel to fill with Kremlin garbage.

          It really points to the darkness and cynicism of Russian thought (beyond the simple humourous irony) that they refer to their unwitting agents as “useful idiots,” as if anyone who agrees with their talking points is an idiot. Because they know it’s true; Russian foreign policy is cynical realpolitik that only makes sense if you work for the Russian government, and it’s a zero-sum game out there. The reason the USSR’s global domination fantasies failed is because the Third World and ostensible Soviet allies quickly saw through the Russia-first cynical outlook that belied the ideological global Communist movement, and they jumped ship. China is exactly the same.

          So trying to connect the dots in any meaningful ideological fashion is a fool’s [idiot’s] errand — the only common thread is that all of these viewpoints benefit 1) Putin 2) Kremlin 3) diminish US power 4) diminish other Western governments’ power. That’s Putin’s checklist in his morning routine.

          Too bad Obama and Clinton didn’t figure this out sooner, or have more than a limp-wristed “Don’t hack our elections or else” attitude.

          Reply
        • Gerhard

          See New York Magazine article about her today. Tulsi’s almost the official Republican/Russian spoiler candidate already. I don’t care how much she or anyone hates Hillary Clinton..this is now getting absurd. NRA and the Republican Party Russian assets..? Russia in league with far-right and Brexit movements? Russia and Turkey sipping tea together? Bizarre geopolitical world we live in.

          Reply
  2. Black Star

    Funding a politician is only a part of the game: by doing that, donors can buy a private connection to the politician. Politicians are elected to do public service and advance common good. Accepting large amounts of money from shadowy figures puts the politician under suspicion of not working for common good, but for the donor, i.e. being corrupt.

    Not all funding has a selfish or sinister goal, of course.

    In many countries politicians are required to publish information on who they have met during their tenure. In Finnish parliament, for example, every meeting between members of public and politicians inside the parliament building is registered and lists of participants are public information. But nobody can access them, since the “public information” is deleted each day by parliament officials before anybody else can read it.

    Wonder why the politicians would not want the media and public to know who they are having conversations with?

    Reply
    • Gerhard

      Exactly..that’s why there’s transparency with funding. If a particular organization funds you and you’re okay with everyone knowing that, then go right ahead. That principle keeps genuine neo-Nazis away from Trump, etc. Environmental organizations support Bernie Sanders? That’s not news. It’s the ones they don’t want you to know about that are interesting (or potentially the ones they don’t even know about, a la Tulsi Gabbard — oblivious or self-aware Russian asset?).

      Reply
      • The Carter III

        It’s hard to have transparency in funding when it spins out between people, corporations both big and small, and charities. The money trails flow in so many directions that it’s a mess.

        I do agree that there’s a red flag if they don’t want to speak to who their donors are. However, there are some circumstances that also are kind of gray area. Let’s gather an example. Say you’re a drug dealer, but a very outstanding member of your community. Many people would be proud to take money from you if they know you’re an outstanding member, but let’s say they brag about it and eventually you’re arrested for being a massive drug dealer. All of a sudden the politician looks bad.

        So maybe it’s just best for them to keep their mouths shut and continue taking the money. This way if nothing good or bad happens, it’s like it just didn’t happen. Of course, darkness can lurk in that so it provides criminal opportunity, but that may be a cost we have to weigh against the other scenarios.

        Reply
        • Servus

          Do you think that a drug dealer donates huge sums of money without any expectations of any counter service?
          In my naivity I thought drug business is about making money and not distributing wealth.
          Why in the discussions about mr Panufnik, the oligarch, you use comparisons with a drug dealer?

          Your doubts about transparency are illogical, receiving organisations are typically obliged to keep public records, with different rules depending on size and type of organisation. Also, your hypothetical drug dealer as mr Panufnik want to have that information published!
          This is the reason for donation and public image creation.
          Do you really see mr Panufnik donating anonymously 400mln USD
          to an university , if it was even legally possible ?

          In your post I see an interesting cultural dimension, you seem to think that just taking large sums of money, keeping this fact secret as if ´nothing has happened’ is a viable option. Not in civilized world, it’s a classical definition of corruption as three are always strings attached.

          Nice try Wania, but thanks for sharing point of view of a person demoralized by kleptocracy.

          Reply
  3. Zurab Abayev

    wonderful KGB style smear. for example, author still uses “Mueller probe investigated donations to inauguration ” smear even though no problem was found ( Mueller report is available now). and many more details like that

    Reply
  4. Servus

    Zurab, why do you think that stating a fact « Mueller investigates inauguration donations «  is a smear? Mueller’s objective was to trace Russian originated funds flow into US politics, an obvious possible source of corruption and foreign influence.
    Oligarch Blavatnik donation of 1,000,000USD to Trump’s inauguration fund is obviously a simple charitable gesture with no further expectations.

    BTW, the inauguration fund is under investigation by the Manhattan’s federal prosecutor, subpoena will deliver all documents, so let’s wait with the final conclusions.

    The article describes a method of changing a social position of an oligarchs with kleptocracy ties through corruption and misuse of private donations to academia and politics. It exposes an indirect corruption, objective is to addict different institutions to lavish funds and create an influence.

    What are these ´many more details ´you have mentioned ?

    Reply
  5. Jeroen

    Well these comments here should be about Len Blavatnik’s money, and its influence it has or has not, some here seem to be mere trolling than helping with usefull comments.

    Just a small sidestep about influencing African states, Facebook does not agree with, on Wednesday it said, it had suspended three networks of Russian accounts that attempted to interfere in the domestic politics of eight African countries, and were tied to a Russian businessman accused of meddling in past U.S. elections.

    “Facebook says it suspends accounts tied to Putin ally for meddling in Africa.”
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-accounts-russia/facebook-says-it-suspends-accounts-tied-to-putin-ally-for-meddling-in-africa-idUSKBN1X91Q0

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link:

TRUST IN JOURNALISM - IMPRESS