Exquisite sushi, a celebrity chef, and glamorous clientele have made Nobu, a restaurant and hotel empire with more than 40 outlets in 20 countries, one of the world’s most famous luxury brands.
But one aspect of the chain’s expansion has so far remained a secret: Nobu accepted more than $600,000 that its bank deemed suspicious, as part of a deal with a close associate of Vladimir Putin who also has strong ties to the White House.
That associate, the billionaire Russian real estate developer Aras Agalarov, was a key figure behind the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower where senior members of the Trump campaign expected to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Agalarov’s company, Crocus International, runs two Nobu restaurants in Moscow, one in the heart of the city and a second in the glittering Crocus City megamall, site of the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant that Donald Trump ran. Confidential government documents reveal, however, that for a time, Crocus International paid Nobu’s hefty licensing fees through untraceable offshore companies, which experts say are a red flag for possible money laundering.
The arrangement led the bank’s investigators to threaten to stop accepting the payments entirely. Some came through a Latvian bank that has since been shut down due to its involvement in a Russian money laundering scheme.
One aspect of the chain's expansion has so far remained a secret.
The suspicious banking transactions were sent to the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN. They were compiled, along with thousands of pages of other records, in response to requests by the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Nobu documents, revealed here for the first time, provide additional information about the Agalarov family, whose business dealings were discussed in the Mueller report.
The documents are part of the more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports, or SARs, that BuzzFeed News shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 news organizations around the world as part of the FinCEN Files investigation. By law, banks must file these documents when they detect the hallmarks of money laundering or other financial misconduct. SARs are not in and of themselves evidence of a crime, but they can support investigations and intelligence gathering.
The FinCEN Files also open a window onto the scope and scale of the dirty economy. They show suspicious transactions from untraceable offshore companies, like the ones that Crocus International used, located around the globe. From Hollywood entertainment to Venezuelan public housing, almost no part of the world’s economy is untouched by this shadow financial system — not even the A5 Wagyu beef that Nobu serves, rare, for $38 an ounce.
Agalarov is an unlikely business partner for a hospitality empire cofounded by Robert De Niro, the actor who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Trump. From the podium at the 2018 National Board of Review awards, De Niro denounced Trump as a “fucking fool.” He has stated that he would never let the president into any of the Nobu restaurants. Agalarov, by contrast, reportedly had Trump sit at his table at his 58th birthday party.
De Niro did not respond to multiple requests for comment through his representative.
Agalarov is an unlikely business partner for a hospitality empire cofounded by Robert De Niro, the actor who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Trump.
The SARs do not suggest that De Niro himself was involved in or even aware of these financial irregularities, and they do not fault Nobu, which the bank referred to as “non-concerning.” Nobu’s corporate controller was aware of the irregular payments, and he tried repeatedly to get the Agalarovs to stop making them.
Scott Balber, the attorney for Agalarov, said all of the offshore companies cited in the SARs are owned by Agalarov, along with other similar companies that he uses as part of his business.
Asked about the transactions, he said: “Most people don't run their businesses in anticipation of a Buzzfeed reporter's questions years later, based upon illegally leaked SARS.” He said there were no problems.
Back in 2009, Nobu was looking to expand to Russia, and the family of real estate billionaires paved the way.
"Well, it just happened that we found the Agalarovs now,” De Niro told the Moscow News when the first Nobu Moscow opened in April 2009. “Without them, we wouldn't have managed it."
As Nobu and Crocus International prepared to open the second restaurant in the Crocus City mall, a US bank was flagging financial transactions that seemed fishy.
Nobu Restaurant Group requires its partners to pay fees for licensing as well as for things like clothes and electric stoves. But in late 2014, payments for the Moscow locations began arriving not from Crocus International, the entity that signed the licensing agreement, but from companies in offshore havens known for money laundering and tax evasion, such as the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Belize.
In August 2015, according to a suspicious activity report that First Republic Bank sent to the Treasury Department, Nobu’s corporate controller wrote Crocus International a reminder that payments needed to be sent from the company’s account. He told BuzzFeed News that he reached out “multiple times” to ask them to stop sending the money through the offshore companies.
The controller, Merrick Rhodes, said he knew that First Republic might look askance at payments from an unknown third party. “That’s why we requested that it comes through one of the parent companies,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Obviously our bank wants us to have it come from them.”
By the time Nobu Crocus City opened in November of that year, investigators from the bank had spotted more than $200,000 in payments they deemed suspicious. Denso Trading Ltd., which was registered in the United Kingdom by a Cypriot company to an unrelated Russian, sent more than $90,000 and then dissolved. Denso sent payments through Trasta Komercbanka, a Latvian financial institution that was involved in a notorious money laundering ring.
First Republic continued filing suspicious activity reports to the Treasury Department — and processing those suspicious payments. Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that the bank had filed nine reports between November 2014 and June 2017, flagging $602,886 from at least 10 different offshore companies. In the June 2017 report, the bank said that the transactions it reviewed “were concerning based upon the non-transparent nature of the wire originators.” Geo Business Invest Corp., which the bank identified as a possible shell company registered in Belize, sent more than $170,000. Other SARs filed by First Republic also mention the use of possible shell companies.
First Republic became more aggressive in its approach in June 2017, threatening to withhold payments that did not originate from a Crocus International account. First Republic Bank declined to comment about the transactions.
Rhodes, Nobu’s controller, told BuzzFeed News that in early 2017, the licensing agreements for the two restaurants were transferred to another company, NIME LLC, owned by Aras Agalarov’s son, Emin. Since then, he said, there have been no payments from anyone other than the company named in the contract.●
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.