Bloomberg BNA Banking Daily quoted me in Court Asked to Second-Guess Bank Capital, Earnings, Risk Ratings (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,
WNYC quoted me in Paul Manafort’s Puzzling New York Real Estate Purchases. The story opens,
Paul J. Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager facing multiple investigations for his political and financial ties to Russia, has engaged in a series of puzzling real estate deals in New York City over the past 11 years.
Real estate and law enforcement experts say some of these transactions fit a pattern used in money laundering; together, they raise questions about Manafort’s activities in the New York City property market while he also was consulting for business and political leaders in the former Soviet Union.
Between 2006 and 2013, Manafort bought three homes in New York City, paying the full amount each time, so there was no mortgage.
Then, between April 2015 and January 2017 – a time span that included his service with the Trump campaign – Manafort borrowed about $12 million against those three New York City homes: one in Trump Tower, one in Soho, and one in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
Manafort’s New York City transactions follow a pattern: Using shell companies, he purchased the homes in all-cash deals, then transferred the properties into his own name for no money and then took out hefty mortgages against them, according to property records.
Buying properties using limited liability companies – LLCs – isn’t unusual in New York City, nor is borrowing against a home to extract money. And there’s no indication that Manafort’s New York real estate borrowing spree has come to the attention of investigators. In an emailed statement, Manafort said: “My investments in real estate are personal and all reflect arm’s-length transactions.”
Three Purchases, Lots of Questions
Manafort’s 2006 purchase of a Trump Tower apartment for all cash coincided with his firm’s signing of a $10 million contract with a pro-Putin Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, that was revealed last week in an investigative report by The Associated Press.
For the Carroll Gardens home, a brownstone on Union Street, Manafort recently borrowed nearly $7 million on a house that was purchased four years ago for just $3 million. The loans – dated January 17, three days before President Trump’s inauguration – were made by a Chicago-based bank run by Steve Calk, a Trump fundraiser and economic advisor.
Nine current and former law enforcement and real estate experts told WNYC that Manafort’s deals merit scrutiny. Some said the purchases follow a pattern used by money launderers: buying properties with all cash through shell companies, then using the properties to obtain “clean” money through bank loans. In addition, given that Manafort is already under investigation for his foreign financial and political ties, his New York property transactions should also be reviewed, multiple experts said.
One federal agent not connected with the probes, but with experience in complex financial investigations, said after reviewing the real estate documents that this pattern of purchases was “worth looking into.” The agent did not want to speak for attribution. There are active investigations of Manafort’s Russian entanglements by the FBI, Treasury, and House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. Manafort has denied wrongdoing and has called some of the allegations “innuendo.”
Debra LaPrevotte, a former FBI agent, said the purchases could be entirely legitimate if the money used to acquire the properties was “clean” money. But, she added, “If the source of the money to buy properties was derived from criminal conduct, then you could look at the exact same conduct and say, ‘Oh, this could be a means of laundering ill-gotten gains.’”
Last spring, the Obama Treasury Department was so alarmed by the growing flow of hard-to-trace foreign capital being used to purchase real estate through shell companies that it launched a special program to examine the practice within its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen. The General Targeting Order, or GTO, required that limited liability company disclose the identity of the true buyer, or “beneficial owner,” in property transactions.
In February, FinCen reported initial results from its monitoring program: “about 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involve a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report,” it said. The Trump Treasury Department said it would continue the monitoring program.
Friends and Business Partners
According to reports, Manafort was first introduced to Donald Trump in the 1970s by Roy Cohn, the former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy who went on to become a prominent and controversial New York attorney.
Long active in GOP politics, Manafort also worked as a lobbyist for clients who wanted something from the politicians he helped elect. His former firm – Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly – represented dictators like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire.
In the 2000s, Manafort created a new firm with partner Rick Davis. According to the recent investigative report by The Associated Press, Manafort and Davis began pursuing work in 2005 with Oleg Deripaska, one of the richest businessmen in Russia. Manafort and Davis pitched a plan to influence U.S. politics and news coverage in a pro-Putin direction, The AP said.
“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort wrote in a confidential strategy memo obtained by The AP.
In 2006, Manafort and Davis signed a contract to work with Deripaska worth $10 million a year, The AP reported.
Also that year, a shell company called “John Hannah LLC” purchased apartment 43-G in Trump Tower, about 20 stories down from Donald Trump’s own triplex penthouse. Manafort confirmed that “John Hannah” is a combination of Manafort’s and Davis’s respective middle names.
The LLC was set up in Virginia at the same address as Davis Manafort and of a Delaware corporation, LOAV, Ltd., for which there are virtually no public records. It was LOAV that signed the contract with Deripaska – not the “public-facing consulting firm Davis Manafort,” as the AP put it.
A lawyer for John Hannah LLC signed the deed on apartment 43-G for $3.675 million in November of 2006. But Manafort’s name did not become associated formally with the Trump Tower apartment until March of 2015, three months before Trump announced he was entering the presidential race in the lobby 40 stories down. On March 5, John Hannah LLC transferred the apartment for $0 to Manafort. A month later, he borrowed $3 million against the condo, according to New York City public records.
A year later, Manafort was working on Trump’s campaign, first as a delegate wrangler, then as campaign manager. Trump’s friend and neighbor had become a top advisor.
In a text message that was hacked and later obtained by Politico, Manafort’s adult daughter, Jessica Manafort, wrote last April: “Dad and Trump are literally living in the same building and mom says they go up and down all day long hanging and plotting together.”
In August 2016, The New York Times published a lengthy investigation of Manafort, alleging he’d accepted $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from a pro-Putin, Ukrainian political party between 2007 and 2012. Manafort resigned as campaign manager, but according to multiple reports, didn’t break off ties with Trump, who remained his upstairs neighbor.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said last week that Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited period of time” in the Trump campaign.
Davis did not return WNYC’s calls for comment, but in an email exchange with The AP, he disavowed any connection with the effort to burnish Putin’s image. “My name was on every piece of stationery used by the company and in every memo prior to 2006. It does not mean I had anything to do with the memo described,” Davis said.
Buy. Borrow. Repeat.
Trump Tower 43-G was not Manafort’s only New York property.
In 2012, another shell company linked to Manafort, “MC Soho Holdings LLC,” purchased a fourth floor loft in a former industrial building on Howard Street, on the border of Soho and Chinatown, for $2.85 million. In April 2016, just as he was ascending to become Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort transferred the unit into his own name and borrowed $3.4 million against it, according to publicly available property records.
The following year, yet another Manafort-linked shell company, “MC Brooklyn Holdings,” purchased a townhouse at 377 Union Street in Carroll Gardens for $2,995,000. This transaction followed the same pattern: the home was paid for in full at the time of purchase, with no mortgage. And on February 9, 2016, just after Trump won decisive victories in Michigan and Mississippi, Manafort took out $5.3 million of loans on the property. (Some of these transactions were first reported by the blog Pardon Me For Asking, and by two citizen journalists at 377union.com.)
Though the deals could ultimately be traced to Manafort, his connection to the shell companies would not likely have emerged had Manafort not become entangled in multiple investigations.
Public records dated just days before Trump was sworn in as President show that Manafort transferred the Carroll Gardens brownstone from MC Brooklyn Holdings to his own name and refinanced the loans with The Federal Savings Bank, in the process taking on more debt. He now has $6.8 million in loans on a building he bought for $3 million, records show.
David Reiss, a professor of real estate law at Brooklyn [Law School], initially expressed bafflement when asked about the transactions. Reiss then looked up the home’s value on Zillow, a popular source for estimating real estate values. The home’s “zestimate” is $4.5 to $5 million.
Reiss said unless there is another source of collateral, it is extremely unusual for a home loan to exceed the value of the property. “I do think that transaction raises yellow flags that are worth investigating,” he said.
Law360 quoted me in Atty-Client Privilege At Stake In Real Estate Bill (behind a paywall). It opens,
The push to reveal the individuals involved in anonymous real estate deals has moved from title insurers to attorneys and real estate agents, but lawyers say requiring them to reveal the names of clients they help set up limited liability companies and other vehicles could weaken attorney-client privilege.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Peter King, R-N.Y., plan to reintroduce legislation this week that would require states to collect the beneficial ownership information for limited liability companies and other vehicles used in real estate transactions, or to have the U.S. Department of the Treasury step in if states are unable to meet the requirement, in order to prevent criminals, corrupt government officials and terrorists from using real estate purchases to launder funds.
Doing so would close a loophole that allows attorneys to advise clients without meeting the same reporting requirements as banks and would help prevent potentially illicit funds from making their way into real estate markets, Maloney said. But it also has the potential for putting attorneys in the uncomfortable position of reporting clients to the government in cases where there may not be a criminal violation, said Marc Landis, the managing partner of Phillips Nizer LLP.
“This will certainly be an area where client confidentiality and attorney-client privilege will be weakened in ways that they have not been previously,” he said.
Lawyers in real estate transactions came under renewed attention after the transparency advocacy group Global Witness and the CBS News program “60 Minutes” released a blockbuster report Sunday night that showed several New York law firms providing information to an individual posing as an adviser to a minister from an African government who was looking to buy a Gulfstream jet, a yacht and a New York brownstone without the money being detected.
According to the report, which used hidden cameras, 12 of 13 lawyers provided assistance when asked how to set up shell companies and other vehicles to avoid attaching a name to the purchases. One of those 12 later said he wouldn’t participate in the transactions.
The Global Witness report found that the attorneys — none of whom signed the group’s investigator as a client — broke no laws in providing the advice they did. And that’s a problem that Maloney wants to address.
“This is unacceptable, criminal, scandalous, and it has to stop,” she said on a conference call with reporters.
The New York Democrat’s solution to the problem is to require states to force attorneys, real estate agents and other advisers on a transaction to include the name of the beneficial owner of an LLC or trust on forms submitted to the state. If the state will not or cannot implement such a system, the Treasury Department, through the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, would require that disclosure.
In a similar move, FinCEN last month announced that title insurers would temporarily be required to provide the names of beneficial owners of LLCs that high-net-worth individuals use to purchase luxury real estate in Miami and Manhattan without mortgages.
Maloney’s bill, which she is introducing for a third time, will expand such reporting and make it permanent.
“We’re going after the loophole. We’re going after the real estate transactions. We’re going after the realtors and some lawyers that are setting these things up,” she said.
According to Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, Maloney’s bill, the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, has struck a good balance between giving law enforcement the power to root out illicit funds in high-end real estate and not infringing too much on attorney-client privilege.
“The attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest of the privileges recognized by courts, and in the aggregate it provides great benefits to society because it promotes open communications between clients and their lawyers. The privilege is not a shield for illegal behavior, though,” he said.
- United States Tax Court holds that properties acquired in tax lien sale by an LLC are not subject to capital gains rates, but rather income tax rates, because the properties are held primarily for sale.
- Real Taxes on Virtual Currencies: What Does the IRS Say?, by Nika Antonikova, Virginia Tax Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2014.
- Counterintuitive Tax Revenue Effect of REIT Spinoffs, by Bradley T. Borden, Tax Notes, Vol. 146, p. 381, No. 381, January 2015; Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper, No. 402.
- United States Tax Court allows partial charitable contributions deduction.
- The House Committee on Ways and Means to markup “America’s Small Business Tax Relief Act of 2015” (H.R. 636) on February 4, 2015.