Donald Trump had no compulsions about getting involved in one of the world’s dirtiest business deals, even though evidence suggests it washed money for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and other corrupt oligarchs.
The project is the Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku, a hotel and condo project in Azerbaijan’s largest city, which hugs the Caspian Sea at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
Construction began in 2008 as part of the city’s redevelopment effort. The Trump Organization joined the project in 2012. But the hotel was a total boondoggle. It still remains unfinished to this day.
Media reports about the deal first surfaced in 2015 as Trump ramped up his campaign for president. The subject flared once again in 2017 when Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization.
Now, questions about the project are being raise again, after the president pushed Iran and the United States to the brink of war over the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
At issue are questions whether the Trump Organization’s participation in the deal aided IRGC money laundering to fund terrorist activity throughout the Middle East.
The Trump Organization’s business partner in the deal appeared to be a front for “oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,” according to a 2017 expose in The New Yorker magazine.
In 2008, Ziya Mammadov, then-Azerbaijani transport minister, awarded a series of mult-million dollar contracts to Azarpassillo, an Iranian construction company.
The Darvishi family, which owned the company, allegedly included three family members associated with the IRGC, The New Yorker reported.
Two Iranian brothers, Kamal and Keyumars, made frequent visits to Azerbaijan and reportedly developed a close relationship with the Mammadov family.
The brothers were both suspected of being sardars (officers) of the IRGC air force, who sought missile guidance systems on the black market.
Keyumars fought in the Iran-Iraq War and later became head of Raman, an Iranian construction firm that is known to be controlled by the Revolutionary Guard.
Raman and Azarpassillo are thought to be among hundreds of “private” companies secretly owned by IRGC officials. The companies acted as fronts to launder money for the revolutionary guards and fund terror activities.
One U.S. diplomat said Mammadov was “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan,” according to private conversations made public by WikiLeaks eight years ago.
U.S. officials also repeatedly warned that Mammadov and the Darvishis were, essentially, an arm of the IRGC.
Officially, the project was being developed by a company known as Baku XXI Century.
In 2013, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigated the Mammadov family’s business empire in a series of exposes.
The Trump Tower Baku project carried some classic hallmarks of a money-laundering operation. Firms were paid in cash, sometimes stuffed into duffel bags, according to London’s Independent newspaper.
Frank McDonald, a UK citizen who performed work on the building’s interior, recalled in one interview that he was paid $180,000 in cash on one occasion and $200,000 in cash on another. He had to stuff the money both times into a laptop bag.
He said a fellow contractor carried out a $2 million payment in a duffle bag.
Although the Trump organization joined the project in 2012, Trump lawyer Alan Garten said the company only learned about the Mammadov family’s ties to the project in 2015.
By then, the IRGC was under U.S. Sanctions, yet the Trump Organization continued with the project through the 2016 election. It finally pulled out two months after Trump won the election.
By the time that happened, the project was “stalled.”
The Organization didn’t pull out because of its new-found awareness of Mammadov’s background; it was because Baku XXI Century defaulted on several payments.
Despite Trump’s self-proclaimed Midas touch for real estate, the Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku was doomed from the start, That raises questions why the Trump Organization got involved at all.
The development was originally planned as a high-end apartment building. But after Trump’s company became involved, the 33-story tower’s concept was changed to a “ultra-luxury” hotel and condominium project.
“Expansive guest rooms” would occupy the first thirteen floors while the floors above that would feature residences with “spectacular views of the city and Caspian Sea,” according to a Trump press released.
But the Trump Organization seemed oblivious to the three cardinal rules of real estate–location, location, location.
The project was located in the eastern end of Baku’s downtown, a district composed largely of drab, run-down Soviet era apartment buildings crisscrossed by train tracks and highway interchanges.
The city’s business district, where the Four Seasons and J.W. Marriott operated hotels, was located miles away on the West side of the city.
In contrast, Trump’s hotel was surrounded by a discount shopping center, narrow, dingy shops and hookah bars. The closest hotels were low-end properties where rooms averaged about $40 a night.
Even so, the Trump Organization went all in on its vision of “luxury.”
Presidential daughter Ivanka Trump personally took control of the project, according to published reports. She immediately set about changing the character of the building.
The building went through multiple revisions sending costs soaring over its original $195 million budget. Among the major overhauls, many condominium residences that had already been completed were gutted and rebuilt according to Trump’s exacting specifications.
After Trump’s casinos went bankrupt, the Trump Organization couldn’t raise funds to develop projects on its own. So it began selling naming rights and management contracts to other developers who wanted the brand’s well-known name plastered on their projects.
Trump’s company was paid a reported $2,8 million for a licensing agreement. Trump’s management fee was negotiated separately and remains unknown. The Trump Organization invested little to no money of its own, according to The Washington Post, citing Trump’s lawyer.
Still, Ivanka called the shots under the guise of a “technical-services agreement” designed to make sure the project met Trump standards.
The Trump Organization approved “the smallest details.” an Azerbaijani lawyer involved in the project told The New Yorker.Trump staff visited Baku at least monthly to give the go-ahead for the next round of work orders, he added.
Ivanka apparently spared no expense. She insisted on chose Macassar ebony, imported from Indonesia, to panel the lobby ceiling, and used matching walnut doors for the hotel ballroom.
“Ivanka personally approved everything,” a subcontractor told the magazine.
In 2014, the presidential daughter visited the site and posted a photo that can only be dubbed construction porn. She’s pictured wearing a hardhat staring out a high window at the view below.
“I love a room with a view,” she wrote on the post. “Here I am in the incredible city of Baku, Azerbaijan, checking out the construction progress of our new Trump International Hotel & Tower, which will open in 2015. See more on my project on IvankaTrump.com,” she added.
The view, incidentally, shows the hotel isolated by railroad tracks and power lines from several large apartment buildings.
On it’s face, it appears that the project’s ultimate success was merely a by-product if its real purpose… to launder money. That could put the Trump Organization on the hook.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, passed in 1977, prohibits American companies from participating in any scheme that trades material benefits or preferential treatment for concessions or outright bribes to foreign government officials.
Even it an American company unknowingly benefits from a business partner’s corruption it could be on the hook if it could have discovered illicit activity but turned its head.
“I’m not going to sit here and defend the Mammadovs,” Trump’s lawyer told The New Yorker. But legally, he argued, the Trump Organization had no liability because it did not own the project.
In March 2017, Sen. Sherrod Brown said a federal investigation of Trump’s involvement with the project was warranted, according to The Huffington Post.
“The Trump Organization’s Baku project shows the lack of ‘extreme vetting’ Mr. Trump applied to his own business dealings in corruption-plagued regimes around the globe,” he said in a statement.
“Congress—and the Trump Administration itself—has a duty to examine whether the President or his family is exposed to terrorist financing, sanctions, money laundering, and other imprudent associations through their business holdings and connections.”
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