Exquisite sushi, a celebrity chef and glamorous clientele have made Nobu, a restaurant and hotel empire with more than 40 outlets in 20 countries, one of the world’s best-known luxury brands.
But one aspect of the chain’s expansion has so far been kept under wraps: Nobu has accepted more than $ 600,000 that his bank deemed suspect, as part of a deal with a close associate of Vladimir Putin who is also linked. close with the White House.
This partner, Russian billionaire real estate developer Aras Agalarov, was a key figure behind the 2016 Meet at Trump Tower where senior Trump campaign officials expected to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Agalarov’s company, Crocus International, operates two Nobu restaurants in Moscow, one in the heart of the city and a second in the sparkling megamall of Crocus City, site of the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant hosted by Donald Trump. Confidential government documents reveal, however, that for some time Crocus International paid Nobu’s high licensing fees through untraceable offshore companies, which experts say is a red flag for a possible money laundering.
The arrangement led bank investigators to threaten to stop accepting payments entirely. Some went through a Latvian bank which has since to close due to his involvement in a Russian money laundering program.
One aspect of the chain’s expansion has so far been kept under wraps.
The suspicious bank transactions were sent to the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN. They were compiled, along with thousands of pages of other documents, in response to requests by the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Nobu documents , revealed here for the first time, provide additional information about the Agalarov family, whose business relationships were discussed in the Mueller Report.
The documents are among more than 2,100 Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, that BuzzFeed News shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 news agencies around the world as part of the FinCEN investigation. Files. By law, banks must file these documents when they detect distinctive signs of money laundering or other financial misconduct. SARs are not in themselves evidence of a crime, but they can support investigations and intelligence gathering.
FinCEN files also open a window into the scope and scale of the dirty economy. They show suspicious transactions from untraceable offshore companies, like those used by Crocus International, located around the world. From Hollywood entertainment to Venezuelan public housing, almost no part of the global economy is untouched by this shadow financial system – not even the rare A5 Wagyu beef that Nobu serves for $ 38 an ounce.
Agalarov is a unlikely business partner in a hospitality empire co-founded by Robert De Niro, the actor who has established himself as an open critic of Trump. From the 2018 National Board of Review Awards podium, De Niro denounced Trump as a “fucking fool”. He owns declared that he would never let the president enter any of the Nobu restaurants. Agalarov, on the other hand, would have had Trump sit at his table during his 58th birthday party.
De Niro did not respond to multiple requests for comment through his representative.
Agalarov is an unlikely business partner for a hospitality empire co-founded by Robert De Niro, the actor who has become an open critic of Trump.
The SARs do not suggest that De Niro himself was involved or even aware of these financial irregularities, and they do not blame Nobu, who the bank called “not of concern”. Nobu’s corporate controller was aware of the irregular payments and repeatedly tried to get the Agalarovs to stop making them.
Scott Balber, Agalarov’s lawyer, said that all offshore companies cited in the SARs are owned by Agalarov, as well as other similar companies that he uses as part of his business.
Asked about the transactions, he said: “Most people don’t run their businesses in anticipation of a Buzzfeed reporter’s questions years later, based on an illegal SARS leak. He said there was no problem.
In 2009, Nobu was looking to expand into Russia, and the family of real estate billionaires led the way.
“Well, it just happened that we found the Agalarovs now,” De Niro said. news from moscow when the first Nobu Moscow opened in April 2009. “Without them we would not have succeeded”.
As Nobu and Crocus International prepared to open the second restaurant in Crocus City Mall, a U.S. bank reported financial transactions that seemed shady.
Nobu Restaurant Group asks its partners to pay license fees as well as things like clothes and electric stoves. But at the end of 2014, payments for the Moscow sites started coming not from Crocus International, the entity that signed the licensing agreement, but from companies located in offshore havens known for money laundering. money and tax evasion, such as the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and Belize. .
In August 2015, according to a suspicious activity report that First Republic Bank sent to the Treasury Department, Nobu’s corporate controller wrote Crocus International a reminder that payments should be sent from the company’s account. He told BuzzFeed News that he had contacted “several times” asking them to stop sending money through the offshore companies.
The Controller, Merrick Rhodes, said he knew First Republic might appear to be out of touch with payments from an unknown third party. “That’s why we asked for it to go through one of the parent companies,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Obviously our bank wants us to bring it in from them.”
By the time Nobu Crocus City opened in November of that year, bank investigators had spotted more than $ 200,000 in payments they deemed suspicious. Denso Trading Ltd., registered in the UK by a Cypriot company to an unrelated Russian, sent over $ 90,000, then dissolved. Denso sent payments through Trasta Komercbanka, a Latvian financial institution involved in a notorious money laundering network.
The First Republic continued to file suspicious activity reports with the Treasury Department – and to process those suspicious payments. Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed the bank filed nine reports between November 2014 and June 2017, reporting $ 602,886 from at least 10 different offshore companies. In the June 2017 report, the bank said the transactions it had examined “were of concern due to the non-transparent nature of the issuers of the transfers.” Geo Business Invest Corp., which the bank identified as a possible Belize-registered shell company, sent more than $ 170,000. Other SARs filed by First Republic also mention the use of possible front companies.
First Republic became more aggressive in its approach in June 2017, threatening to withhold payments that were not from a Crocus International account. First Republic Bank declined to comment on the transactions.
Rhodes, the controller of Nobu, told BuzzFeed News that in early 2017 the licensing agreements for the two restaurants were transferred to another company, NIME LLC, owned by Aras Agalarov’s son Emin. Since then, he said, there have been no payments from anyone other than the company named in the contract. ●