[MARCH 21, 2017 – ABCNEWS.COM – FILED UNDER REAL NEWS]
There, indeed, was an FBI wiretap involving Russians at Trump Tower.
But it was not placed at the behest of Barack Obama, and the target was not the Trump campaign of 2016. For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money-laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower in New York.
The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” he was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.
Seven months after the April 2013 indictment and after Interpol issued a red notice for Tokhtakhounov, he appeared near Donald Trump in the VIP section of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump had sold the Russian rights for Miss Universe to a billionaire Russian shopping mall developer.
“He is a major player,” said Mike Gaeta, the agent who led the 2013 FBI investigation of Tokhtakhounov and his alleged mafia money-laundering and gambling ring, in a 2014 interview with ABC News. “He is prominent. He has extremely good connections in the business world as well as the criminal world, overseas, in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, other countries.”
Gaeta, who ran the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime unit in New York, told ABC News at the time that federal agents were closely tracking Tokhtakhounov, whose Russian ring was suspected of moving more than $50 million in illegal money into the United States.
“Because of his status, we have kept tabs on his activities and particularly as his activities truly enter New York City,” Gaeta said. “Their money was ultimately laundered from Russia, Ukraine and other locations through Cyprus banks and shell companies based in Cyprus and then ultimately here to the United States.”
The FBI investigation did not implicate Trump. But Trump Tower was under close watch. Some of the Russian mafia figures worked out of unit 63A in the iconic skyscraper — just three floors below Trump’s penthouse residence — running what prosecutors called an “international money-laundering, sports gambling and extortion ring.”
The Trump building was home to one of the top men in the alleged ring, Vadim Trincher, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and received a five-year prison term. He is due to be released in July.
“Everything was moving in and out of there,” said former FBI official Rich Frankel, now an ABC News consultant.
“He would have people come in and meet with them. He would use the phones. He would also communicate, whether it was through e-mail or other communications through there,” Frankel said of Trincher. “His base of operations was in the Trump Tower.”
In court papers, the FBI described two years of intercepts of phone conversations and text message exchanges of the key figures in the gambling ring.
“Mr. Vladim Trincher was on one occasion intercepted speaking with a customer of the gambling operation who owed a debt of $50,000,” one court document stated. Trincher told the gambler about an enforcer who works with him named Maxin. On the recording, Trincher “threatens the customer that Maxin would come and find him, would come and find the money and that he should be careful, lest he be tortured and lest he wind up underground.”
Last fall, a Trump Organization spokesman told ABC News that Russians did not make up a disproportionate share of residents in Trump properties. Federal agents confiscated four units in connection with the poker ring: two in New York and two in Sunny Isles, Florida.
ABC News conducted a review of hundreds of pages of property records and reported in September that Trump-branded developments catered to large numbers of Russian buyers, including several who had brushes with the law. Russian buyers were particularly drawn to Trump licensed condo towers in Hollywood, Florida, and Sunny Isles. Local real estate agents credited the Russian migration for turning the coastal Miami-area community into what they called Little Moscow.
Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten told ABC News at the time that the firm did not track the nationality of buyers and that the company rarely plays a role in recruiting buyers — a job typically left to developers that buy rights to use the Trump name. Neither Garten nor Trump Organization spokeswoman Amanda Miller responded this week to questions from ABC News about the 2013 poker raid.
Nor did they respond to questions about Tokhtakhounov, who, despite Interpol’s international red notice, is regularly seen in Moscow at popular restaurants and other public places. The poker case was not the first to target Tokhtakhounov. He was indicted years earlier in the United States, accused of paying bribes to Olympic judges so that Russian figure skaters would win gold medals.