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Columbus Nova: Meet The Russia-Linked Firm That Hired Trump's Lawyer

U.S. regulatory filings call Columbus Nova a "U.S. affiliate" of Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg's conglomerate.
U.S. regulatory filings call Columbus Nova a "U.S. affiliate" of Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg's conglomerate.

Political donations, family ties to a Russian billionaire hit by U.S. sanctions, and a foray into the world of video games: These are a few of the reasons the New York-based investment firm Columbus Nova has faced media and public scrutiny in recent months.

Now the company has reportedly crossed the radar of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian meddling in U.S. politics and possible links between President Donald Trump's associates and Russia.

CNN and The New York Times have reported that Mueller's investigation has interviewed Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian billionaire hit with U.S. sanctions in April, and his cousin, Columbus Nova chief executive Andrew Intrater.

Columbus Nova said in a statement that it had previously hired Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, who last month had his offices raided by the FBI. Trump denounced the raid and has called Mueller's Russia investigation a "witch hunt."

The Columbus Nova statement came after the attorney of an adult-film actress suing Trump released documents on May 8 alleging that Columbus Nova paid around $500,000 last year to an entity controlled by Cohen.

Here are a few things to know about Columbus Nova, including its connections to Russia and Vekselberg.

'Business Consultant'

In its statement posted on its website, Columbus Nova said that it hired Cohen as "a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures," but it did not indicate how much it paid him.

The investment firm also denied that Vekselberg, who was hit with U.S. sanctions in April, "used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen." It added that Columbus Nova has never been "owned by any foreign entity or person" and has been "100 percent owned" by U.S. citizens "since its founding nearly 20 years ago."

Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's attorney, whose offices were raided by the FBI in April
Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's attorney, whose offices were raided by the FBI in April

"Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else outside of Columbus Nova was involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement," the company said.

It added: "Columbus Nova itself is not now, and has never been, owned by any foreign entity or person," including Vekselberg or Renova Group, the business conglomerate controlled by the billionaire.

Vekselberg 'Affiliate'

Headquartered in New York City, Columbus Nova is a private-equity firm founded in 2000, according to its website and U.S. regulatory filings. In December 2016, the firm said it was managing assets worth more than $15 billion.

The firm also has close ties to Renova Group, which was also hit with U.S. sanctions in April. Columbus Nova says Renova Group was its largest client when it was originally formed under the name Renova U.S. Management.

Renova Group's website says it is currently "under construction." But the site previously listed Columbus Nova in Renova's corporate structure. A 2007 filing with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) identifies Columbus Nova as "the U.S.-based affiliate of the Renova Group of companies, one of the largest Russian strategic investors in the metallurgical, oil, machine engineering, mining, chemical, construction, housing and utilities and financial sectors."

Vekselberg's 'Cousin'

The same SEC filing identifies Intrater, a U.S. citizen, as Vekselberg's "cousin." As recently as May 9, the Columbus Nova website identified Intrater as "a former director and current member of the executive board of Renova Group." His bio was not available on the website later in the day, but an archived version of the page remains accessible.

As recently as 2014, Intrater also served on the supervisory board of Akado Group, a Moscow-based telecommunications company owned by Renova. Intrater did not respond to an e-mailed request for an interview concerning Columbus Nova's business dealings with Cohen.

Trump Inauguration Donation

Intrater donated $250,000 to Trump's inauguration committee, according to U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. He also donated $35,000 to a fund-raising committee supporting Trump's campaign, according to an FEC filing. That filing lists Intrater's employer as Renova US Management, LLC, which also does business as Columbus Nova "and/or Columbus Nova Technology Partners," according to a 2013 SEC filing. Intrater also contributed $29,600 to the Republican National Committee in June 2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

The New York Times and CNN reported that both Vekselberg and Intrater have been interviewed by Mueller's investigation. There have been no indications that either man is suspected of breaking the law. U.S. law only allows donations to presidential inaugural committees from U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

Gawker Stake

Columbus Nova made headlines in January 2016 when it snapped up a stake in the U.S. news and gossip website Gawker, which at the time was wrestling with a $100 million lawsuit filed by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but a Columbus Nova executive, Jason Epstein, called Gawker at the time a "unique asset" and said that the investment firm was "honored to have the opportunity" to buy the minority stake. Gawker eventually lost the lawsuit and was purchased by the Spanish-language television Univision. The Gawker website has since been shuttered.

Video-Game Fallout

Columbus Nova's ties to Vekselberg and Renova have also made waves in the world of video games. The investment firm purchased the video-game developer Sony Online Entertainment in 2015 for an undisclosed sum and rebranded the company as DayBreak Games, according to a press release at the time. In the press release, Epstein called the acquisition a "great addition" to Columbus Nova's "existing portfolio of technology, media, and entertainment-focused companies."

But DayBreak Games has distanced itself from Columbus Nova since the U.S. Treasury Department announced the sanctions against Vekselberg and Renova -- as well as other Russian businessmen, officials, and entities -- last month. The technology news site Ars Technica cited an unidentified Daybreak Games source as saying that the video-game maker had, in fact, been purchased not by Columbus Nova but by a firm wholly owned by Epstein. Columbus Nova and Epstein reportedly parted ways last year. Daybreak also said on its website that it has been "primarily owned" by Epstein since the acquisition in February 2015.

Ars Technica noted that a Wikipedia user going by the name "Daybreakpr" attempted to edit the Wikipedia entry for Daybreak Games, writing in the edit notes that the video-game maker has "no affiliation to Columbus Nova." The edit was made on April 6, the same day that the new U.S. sanctions were announced.

Ars Technica also noted that Columbus Nova was cited in the Daybreak site's privacy policy, and that Daybreak's previous president said in a May 2015 interview that the video-game maker was "fortunate enough to find really good investors in Columbus Nova."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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