- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The Russian oligarch who bought a Palm Beach property from President Donald Trump is pushing back on a U.S. senator’s request for documents on the transaction, saying that despite paying a premium price a decade ago for the property, the investment is now paying off.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a ranking member on the Finance Committee, sent a Feb. 9 letter to the Treasury Department seeking Palm Beach property sales warrants from the profitable deal, saying that it might shed light on potential money laundering.
Trump bought the 6.3-acre property, Maison de l’Amitié, in 2004 for $41.35 million at a bankruptcy auction and then flipped it to a company controlled by a family trust of Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million four years later. It was at the time the most lucrative real estate deal for a single-family home not only in Palm Beach but in the U.S.
“I love breaking records, and this is a record,” Trump said at the time. Wyden notes in his letter that the property sold for $30 million above appraised value.
But a spokesman for Rybolovlev, who made billions in fertilizer, said no one questioned the 2008 deal until Trump became president and a multi-pronged investigation commenced on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“The transaction was publicly announced and widely covered by the U.S media,” said Brian Cattell, spokesman for the oligarch. “There was no suggestion whatsoever of any impropriety about the purchase.”
The deal, however, did raise the eyebrows of some in Palm Beach.
“I remember at the time, thinking: ‘Why did he pay so much?’” said longtime Palm Beach accountant Richard Rampell. “The property just to the north was owned by financier Nelson Peltz and he had an asking price of $75 million. It was a bigger piece of property and he had been unable to sell it and then all of a sudden this Russian comes by and pays $20 million more.
“I thought it was very suspicious.”
Sold at a profit
Rybolovlev never lived on the property, at 515 N. County Road, splitting it up into three oceanside lots and razing the mansion.
“The investment today remains on track to deliver a significant return to the trust,” Cattell said.
The largest and southernmost of the three lots — 2.35 acres — was sold in November 2016 to a trust for $34.34 million. The 2-acre northern lot was sold in October for $37 million to a company controlled by homebuilder Mark Pulte of Mark Timothy Home. Pulte’s lot is slightly larger than the middle lot.
The southern parcel shares a border with Louwana, the landmarked oceanfront home of celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa.
The letter by the Oregon Democrat, which was obtained Friday by CNN, is seeking the documents “in the context of the President’s then-precarious financial position.”
“It is imperative that Congress follow the money and conduct a thorough investigation into any potential money laundering or other illicit financial dealings between the president, his associates and Russia,” Wyden wrote to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
“In isolation, maybe this was just a ‘huge’ deal for Donald Trump,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. “But given the circumstances of Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the numerous contacts of the Trump campaign with Russian officials, Senator Wyden’s efforts to follow the money and conduct a comprehensive investigation of this sale is warranted. All Americans should want to get to the truth.”
Wyden isn’t the only one interested in the real estate deal. Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at the transaction, as well as Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings and a New York City development where the president partnered with Russian associates, Bloomberg reported this past summer.
‘At the right time’
At the time of the deal, Trump’s companies had suffered a string of six successive bankruptcies.
“These outflows arrived at just the right time to fund several of Trump’s post-2000 high-risk real estate and casino ventures — most of which failed,” James J. Henry, an investigative economist and fellow with Columbia University’s Center on Sustainable Investment, told The Palm Beach Post this past year.
“So the massive illicit outflows from Russia and oil-rich FSU (Former Soviet Union) members like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan from the mid-1990s provided precisely the kind of undiscriminating investors that he needed.”
Wyden, in his letter to the Treasury Department, also underscores Trump’s finances at the time of the Rybolovlev deal, noting that “it has been widely reported that many financial institutions stopped lending to Mr. Trump due to his business practices in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Trump has said he never met Rybolovlev.
“You know, the closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach, Florida,” Trump said at a press conference in July 2016. “Palm Beach is a very expensive place. There was a man who went bankrupt, and I bought the house for $40 million, and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million, including brokerage commissions. So I sold it. So I bought it for 40 (million), I sold it for 100 (million) to a Russian.”
Yet, reports that Rybolovlev’s plane was showing up in cities where Trump was holding campaign events started surfacing. One was erroneous and the other was coincidental, according to Cattell.
The Post reported another coincidence this past March.
Rybolovlev’s state-of-the-art yacht Anna ended up anchored in the British Virgin Islands right next to President Donald Trump’s biggest financial supporter and Breitbart News moneyman, Robert Mercer.
Cattell, at the time, said the two billionaires had never met.