To the American investigative journalist Kevin G. Hall, whose world currently revolves around tracking the assets of Russian oligarchs, an empty, 12,000-foot, 7-bedroom, 11-bathroom mansion situated near a cluster of embassies in the United States capital is low-hanging fruit.
The gated property has attracted significant interest since 2018 after the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned its owner and accused him of laundering money and threatening the lives of his business rivals.
If the extravagant size and location of Oleg Deripaska’s $15 million Washington, D.C. mansion wasn’t enough for reporters to come sniff out why a Russian billionaire with very close ties to Vladimir Putin has owned a glamorous spot in the U.S. capital since 2006, the FBI raiding the place in October 2021 certainly was. Journalists buzzed to the scene last fall, included Mr. Hall, who recently met me at Deripaska’s mansion to talk about tracking billionaires.
“I think the idea is to clamp down on anybody who’s had privilege and benefit through the Kremlin, and to ramp up the costs of being associated with Putin and the regime. That’s the goal,” Mr. Hall said of a brand new collaborative reporting project he helps run called the Russian Asset Tracker (RAT). The project is organized by journalists and researchers at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Founded in 2006 and based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the OCCRP publishes through local media and tries to fry the biggest fish. Mr. Hall is the North America Editor for the OCCRP and its lead investigator in the U.S. for the RAT. Since RAT’s launch on March 21, a month into Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine, Mr. Hall and his colleagues have started by focusing on the “Navalny 35,” a list of Russian human rights abusers compiled by Russia’s jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
Deripaska is on that list. Standing outside his property, Mr. Hall recalls stories past that illustrate the influence and power of figures like Deripaska and his $5.7 billion net worth.
“Deripaska is interesting in so many ways… I remember early in the Trump administration he showed up on a boat with Putin’s number 2, with a prostitute who disappeared, Nastya Rybka, who seems to have been wiped off the face of the earth after she released a video of them talking about post-Crimea stuff and U.S. elections.”
The work Mr. Hall and his colleagues do is not nearly as easy as finding and filming the D.C. home of one of Putin’s closest, most popular allies. Part of the pain in the job is diving deep into public and private records to try to expose stealthier homes, yachts, jets, helicopters, race horses, and other assets around the globe belonging to Russian figures on Deripaska’s level. And that necessitates teamwork. “There is an awful lot that people own that you can go after,” Mr. Hall said. “A lot of the [average] day is going back and forth with people all over the world. We have big teams in Europe, we have people as far away as the South-Pacific… we have investigative editors on all 6 continents. We don’t have anyone in Antarctica yet, but that would give a new meaning to ‘freeze’ and ‘frozen assets,'” Mr. Hall joked before returning to the solemn nature of his work and the fight to pressure Russia’s wealthiest into stopping Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Giacomo Tognini, a staff writer at Forbes who covers global billionaires from New York, is another OCCRP partner who joined the Russian Asset Tracker team soon after its inception. Speaking from his own experiences, Tognini said in an interview he enjoys the kind of reporting he does and thinks it’s “really interesting to go in and find out who owns something… and to reconstruct those chains.” At the same time, he said this specialized research can be lonely and stressful at times because of frequent dead-ends and nearly impenetrable ownership networks in places like the British Virgin Islands and Panama. Working with the RAT, though, Tognini says being in collaboration with other Russian asset investigators is helpful because he can ask questions to colleagues who can tell him things he might have had no idea about, leading him to unlock deeper details on Russian oligarchs’ assets.
Asked what he’s been working on most recently, Tognini pointed to the Dilbar super-yacht, the world’s third largest. Tognini started researching the yacht two months ago. The asset technically belongs to Alisher Usmanov, a Russian billionaire who is worth more than $19 billion, making him one of the world’s top-100 richest. Usmanov was sanctioned by the U.S. and U.K. in early March, putting him and his assets under scrutiny. Usmanov assigned legal ownership of the Dilbar yacht to his sister, Gulbahor Ismailova, under a trust in 2020 as part of a loophole to complicate any attempted sanctions or seizures. Tognini and Hall both spoke of the complications of tracking and securing accountability for oligarchs’ assets that they hide behind family members or companies (Deripaska’s D.C. and New York homes, for example, are both “owned by a company” in Delaware).
The RAT team uses secure lines like Signal to communicate and share their work. Like many investigators, Mr. Hall uses two phones, one for personal life and another for his work. He said he can’t be too safe, especially given 11 of his investigative colleagues have been tapped in the last year with Pegasus spyware. He said he researched me before agreeing to meet, saying, “I had to look you up… I had to make sure this wasn’t a James O’Keefe situation.”