How did this Russian, wanted in Moscow, get invited to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago?
Last year, President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club hosted a black-tie “Safari Night” fundraiser for a favorite charity of one of his older sisters. The event included Chinese dancers, a silent art auction and one unusual guest: Sergey Danilochkin, a Russian real estate investor who had settled in South Florida after authorities in his home country accused him of taking part in a massive tax fraud linked to the most contentious corruption case of the 21st century.
Party-goers had no idea they were rubbing shoulders with a wanted man. While the guests sipped cocktails and studied photos of African wildlife, Danilochkin, who is also an aspiring journalist, filmed the bustling ballroom on a smartphone and posted the footage on YouTube.
Holding a flute of champagne and wearing a dark suit, the Russian émigré addressed the camera in his native tongue, alluding to the uncanny way Russians seem to turn up in the president’s orbit.
Making it to Mar-a-Lago shows how far Danilochkin — who denies the charges against him — has come. In 2010, he fled Moscow fearing for his life as Russian authorities investigated his alleged role in a $170 million tax fraud.
The case became big news, especially once it was linked to the organized-crime group behind the so-called “Magnitsky affair,” a Russian corruption scandal that dominated international headlines starting around 2009.
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The Magnitsky affair catastrophically damaged relations between Russia and the United States during the Obama administration, turning Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state and later the Democratic nominee for president, into a top Kremlin foe.
Danilochkin’s exile in South Florida — a magnet for rich Russian expatriates — made no difference to the justice system back home, which has been criticized by international observers for corruption and political subservience.
The Russian government put out an international notice for his arrest, and he was eventually tried in absentia before being handed a 10-year prison sentence in 2017. Prosecutors alleged that Danilochkin, an accountant by trade, set up shell companies that claimed five billion rubles in fraudulent tax refunds in 2009 and 2010.
That was about $170 million.
The Magnitsky affair centered on a similar style of tax fraud, and was masterminded by the same organized-crime outfit behind the smaller $170 million theft, according to Russian investigative journalists and Danilochkin himself, who says he was used as a pawn and fall-guy.
He and his attorneys declined to comment for this story.
In his new South Florida home, the 47-year-old Danilochkin — gray-haired but still noticeably straight-backed thanks to his time in a Russian military academy — has produced a documentary laying out the case for his innocence.
The 35-minute film was privately screened at the National Press Club in Washington D.C, and features Danilochkin answering questions while sporting a comically fake beard.
In December the Washington Times published an interview with Danilochkin, noting that the piece was “sponsored content,” or paid advertising.
“By the will of fate, I was in the path of an octopus of corruption; very powerful people on their way to their dirty goals,” Danilochkin said in the interview.
“I never did anything illegal. But I still found myself under the press of the system, just by chance.
Whoever has lived in Russia understands how it happens.”
Like many stories about Russians in South Florida, this one requires a scorecard: The kaleidoscopic cast of characters connected to this tale — some tangentially, some not — includes the U.
Danilochkin now lives in Sunny Isles Beach, a popular resort town for Russians and a place where old-world disputes seem to migrate across the Atlantic to roost in South Florida palms. As the region transforms into a haven for wealthy Russian expatriates — helped along by marketing campaigns from developers like Trump — their political and financial machinations have followed.
He is petitioning a federal court for political asylum.
He presents himself in the documentary as a whistle-blower.
Between 2010 and 2012, he took advantage of the battered U.S.
housing market to buy at least 50 rundown residential properties, spending $1.4 million in Homestead, Overtown, Lauderhill and other economically depressed areas.
The homes, mainly condos, had been foreclosed by banks during the recession.
His working-class tenants had no idea who he was — or that Russian police were on his tail.
“It’s hard to find a good landlord in South Florida, but that is crazy,” said Waikiki Reddick, who paid $900 per month to rent a Homestead duplex from Danilochkin’s Florida company, Walter Walls, between 2013 and 2014. “You don’t know who to trust when you’re renting.
Reddick called the place “a dump.” (She was not aware of her former landlord’s identity until being informed by the Miami Herald.
Danilochkin is locked in litigation with the business associates who sold him the properties. He says the associates, who were subsequently hired to manage the the condos, cheated him and failed to renovate the homes.
Danilochkin has since sold most of the properties.
On camera he goes by the name Serge Daniloff.
26, 2018, fundraiser hosted by Elizabeth Trump Grau, the president’s sister.
The Safari Night was held to benefit a charity called Young Adventurers.
On its website the nonprofit says its mission is “mentoring and motivating” young people. Tickets cost $600, the Washington Post reported.
“Diamond benefactor status” went for $10,000.
Danilochkin showed up that night with producers to film the 250 or so guests.
They were the first Russian-speaking journalists to report from inside Mar-a-Lago, he claimed. They even scored a brief interview with Israel Joffe, an official at the Food and Drug Administration who attended the party.
(The FDA says Joffe, who did not respond to requests for comment, was there as a private citizen.)
The video opens with a swooping shot of Mar-a-Lago set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.
” It has been viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube.
But the president was not in Palm Beach for the charity event, according to the Palm Beach Post. First lady Melania Trump had been at Mar-a-Lago but left before the fundraiser started, the Palm Beach Daily News reported.
Someone else who has recently made big news did attend the Safari Night gala, however: Li “Cindy” Yang, the former owner of the Jupiter massage parlor at the center of the prostitution investigation that netted criminal charges for Patriots owner Robert Kraft and many others last month. Yang posted photos of herself at the event on a website for her consulting business.
The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment about how Danilochkin gained access to the event. Terry Bomar, the founder and president of the Young Adventurers charity, did not return phone messages.
Trump Grau could not be reached.
Thanks to a request from the Russian government, Danilochkin was described as a “wanted person” on the website of Interpol, the international police-cooperation agency that posts red notices on behalf of countries flagging alleged criminals.
Interpol’s red notices are controversial because of their potential for abuse by authoritarian states. U.
S. law forbids arrests based on red notices alone; an extradition request is also required.
Danilochkin’s Interpol listing was removed recently, although it’s not clear why. Interpol said it does not comment on specific cases.
The Russian Embassy said its police officials were on vacation and could not be interviewed.
Danilochkin remains in the United States.
THE ‘FLY-BY-NIGHT KING’
In South Florida, he became a landlord.
But his story is unusual because he also scooped up properties far from the glitzy waterfront. It’s an example of how locals are buffeted by the unseen forces of Miami’s globalized real estate economy.
When the Russian came to Miami, he had plenty of cash, but no idea what to do with it.
He didn’t speak much English. With the recession dragging on, real estate was practically the only game in town.
Between 2010 and 2012, Danilochkin assembled a portfolio of previously foreclosed homes for $1.4 million, and spent another $700,000 on renovations.
Latrice Scott rented a condo from Danilochkin’s company — and said she found her Lauderdale Lakes home crawling with cockroaches.
“It was always infested,” said Scott, who worked at Walmart at the time.
“I had to clean out top of the cabinets and behind the refrigerator to get the eggs.”
She said she asked for an exterminator but none came.
She and her two young sons eventually left.
Waikiki Reddick, the Homestead woman who rented another Danilochkin property, said in an interview that the three-bedroom unit was falling apart.
The air conditioning broke down and the refrigerator reeked of mold. The kitchen sink backed up.
The dishwasher didn’t drain. Danilochkin’s property manager never came out to fix the problems, she said.
Eventually, she stopped paying rent and was evicted, along with her three children and her sister.
Danilochkin has suggested in a lawsuit that conditions in the condos were not his fault; he has sued Vadim Nestscheret, the business associate he claims failed to maintain them, as well as related companies and individuals.
Brand new to the country, Danilochkin says he was taken advantage of by Nestscheret, a Russian-born South Florida businessman who after the financial crisis attracted other wealthy Russians to invest in his venture buying foreclosed homes.
In a lawsuit, Danilochkin said Nestscheret and his associates inflated sales prices, embezzled rent and pocketed funds meant for renovations, as well as stealing title to some of his properties.
It all amounted to a “racketeering criminal enterprise,” the lawsuit stated.
In court filings, Nestscheret denied all claims of wrongdoing, stating that he “refused to have any further business dealings with Danilochkin” after learning of his alleged crimes in Russia, but that Danilochkin “decided he wanted more” and sued.
(Danilochkin says it was he who broke off ties.)
In an emailed statement, Nestscheret’s attorney Robert Pittman said his client “denies these claims against him, which continue to languish in court for months on end with no apparent effort from Danilochkin to resolve these baseless claims.
Nestscheret, born in Russia but a longtime U.S.
resident, declined to comment. He has a long history in South Florida, having once been tangled up in a 2006 civil lawsuit with a Russian professional hockey player that would, by a twist of fate, require Trump’s prison-bound former fixer Michael Cohen to testify that he had no memory of what happened to a $350,000 check given to him by a client.
He says he used to work for companies owned by two Russian billionaires who made fortunes in the industry: Oleg Deripaska and Iskander Makhmudov.
(Deripaska is a Putin ally and former client of ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He has been sanctioned by the United States and became a flashpoint in the fight over Trump’s alleged ties to Russia when the administration sought to ease the sanctions and Democrats rebelled, even enlisting some Republicans in their uprising.
Russia, and to its relations with the United States.
Putin has demanded Browder’s arrest.
Putin and his allies have also worked to overturn the sanctions.
In June 2016, during the U.S.
Veselnitskaya is also connected to the Magnitsky case and has been indicted for obstruction of justice in the United States. Federal prosecutors say she secretly conspired with the Russian government while defending a company believed to have laundered proce from the $230 million theft uncovered by Magnitsky into New York real estate.
He scared them away by firing a rubber-bullet gun.
“I realized there was no way to survive,” Danilochkin said in the documentary.
“I didn’t care that I was slandered and that all the power of the [Russian] law enforcement system was thrown at me by high-ranking criminals. … I was anxious to simply stay alive.
This story was written by Nicholas Nehamas and Lily Dobrovolskaya.
Lily Dobrovolskaya, a reporter for the anti-corruption group Transparency International-Russia, reported from Moscow.
staff writer Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story.
Transparency International-Russia and the Miami Herald collaborated on this story.