How money-laundering works in real estate

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Former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, on Capitol Hill on June 21, 2017. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

If Michael Wolff’s reporting is to be believed, Stephen Bannon’s assessment of the most dangerous threat posed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is not the one you might have assumed.

“You realize where this is going,” Bannon reportedly told Wolff. “This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f—ing Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr and Jared Kushner. … It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner s—.”

Two quick explanations. Weissmann refers to Andrew Weissmann. He was one of Mueller’s early hires, though not the first, and does have a lot of experience in prosecuting financial crimes. Deutsche Bank is a German financial institution that has been an apparent focus of federal prosecutors, though not necessarily by Mueller’s team, thanks to a loan of more than a quarter-billion dollars issued to Kushner’s firm a month before the 2016 election.

Bannon’s argument is that Mueller’s team is focused not on Russian meddling but on unearthing money laundering by Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Kushner that can then be used as leverage against Trump. Manafort already faces money laundering charges from Mueller. Those charges may involve property purchased by Manafort in New York and Virginia through shell companies based in Cyprus.

Real estate, it seems, is central to the charge Bannon made, given the involvement of Kushner and Trump Jr. in the industry. In light of that, we reached out to Chris Quick, a retired FBI special agent who specialized in financial crimes and who now runs a private investigative firm in South Carolina. He walked us through how money laundering worked in the real-estate industry and how others might be implicated in that criminal activity.

“With any money laundering, you’re trying to make the illegally gotten money look legitimate,” Quick said. “So in the simplest terms, if you have real estate, you’re going to buy a piece of property with the illegal funds, hang on to it — or have rental income from it, so that rental income is legitimate — and eventually when you sell the real estate, you get your proceeds out of it and by all accounts it appears to be a legitimate transaction.” According to U.S. law, any financial transaction of more than $10,000 involving illegal funds counts as money laundering.

How do you buy the property in the first place without raising eyebrows? One way is to move the money for those properties into shell companies, Quick said.

“What they’re hoping is that an investigator or someone who’s digging around doesn’t investigate or dig around into where that money came from for that” company, he said. Most real estate agents have a limited ability to look into the legitimacy of a corporate entity, which makes it easier for the person hoping to launder the money to get away with it. Even investigators can have a difficult time tracing money when it comes from countries like Switzerland (where there are strict bank secrecy laws) or the Cayman Islands.

Money coming in from a foreign corporate entity, though, also can serve as a red flag to investigators. Another is someone who buys a property and then quickly sells it. Others are how the company is formed — Delaware corporations add a level of opacity, too — or who is listed as being involved in the business.

Manafort, Mueller’s team alleges, was involved in laundering money directly. But others who knowingly facilitate money laundering could also be held criminally liable.

“If the bank knew or suspected that something was awry or suspicious with the individual or the company” seeking to make a real-estate transaction, Quick said, “they could be held culpable.” That failure by the bank, he explained, could include “looking the other way or not scrutinizing the paperwork” that was offered for the transaction. (It’s worth noting that in January 2017, Deutsche Bank settled with U.S. regulators after having helped Russian investors move $10 billion out of Russia.)

The charges faced by a bank involved in a deal to launder money through real estate would be related to conspiracy. Same holds for a real-estate agent who knew that a deal was being made with illegal funds. Someone who knowingly sold a property to someone who planned to use the property to launder those funds could be indicted as a conspirator.

That’s the Bannon theory, it seems. Trump Jr. and Kushner could be implicated by Mueller in money laundering either directly or as complicit agents and then leveraged against Trump in some way.

This is not necessarily outside the purview of Mueller’s Russia investigation.

In July, Trump was asked by Maggie Haberman of the New York Times whether investigations into his personal finances were a “breach” of Mueller’s mandate to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“I would say yes,” Trump replied. “By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?”

That was a more modest description of his business’s overlap with Russian partners than Trump Jr. had offered in 2008.

“In terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets, say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York,” he said of the Trump Organization’s real estate ventures.

“We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

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