Lobbyist knows dark arts: Russian in Trump case versed in email shenanigans

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MOSCOW — Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian-American lobbyist who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in June 2016, had one constant message for the journalists who met him over the years at the luxury hotels where he stayed in Moscow, London and Paris, or at his home on a leafy street in Washington: Never use email to convey information that needed to be kept secret.

While not an expert in the technical aspects of hacking nor, he insisted, a spy, Akhmetshin talked openly about how he had worked in counterintelligence while serving with the Red Army after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and how easy it was to find tech-savvy professionals ready and able to plunder just about any email account.

A journalist who visited his home was given a thumb drive containing emails that had apparently been stolen by hackers working for one of his clients.

On another occasion, at a meeting with a New York Times reporter at the Ararat Park Hyatt hotel in Moscow, Akhmetshin, now a U.S. citizen, informed the journalist he had recently been reading one of his emails: a note sent by the reporter to a Russian-American defense lawyer who had once worked for the anti-Kremlin oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In that instance, the reporter's email had become public as part of a lawsuit, but the episode sheds light on Akhmetshin's professional focus in the decades since he emigrated to the United States as a go-to man for ferreting out information from Russia and other former Soviet states.

His ever-changing roster of clients hired him to burnish their image — and blacken that of their rivals. Some clients were Russians close to the Kremlin. Others involved its bitter foes.

A gregarious, fast-talking man with a sharp sense of humor, he often warned his friends and contacts: "Nothing is secure."

It was a conviction that emerged from the chaotic and often violent corporate battles that convulsed Russia in the 1990s, when "chyorny PR" — public relations based on stolen or fabricated documents — became a powerful weapon for businessmen seeking to damage their rivals without resorting to physical threats, another frequently used tool.

The practice was rooted in Soviet techniques of "kompromat," the collection of compromising information by the KGB against foes of the Communist Party, but reached its full flowering after the 1991 collapse of Communism and the privatization of the dark arts formerly dominated by the KGB.

Russian-style "chyorny PR," however, has now morphed into the all-American exercise of "opposition research," the matter at hand when Akhmetshin, accompanied by Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, met in June 2016 in New York with President Donald Trump's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and the then-head of his presidential campaign, Paul Manafort.

The meeting, which was first revealed early this month by The New York Times, took place after a British intermediary promised Trump Jr. that it would yield "documents and information" from Moscow "that would incriminate Hillary" Clinton and "would be very useful to your father."

In the end, Trump and his son have insisted over the past week, the Russians provided nothing of value, and the meeting was a waste of time.

Instead of simply examining old media reports, court records and other public documents to try to dig up dirt or embarrassing gossip, Russian-style opposition research has often focused on pilfering private information through hacking and physical intrusion into offices and filing cabinets.

In his own investigations over the years, Akhmetshin has acquired a reputation for obtaining email records, information from spyware and other data that appeared to be drawn from Russian hackers, something he has denied.

There is no evidence his efforts were illegal or that he engaged in the technical aspects of hacking himself. His emphasis on unearthing emails in Russian-related matters also clearly served the interests of his clients, irrespective of whether they had close or hostile relations with the Kremlin.

In a 2015 lawsuit filed in a New York state court, which has since been withdrawn, International Mineral Resources, a Dutch-registered company controlled by former Soviet citizens, alleged Akhmetshin had been hired to hack into its computer systems and had stolen approximately 28,000 files, or about 50 gigabytes of data. It said the sensitive material was then distributed to journalists and others in an effort to harm the company's reputation.

The suit alleged Akhmetshin was retained by EuroChem Volga-Kaliy, a Russian potassium mining company, which was involved in a $1 billion litigation with IMR. The suit also names as a defendant Salisbury & Ryan, a New York law firm representing EuroChem. According to the suit, Akhmetshin is "a former Soviet military counterintelligence officer" who "developed a special expertise in running negative public relations campaign."

Akhmetshin has called this characterization misleading. He was, he said, drafted as a young man to serve in a military unit performing counterintelligence functions during the Soviet-Afghan war. As an enlisted man, he said, he never received any training in "negative public relations."

The suit claims Akhmetshin stole passport information, emails and personal contact lists for executives within IMR; IMR bank account information; loan agreements; business strategy documents; board meeting minutes; drafts of market-sensitive documents; and financial forecasts and projections.

Akhmetshin has denied that he hacked the company's computers.

The lawsuit, while later dropped, exposes a thriving below-the-radar industry of Russian-style corporate espionage.

Akhmetshin never showed much interest in politics and even less in cheering President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his allies. An early client was an opposition leader from Kazakhstan who, from self-imposed exile in the West, was waging a lonely campaign against one of Putin's closest allies, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

And in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, he helped unravel a brazen corruption scheme by a former pro-Kremlin leader and his family that had been cheating the population, poor already, out of millions of dollars.

On other occasions, however, he worked on causes that clearly benefited the Kremlin, such as a long-running campaign spearhead by Veselnitskaya to get Congress to repeal legislation sanctioning Russian officials suspected of corruption and involvement in the death of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009.

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