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GOP’s Star Witness in Hunter Biden Probe Has Ties to Russian Oligarch

Tom Brenner/Reuters
Tom Brenner/Reuters

Tony Bobulinski, the high-flying investor who is the House GOP’s star witness in the Oversight Committee’s ever-expanding probe into Hunter Biden, has become the one Biden business associate that Republicans would like voters to believe.

“Of all of the guys that were involved in the Hunter Biden orbit, Tony Bobulinski appears to me to be the one solid guy that tried to do the right thing and was honest,” Oversight Chair James Comer (R-KY) told Lou Dobbs earlier this month.

But as Republicans examine Hunter Biden’s questionable business ties, it turns out Bobulinski is connected to one particular character perhaps more unsavory than any other figure in the inquiry’s constellation: Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

Vekselberg is a Ukrainian-born energy magnate who’s been a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s for decades. And in 2017, Vekselberg reportedly funneled $500,000 to an LLC run by Donald Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, supposedly with the intention of influencing the new administration to let Russia illegally occupy parts of Eastern Ukraine.

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U.S. law enforcement has placed sanctions on Vekselberg multiple times, citing Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, and the oligarch’s ties to Putin. (Vekselberg tried to evade those sanctions with the help of an American attorney.)

But Republicans are trying to look past Bobulinski’s ties to Vekselberg, as they paint Hunter Biden—dishonestly and without actual evidence—as a corrupt figure facilitating payments to his father. And they want voters to take Bobulinski’s word about Biden’s shady business dealings.

Given Bobulinski’s personal history and connections to people like Vekselberg, however, Democrats think that would be outright foolish. In fact, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), said on Monday that Bobulinski’s biography raises “giant red flags.” Other impeachment witnesses have also directly disputed Bobulinski’s unproven claims about the Bidens, including a former business partner who characterized Bobulinski’s allegations to FBI agents as “wishful thinking” and “unicorns and rainbows.”

“Fuck Tony for, for trying to—I mean for taking little pieces of emails or, you know, and not showing the structure of an LLC or taking pieces of conversation that he recorded,” this witness told FBI agents. “I don’t know what’s in it for Tony but, but that email looks bad.”

All the same, Bobulinski will appear Tuesday for a private interview before the House panels exploring potential impeachment proceedings against President Joe Biden. And during that interview, Bobulinski is expected to reiterate claims that he believes some of the cash from an ill-fated Chinese energy venture with the president’s son made its way to the current Oval Office occupant’s bank accounts back in 2017. (No parties have produced evidence confirming any pay-to-play relationship involving Joe Biden, and reporting has thrown cold water on the notion.)

What Bobulinski seems less inclined to discuss—given his failure to respond to repeated inquiries for this story—are his past connections to Vekselberg, a prominent Russian oligarch who sought repeatedly to influence Trump’s administration, including with payments to promote a proposal that would allow the Kremlin to retain control of the illegally occupied Crimean peninsula.

That proposal, which Trump attorney and fixer Cohen ferried to the White House in January 2017, also happened to contain the seeds of another plan, one that would later bloom into Trump’s first impeachment: ginning up suspicions about Hunter Biden’s ties to the troubled Ukrainian state-owned energy outfit, Burisma.

The pro-Putin plan claimed, falsely, that the U.S. was shielding Ukrainian government figures involved in a massive offshore money laundering scheme, thanks to “political cover by Joe Biden.”

“His son Hunter is active in the gas business in Ukraine which will suffer if relations between Russia and Ukraine are restored,” the plan said, adding that “the disclosure simultaneously of these thefts of U.S. aid will render the current Ukrainian administration unable to contest” the so-called peace deal.

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Today, four years after Trump’s failed attempts to extort the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation into those ties got him impeached for abuse of power, House Republicans have done what Ukraine resisted in 2019—leveraging the Burisma narrative as part of their own bumbling effort to dredge up evidence of potential wrongdoing on Biden’s part. And Bobulinski has been cast as the star witness.

But business records and materials that House Republicans have provided in their own investigation show that, back in 2017, Bobulinski was in cahoots with a Russian oligarch long before “Burisma” became national shorthand for vague Biden family shadiness.

In fact, according to FBI interviews and text messages released by the House GOP, Bobulinski’s reported ties to Vekselberg caused some concern among Hunter Biden and other associates when they were actually doing business together. That friction ruffled the group as it pursued a deal not with Russian or Ukrainian interests, but with a private-run Chinese energy conglomerate, called CEFC, which had offered to put up $5 million in seed money for their “Sinohawk” investment firm. Nothing ever came of the deal.

Still, Bobulinski’s work with Vekselberg came up last month, when House Republican investigators published—and touted—a December 2020 FBI interview with one of Hunter Biden and Bobulinski’s former business partners.

That associate, Rob Walker, told agents in the interview that “Tony’s background” was “pushing deals in the past in New York” with “Russians” and “Russian money.”

According to Walker, the reported Vekselberg connections bothered Hunter Biden, especially as it related to another oil-and-gas conglomerate—Rosneft, the massive state-owned energy company that had made Vekselberg the richest man in Russia.

After rattling off some of Bobulinski’s other less-than-savory entrepreneurial dabblings—including Adult Friend Finder—Walker told agents that Hunter Biden was wary that Bobulinski was “close, or too close” to “some Russians.” (This was one year after the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.)

While Walker was careful to tell the FBI that he did not have “first-hand” knowledge of those connections, he found them credible; the first time he met Bobulinski—at an April 2016 meeting in Las Vegas to discuss a potential CEFC venture—Bobulinski was with Vekselberg’s son.

“Tony was with ah, a kid named Alex,” Walker said in the interview, noting that “Tony didn’t tell me this but Alex was Russian.” He explained that the “Alex” whom Bobulinski had in tow was indeed Aleksander Vekselberg, the Yale-educated son of Viktor Vekselberg. “At the time [Vekselberg] wasn’t on the sanctions list I’m sure, but I think he’s been sanctioned now,” Walker said. (Walker was correct—Vekselberg was added to U.S. sanctions in 2018.)

“I know it sounds like I’m trying to ‘sling dirt’ on Tony ’cause I’m pissed at him but I am pissed at him but ah.., that’s just…that’s just what I’ve heard,” Walker told the agents.

But according to the FBI’s writeup of their interview with Bobulinski—conducted in October 2020 and released by the House GOP last September—the businessman was not aware until long after the 2016 Las Vegas introductory meeting that he was about to go into business with Hunter Biden, having been told only that a “prominent American family” was involved.

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Bobulinski learned of the Biden connection the following February, about a year later, impeachment documents show.

By Bobulinski’s account, Rosneft played a key role in the collapse of the Sinohawk project and the dissolution of his relationship with Hunter Biden. That’s because CEFC—the Chinese energy conglomerate they were courting—had begun eyeing a major stake in Rosneft.

In his 2020 interview, Bobulinski told the FBI that he’d first grown “concerned” about Hunter Biden’s participation in the CEFC-Sinohawk negotiations “after learning of CEFC’s involvement in Rosneft”—news that Rosneft announced on Independence Day in 2017. Bobulinski, according to his telling of events, found it strange that CEFC could arrange a $9 billion purchase while dawdling on a comparatively miniscule $5 million investment in Sinohawk.

“At that point, Bobulinski began to view Sinohawk and its structuring as a ‘loan’ from CEFC to the Biden family, rather than a legitimate investment company,” the FBI interview summary says.

Bobulinski told agents that he butted heads with Hunter Biden, arguing he had wanted an independent board with “strong financial controls on the disbursement of capital,” whereas the younger Biden wanted to withdraw Sinohawk’s capital and apply it elsewhere.

This disagreement, Bobulinski claimed, was what drew the attention of Joe Biden—then a private citizen—and his brother James Biden. That claim, however, takes Hunter Biden’s assertion at face value that his “Chairman” (whom Bobulinski says he understood to be Joe Biden) did not want the business structured differently.

Additionally, the way Bobulinski talked about the Rosneft deal began to draw suspicions within the group.

In a WhatsApp group message dated Aug. 19, 2017—between Bobulinski, Hunter Biden, James Biden, and other Sinohawk partners—Bobulinski mentioned what he called “the news” about CEFC’s “recent focus on Russia and Rosneft.”

Bobulinski, however, didn’t express the kinds of concerns about Sinohawk that he later told the FBI “did not add up.” Instead, he took the opposite view, volunteering to the group his personal belief that the Rosneft negotiations likely explained why their Chinese investors seemed to be slow-walking the $5 million transfer.

“Hope everyone is well, am sure you have seen the news on CFC and their recent focus on Russia and Rosneft,” Bobulinski wrote in the group text, which was obtained by Internal Revenue Service investigators and published last year by House Republicans. “This I believe has added to the delays of them taking the action they have confirmed multiple times which is they will Fund the money.”

“I chase them daily,” he added.

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Bobulinski further cited the fact that Rosneft was currently “under material Sanctions from the US” as a factor that could “potentially complicate our lives” and “cause problems” for the pending Sinohawk launch.

The next day, in a separate group chat without Bobulinski—part of the same House GOP text dump—Hunter Biden mocked Bobulinski’s claim that he was “just finding out” about the Rosneft deal, which had been announced six weeks earlier. (A separate private WhatsApp message from Bobulinski himself shows that he had known about the CEFC-Rosneft proposal the day it was announced, on July 4, 2017.)

Bobulinski, Hunter Biden suggested, seemed blind to the fact that the Rosneft bid would have obviously weighed heavily on him as well, considering his father’s role in the sanctions.

At the time, Bobulinski would have been well aware of the sanctions, and almost certainly would have expected that Hunter Biden would have been sensitive to them as well. The U.S. government had sanctioned Rosneft three years prior, as part of the response to Putin’s illegal 2014 military incursions into Ukraine. Joe Biden, then-vice president, had endorsed those sanctions, and congressional Republicans at the time wanted to strengthen them even further.

“Tony is just finding out about Reno/CEFC deal yesterday of which his client—richest man in Russia—is the key player” Hunter Biden wrote the group, an apparent reference to Vekselberg and his connection to the Rosneft bid.

Hunter Biden, by contrast, said he wanted to steer clear of Vekselberg, describing the oligarch as “that Russian guy I said I wanted nothing to do with but you guys met with anyway,” and “[t]he one who is all tied up in knots over sanctions.”

“Amazing timing for [Tony] to come up for air and suddenly realize that such a scenario could be cause for concern. He really should stay in touch more often,” Hunter Biden wrote.

In response, another investor offered that Bobulinski is either “a really good actor” or had been kept out of the loop by CEFC. But Biden pushed back, suggesting Bobulinski was wary of the Russian crossover.

“They’re telling him the scary Russian deal he’s in the middle of could be really bad news for me,” Hunter Biden wrote the group.

“I’m not one bit concerned by Tony,” Hunter Biden added.

“Either he’s really really good at what he does and knows enough to just collect 200 and pass GO or he’s as mediocre as he appears to be and he will try his best to fuck with me and and see how [CEFC chair Yi Jianming] responds,” Biden wrote.

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Sinohawk never received any money from CEFC and soon folded, as the Wall Street Journal previously reported. Hunter Biden allegedly blamed a Chinese counterpart, whose visa had been denied by the U.S. government. CEFC didn’t close the Rosneft deal, declaring bankruptcy in 2020.

But another entity that Hunter Biden co-founded with Chinese investors received $5 million from a CEFC affiliate in August 2017, about 10 days before those WhatsApp group chats. That company paid Hunter Biden a $500,000 retainer and $100,000 in monthly consulting fees—payments that the GOP has cast in misleading terms.

Bobulinski has cited the publication of this information in a 2020 Senate report as his motivation to turn on Hunter Biden, saying it was evidence that Biden had “cut him out” of the deal. (Biden, however, was still expressing frustration about the Sinohawk venture in text messages more than a month after that $5 million transfer.)

Around this same time, however, Bobulinski also appears to have had his own side pot going—with Vekselberg.

Public records link Bobulinski and Vekselberg to two separate companies around the time of the Sinohawk negotiations—one an e-cigarette venture, and the other a human resources software startup. Notably, those interactions also overlap with Bobulinski’s overtures to Hunter Biden and the Chinese outfit they were trying to get off the ground in 2017.

In May 2017, not long after Cohen began his adventure in extracurricular diplomacy—and roughly a month before Bobulinski went into business with the current First Failson—e-cigarette company NJoy Holdings submitted materials to the Securities and Exchange Commission identifying Bobulinski as one of its directors.

In a bankruptcy auction the previous November, NJoy Holdings had acquired the assets of NJoy Inc., an early entrant into the electronic vaping market that had enjoyed the financial support of Peter Thiel and Bruno Mars. The bankruptcy filings also show that NJoy Inc. had a relationship with Renova U.S. Management, although the public records do not make the nature of the relationship clear.

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Renova U.S. Management is the exact firm that paid Cohen’s “Essential Consultants LLC” half-a-million dollars to serve as its consultant after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. The company is additionally an affiliate of Columbus Nova, owned by Andrew Intrater, Vekselberg’s cousin and money-manager—and Columbus Nova is in turn the self-described “U.S.-based affiliate” of Vekselberg’s Renova Group.

In sworn testimony in 2019, Cohen told the House Select Committee on Intelligence that he had contacted Trump’s Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to promote NJoy products as part of this deal.

“I spoke to David Shulkin about Andy lntrater is an investor, or Columbus Nova is an investor in not Juul—NJoy, which is one of the e-cigarettes,” Cohen told the committee. “One of the things he wanted to do is to get a name so that they could send a proposal to stop veterans from smoking tobacco, but rather to use NJoy as opposed to cigarettes.”

Notably, Intrater had Cohen do this work after the company where Bobulinski served as director had acquired NJoy, indicating that the relationship between Vekselberg’s bag-handler and the e-cig company endured even after the purchase.

Cohen declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment, citing a lack of familiarity with Bobulinski’s relationships. Intrater didn’t reply to questions.

In his comments to Congress, Cohen admitted he had spoken with Vekselberg at Trump’s inauguration, but insisted that the oligarch’s stake in Columbus Nova at the time he worked the firm was “minimal.” The Treasury Department, however, disagreed—and froze nearly all of Columbus Nova’s assets as part of sanctions leveled against Vekselberg.

Public records also show that Bobulinski and Intrater each served at different points on the board of HighGround Enterprise Solutions, a start-up marketing an employee management platform. Bobulinski assumed his role in 2014, but vanished from the position in a subsequent SEC filing two years later. Three days after that latter submission, HighGround announced it had secured financing from a Columbus Nova affiliate.

By the next disclosure, Intrater was on HighGround’s board.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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