How a high-powered lobbying firm worked to shield a Putin-tied oligarch from sanctions

Weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation targeting dozens of prominent Russian officials and others for potential sanctions. The Biden administration moved to issue penalties against a number of them.

But two wealthy Russian businessmen who were on the original target list escaped the financial penalties. And the pair shared something in common: Their investment group employed a well-connected D.C. lobbying shop, BGR, which held backchannel conversations with congressional staff about the sanctions green lit through legislation dubbed the Putin Accountability Act.

Among the oligarchs’ advocates was Daniel Hoffman, a Fox News contributor and former CIA Moscow chief. Hoffman had been publicly critical of Vladimir Putin. But in this instance, Hoffman, a member of BGR’s advisory board, went to bat for a Russian businessman whom the E.U. designated “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs.”

That Russian businessman, Petr Aven, was recently sanctioned by the U.S. in August along with his associate Mikhail Fridman. But the story of their efforts to stave off punishment, which took about 18 months to be levied, is one of classic Washington influence peddling.

The campaign kicked into gear in early 2022, shortly after the sanctions list was unveiled. Walker Roberts, a BGR lobbyist, reached out to Capitol Hill to ask about the sanctions target list, according to a Hill staffer granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.

A second Hill staffer who worked in an office that supported the bill recalled being approached by BGR to discuss the names in the Putin Accountability Act.

BGR had long represented Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, and LetterOne, a Luxembourg-based investment firm. Aven had served as the president of Alfa Bank years ago and he co-founded LetterOne.

In an interview, Jeff Birnbaum, a spokesperson for BGR, said the firm terminated its work for Alfa Bank in 2020. He said BGR had been tasked with monitoring and reporting on sanctions bills like the Putin Accountability Act for LetterOne.

“When Walker talked to them, he was simply trying to find out” how the staffers were deciding the criteria for potential sanctions targets, Birnbaum said. “He was not advocating … his job was simply to find out how it was being done and to report to LetterOne.”

He said Roberts did not recall mentioning Aven and said LetterOne has separated itself from Aven. Given the facts, Roberts would never claim that Aven did not have a relationship with Putin, Birnbaum added.

Roberts wasn’t the only BGR-affiliated influence broker allegedly seeking to shift opinion around Aven. An intermediary connected Hoffman, a contributor on Fox News and a veteran of the CIA, with Hill staff in early 2022 to discuss Russia and the war in Ukraine, according to two of those in attendance. The group met at a townhouse not far from the Capitol.

At the meeting, Hoffman established his authority as an expert on Russia. He emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine. But into the meeting, he segued to the Putin Accountability Act, according to one of the attendees. Hoffman stressed that people who pitch ideas to Congress can’t be trusted, and questioned where the list of potential sanctions targets came from. Specifically, Hoffman wanted to know if anyone had asked to put Aven on the list, according to one of the Hill staffers.

Hoffman argued that Aven was not an ally of Putin — in fact, he said, sanctioning Aven would only strengthen the Russian president — and suggested that those attempting to punish Aven were connected to the Steele dossier, according to one of the Hill staffers.

Aven and Fridman, along with a colleague, sued the firm behind the dossier and its founder because the materials suggested that they were involved in meddling in the 2016 election.

The two attendees realized that the TV talking-head was advocating for an oligarch. The second person recalled Hoffman advocating for a businessman but could not recall the name. Hoffman never registered as a lobbyist for Aven, Alfa Bank, or LetterOne.

Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment. Aven said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the U.S. sanctions but declined to comment further.

Hoffman’s advocacy represents a common Washington phenomenon. Influence brokers sometimes appear on cable news networks, visibility that helps project access and influence.

Hoffman became a Fox News contributor and joined the board of BGR in 2018.

It’s not the first time Hoffman’s name has appeared close to Aven’s. Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker reported in 2020 that Hoffman had requested to be connected with a source of his, whose group had reportedly found that servers owned by Alfa Bank looked up a Trump Organization-connected server. Filkins wrote that Hoffman said it was for a news story.

BGR, which terminated its relationship with Alfa Bank in late 2020, has continued to represent LetterOne. Aven and his associate Mikhail Fridman stepped down from the board of LetterOne in 2022 after sanctions from the European Union.

The EU called Aven “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs” and said he met regularly with Putin. The EU said Aven, then Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, helped Putin, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, with a corruption investigation in the 1990s. Putin offered political help for Aven’s loyalty, the E.U. asserted. Aven has sought to challenge the sanctions.

“[H]e actively supported materially or financially and benefited from Russian decision-makers responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Ukraine,” the sanctions document states of Aven. “He also supported actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”

Roberts has continued to lobby for the company and reported lobbying for LetterOne shortly before and after the war in Ukraine began.

Aven was also sanctioned by the United Kingdom not long after the war broke out. He has been reportedly under investigation for violating sanctions.

Despite its Western peers issuing tough penalties on Aven, the U.S. did not follow suit until August.

The staffer’s assertion that Hoffman mentioned the Steele dossier is notable because Aven and other associates had sued Fusion GPS and the firm’s founder over the materials that included alleged information about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. They ultimately dropped that lawsuit after Russia invaded Ukraine.

However, filings from that lawsuit also revealed how BGR acted on behalf of Aven and Fridman to improve their reputations. Their entities’ relationship with the firm dates back to around the 90s, and BGR helped set up meetings for them with U.S. officials as part of an effort intended — at least in part — to yield a positive reputation.

In 2008, a lobbyist there came with Aven and Fridman to a meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

“They provided consultancy services with respect to various matters in the United States of America because we — while we lived in the Soviet Union, we didn’t know the first thing about how things worked in the U.S.,” Aven said about BGR’s work for his companies during a 2020 deposition. “They did some introductions in the U.S. administration and the Senate and the House.”

Fridman, in his deposition, was asked if he knew Hoffman, to which he responded yes. He was questioned whether Hoffman was paid to publish critical op-eds about the Steele dossier, to which he responded Fridman did not pay him. Although Fridman did not recall any contact between Alfa or LetterOne with Hoffman, Fridman knew Hoffman was on BGR’s advisory board.

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