NEW YORK -- When Soviet-born diamond billionaire Lev Leviev reopened 20 Pine Street as a luxury condominium in the late 2000s, it symbolized the ongoing transformation of New York City’s famed Financial District into a partly residential neighborhood: a place where money and the moneyed rub shoulders.
An “art-deco jewel” that went up a year before the 1929 stock market crash and long anchored Chase Manhattan Bank, the building overlooking Wall Street was converted into 409 condos, with Armani/Casa design and amenities such as a swimming pool, sauna, and gym to draw buyers. The weightiest reminder of its banking past, perhaps, is the massive metal vault door that leads to the billiard room.
But 20 Pine, just steps from the New York Stock Exchange -- the epitome of U.S. capitalism, where tens of billions of dollars changes hands daily before the gavel goes down – also reflects a murkier facet of the city’s real estate industry: inflows of cash from the former Soviet Union.
This is the building where three Russian investors, at least one of them politically connected, have purchased 18 apartments for a sum totaling more than $18 million, New York property records show. They are Aleksandr Udodov, the brother-in-law of new Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin; Denis Katsyv, a businessman whose money intermingled with the massive alleged tax fraud exposed by whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail a year after 20 Pine opened; and Valentin Laskov, a Moscow home builder who coinvested in a casino business with Michael Cohen, the now-imprisoned former personal lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump.
There is no immediate indication that any of the sales or purchases of the units involved illegal activity, though at least one of the buyers drew the attention of federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
But the transactions offer a glimpse into New York real estate’s role as a magnet for investors, some of them seeking to hide questionably sourced profits from the prying eyes of regulators and tax authorities.
This particular New York attraction was enough of a concern that the U.S. Treasury Department issued an unprecedented order in 2016 requiring that the buyer be identified in some cases when real estate is purchased in an all-cash transaction in Manhattan or Miami.
The purchases by Laskov were part of a two-year, nearly $22 million buying spree that included 24 condos in New York City. He had also snapped up a $1 million condo on the famed Las Vegas Strip by 2010.
Laskov, Udodov, and Leviev, who has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, were all active in Moscow’s real estate industry – one that, like in many big cities around the world, including New York, has been a hotbed of corruption.
Mishustin, who headed Russia’s tax service for 10 years before Putin made him prime minister in January, supervised Moscow land as head of Russia’s Federal Real Estate Cadastre Agency from March 2004 until December 2006.
New York City real estate has for years been an investment haven for foreign buyers, including those from Russia and other former Soviet republics, seeking a safe and liquid asset -- a parking space for some of their wealth.
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich owned at least six New York City apartments worth nearly $100 million before he gave them to his wife as part of a divorce settlement. Yekaterina Rybolovleva, the daughter of billionaire fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev, bought an apartment in 2011 for $88 million. (In 2008, Rybolyovlev made headlines when his daughter’s trust bought an 18-room Palm Beach, Florida, mansion from Trump for more than twice what the future president paid for it four years earlier.)
Many other buyers from the former Soviet Union have purchased New York apartments ranging from half a million to a few million dollars.
But the right to hide behind limited liability companies, LLCs, has also made New York City an attractive destination for foreign buyers seeking to launder ill-gotten gains.
Between 2008 and 2014 -- the period during which the three Russian men completed their purchases at 20 Pine -- nearly 1-in-3 condos in major Manhattan developments like 20 Pine were snapped up by people who had a foreign address or were shielding their identity behind an LLC, Property Shark data showed.
While the United States has been scrutinizing LLCs more closely lately, it has not taken the steps needed to better fight real-estate money laundering, said Ross Delston, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in the topic.
U.S. real estate lawyers and brokers are still not held to the same anti-money laundering requirements as bankers, he said.
Marketing of 20 Pine was led by Michael Shvo, who would later team up with Russian real estate developer and billionaire Vladislav Doronin on the conversion of the Crown Building, on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, into a condo and hotel that is expected to open later this year.
Gennady Perepada, a New York real estate agent catering to the wealthy from the former Soviet Union, told The New York Times in 2013 that his clients were buying condominiums in buildings that were either new or still under construction, including in the Financial District.
He said some building owners were sending representatives to foreign capitals, including Moscow, to market their properties.
Leviev, who converted 20 Pine with a former business partner, had extensive connections to Russia’s wealthy. An Israeli born in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1956, he was enlisted by Putin to create the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia and owned AFI Development, a major real estate company operating in and around Moscow. He also had interests in Russia’s diamond industry. Leviev, whose name is sometimes spelled Levaev, also had interests in Russia’s diamond industry.
Katsyv, whose father was the Moscow Oblast transport minister and later rose to become vice president of state monopoly Russian Railways, bought five apartments for a total of $4.7 million through his company Prevezon Holdings from November 2009 through March 2011, including Unit 1816, court records show. Prevezon also bought stakes in subsidiaries of another Leviev property business, AFI Europe.
U.S. investigators later accused Katsyv of financing the purchases with some of the $230 million they say was stolen from the Russian budget by a criminal group through a complicated tax refund scheme. In May 2017, however, the United States settled the case against Katsyv, who admitted no wrongdoing and paid less than $6 million in fines.
Sergei Magnitsky, who detailed the alleged scheme while working as a lawyer for former Russia investor Bill Browder, was later arrested by Russian police and died in jail on November 16, 2009, after repeated complaints that he was denied medical care, following an apparent beating, and in conditions rights activists said amounted to torture.
His death led to legislation including the Global Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that allows the president to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on foreigners deemed responsible for gross human rights violations or significant corruption.
Katsyv contracted to buy his first two apartments at 20 Pine on November 10, 2009, six days before Magnitsky’s death.
About a month after that, Udodov -- who told the newspaper Izvestia last month that he married Mishustin’s sister in 2008 -- bought five apartments at 20 Pine for a total of $5.1 million. He bought a sixth in June 2010 for $1.3 million.
Udodov’s statement that he was married to Mishustin’s sister came shortly after media reports showing that he gave her expensive land raised questions about potential impropriety.
Udodov’s purchases were first reported by Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has harried Putin and his governments with allegations of extravagant graft.
The source of Udodov’s wealth has come under intense scrutiny ever since Putin made Mishustin prime minister in January in the biggest government shake-up in years.
Udodov owned two luxury shopping centers in the center of Moscow valued at more than $100 million as well as three mass-market shopping malls.
Yet, in a 2011 article about an investigation into an illegal tax refund scheme, the Russian newspaper Kommersant said Udodov was “officially unemployed.” The same article also described him as a person capable of getting problems resolved in the tax sphere.
The little-known Mishustin was head of Russia’s tax agency from April 2010 until he was tapped by Putin to replace Dmitry Medvedev.
Swiss media reported in 2012 that Udodov was under investigation for possible money laundering by Swiss authorities after buying a $4 million hotel in 2007 with promises to invest another $45 million to expand it. It is not clear when the Swiss opened the investigation; they dropped it after Udodov sold the property in 2013.
When Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published the findings of its investigation into Mishustin’s wealth and his ties to Udodov, the Kremlin foe asserted that it was impossible to separate the two men’s wealth.
Udodov sold the New York apartments over 2015-18, a time during which Washington was imposing sanctions on Russian officials and businessmen, including seizing their U.S. assets, in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, interference in eastern Ukraine, and alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Udodov did not respond to two messages sent by RFE/RL through his website.
Udodov bought his six apartments at 20 Pine from Valentin Laskov, who cofounded Russian real-estate company Peresvet-Invest in the 1990s with Oleg Pronin and an unidentified third individual, according to a Kommersant article. Laskov served as the chairman.
Just prior to the global financial crisis in 2008-09, Laskov went on a condo buying spree in New York City, snapping up 13 apartments at 20 Pine, eight at 340 East 23rd Street, and three more at another two buildings. The price tag was nearly $22 million, according to New York City property records.
Laskov contracted to buy the apartments in 2006 and 2007, receiving ownership of them later when they were completed. He completed the purchase of a $1 million apartment in the Vdara, a 57-story tower between two of Las Vegas’ biggest casinos, in 2010, Nevada property records show.
In February 2006, Laskov -- with the help of his New York-based realtor Sergei Perotine -- created 18 LLCs corresponding to 18 apartments at 20 Pine, including Pine 1816 LLC.
Katsyv eventually bought 1816 in 2011, though there is no indication that he and Laskov know each other.
Most of Laskov’s LLCs are registered to a modest, two-story attached home at the end of a dead-end street in a working-class neighborhood on Staten Island, a borough of New York City that is a 25-minute ferry ride from Manhattan. Perotine continues to rent or sell Laskov’s NYC properties.
RFE/RL sought to contact Laskov through Perotine but the broker did not respond to e-mails and calls.
Like Leviev, Laskov owned a major real estate company operating in Moscow and its suburbs. He, however, has kept out of the spotlight and there is little in the Russian media about his background.
His Peresvet-Invest transformed from a simple realtor in the 1990s into a holding by the mid-2000s that included a developer with close ties to the Military-Industrial Bank, according to archived pages of the company’s now-deleted website.
Peresvet-Invest’s five-man board consisted of at least three graduates of the FSB Academy, the main educational institution of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the chief domestic successor of the Soviet KGB: academy co-founder Pronin, Vladimir Melnik, and Oleg Grinko.
Fivedays.ru, a former news website dedicated to Russian real estate, quoted Laskov as saying that 90 percent of Peresvet-Invest’s staff were graduates of the FSB Academy. In the same article, Fivedays said that former military officers owned or ran many Moscow real estate developers.
Peresvet-Invest’s transformation into a major player in Moscow’s real estate coincided with the rise of Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer who headed the FSB in 1998-99.
Source Of Wealth
Russians reportedly snapping up U.S. residential real estate worth more than $20 million usually seem to be super-rich tycoons who made their fortune during the privatizations of the 1990s, when they acquired the Soviet Union’s best assets for pennies on the dollar.
Nonetheless, Moscow real-estate developers like Laskov were seeing their net worth – at least on paper -- skyrocket in the early 2000s amid an oil-driven home-price boom.
Leviev, for instance, sold shares in his AFI Development for $14 a piece in 2007, valuing his company at more than $7 billion.
But AFI nearly went bankrupt in the midst of the global financial crisis that clobbered Russia’s real estate market in 2008, sending the shares falling more than 90 percent.
Peresvet-Invest also struggled in the crisis’ aftermath, leaving people hanging who had paid for apartments that were still in the construction phase.
But just 10 days after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, setting off the financial crisis, a Peresvet-Invest subsidiary registered a company in Belize, a Central American nation known as a money-laundering haven.
Peresvet-Invest co-founder Pronin was arrested by Moscow police in 2018 on suspicion of laundering 1.1 billion rubles ($18 million) from Russian bank Peresvet through Cyprus. Peresvet-Invest was declared bankrupt in 2019.
Russian media reported that Udodov bought a high-end mall in the center of Moscow from Peresvet-Invest as it struggled to pay its debts in the early 2010s.
Russian media reports often identified Udodov as a vice president of Peresvet-Invest, though the biography on his personal website makes no mention of it.
Peresvet-Invest was one of the largest borrowers from the bank Peresvet, which had to be bailed out by the Russian state amid mounting bad loans. Aleksandr Shvets, the bank’s president, fled Russia.
Pronin is not the only business associate of Laskov who has run afoul of the law in the United States, Russia, or both.
Laskov created a New York-based LLC called R-Stail in the 1990s with his friend Vladimir Siforov. A close friend of Pronin’s, Siforov fled to Russia before he was charged by the FBI in 2010 with one count of wire fraud in connection with what U.S. authorities said was a $200 million real estate pyramid scheme run by Eli Weinstein out of New Jersey. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2014 while the charge against Siforov remains pending.
In the early 2000s, Weinstein helped Soviet-born U.S. businessman Lev Parnas raise money for his company Aaron Investments, court records show. Parnas was a key figure in the events that led to President Donald Trump’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2019; Trump was acquitted by the Senate last month.
Siforov’s company, SIF Transportation, was also registered at the Staten Island address used by Laskov. RFE/RL visited the Staten Island home at the end of a workday, but no one answered the door.
The media outlet Buzzfeed first reported in 2017 that Laskov coinvested in a casino business with attorney Michael Cohen in the early 2000s – before Cohen, a personal lawyer for Trump from 2006-18, joined the Trump Organization. Cohen was sentenced in 2018 to three years in prison for crimes that included arranging payments during the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
Laskov received a 10 percent stake in the entities that controlled Atlantic Casino, a gambling cruise line that operated off Miami waters, in return for his $800,000 investment, according to a copy of the shareholders agreement.
Perotine acted as Laskov’s “attorney-in-fact” during a lawsuit against the Atlantic, according to court records. Cohen and two Ukrainian-born men each owned 30 percent. It is unclear whether Cohen and Laskov knew each other personally.
Laskov has sold off a few more of his condos, including an apartment on the 47th floor of 123 Washington Street, a few steps from One World Trade Center, the skyscraper built to replace the Twin Towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Laskov, who contracted to buy the apartment in 2007 for $1.7 million, sold it last year for $1.3 million to a couple named Andrey and Natalia Gudkov, according to New York property records.
A couple with the same name were among nine Russians suspected in the mid 2010s of laundering millions of dollars through Australian banks, according to The Courier Mail, an Australian newspaper that published a photo of the Gudkovs.
The Australian police declined to discuss any aspect of the case with RFE/RL.
RFE/RL sent the photograph published in The Courier Mail to Mariya Gurevich, the New York lawyer representing the couple who bought the apartment from Laskov, to inquire if it matched the identity of her clients. She declined to answer, citing client privacy.