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.”
After this story was first published, Manafort, in a statement, offered additional clarification. "My personal investments in real estate are all ordinary business transactions. It is common practice in New York City and elsewhere to use an LLC to purchase real estate. These transactions were executed in a transparent fashion and my identity was disclosed."
(Manafort's full statement.)
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 Geographic 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, by two citizen journalists at 377union.com, and The Intercept.)
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.
Reached by phone, Federal Savings Bank President Calk, one of President Trump’s earliest fundraisers and now a Trump economic adviser, said he couldn’t discuss the loan. But he expressed confidence that it was “overcollateralized,” meaning more than sufficiently backed by the home’s value. In a statement, Manafort said, “As is standard, the loan amount is based on the appraised value of the property after renovation, not the value of the property as-is.”
It’s unclear where Manafort got the money to purchase the three New York City properties. It’s also not entirely clear why he borrowed about $12 million against those homes, which were already paid for. In his statement Manafort said the Brooklyn loans were for architectural and contracting work.
But as of February 1, New York City Department of Buildings records show that the “borough commissioner has ordered all worked stopped” at the Carroll Gardens address “due to applicant withdrawal.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated: David Reiss is a Professor of Real Estate Law at Brooklyn Law School, not Brooklyn College. The FinCen program is the "Geographic Targeting Order," not "General Targeting Order." An additional comment from Paul Manafort was added after the story was published.