Can a scoundrel become a hero?
Tales of redemption sure make for a great story. The Bible is filled with them. Anna Karenina, arguably the greatest novel, is a story of redemption. So is Star Wars. But when we’re faced with a real life example, our hearts harden. Do people really change? Is it all just an act?
Felix Sater, who scouted real estate deals for Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and earlier, is an ex-con who ran a Mafia-linked stock fraud scheme. He is also an undercover government informant for the FBI, the CIA, and other three-letter agencies who risked his life overseas for the country that put him in prison.
So what is Felix Sater, a scoundrel or a hero?
Before you answer, you should know that we don’t have all the facts. There’s reams of material on all the bad things Mr. Sater did in his 20s. Countless articles and even an entire book has been written about it. However, when it comes to to the sensitive work Mr. Sater subsequently did as an undercover government informant, we know only the vaguest outlines.
Much of the court filings regarding Mr. Sater’s years of cooperation with the government — described as being “of an extraordinary depth and breadth, almost unseen in this United States Attorney’s Office” — still remain under wraps. Trump’s election and Mr. Sater’s desire to tell his own story are slowly forcing the details to come out of the shadows.
We got another glimpse yesterday thanks to Leo Glasser, the 95-year-old (!) judge who’s being hearing Mr. Sater’s case since 1998. Judge Glasser ordered the release of previously redacted portions of Mr. Sater’s 2009 sentencing hearing where prosecutors described the details of his cooperation.
I’ve compiled the bulk of the newly unsealed passages and skipped over two shorter redactions that tell us nothing. If you want the whole transcript as released by Judge Glasser, it’s here.
First up, Sater’s attorney Leslie Caldwell:
The information he provided was extraordinary. He provided information, as our letter and the government’s letter indicate, about Russian military intelligence. He provided the United States intelligence authorities with information relating to missiles — Stinger missiles — that the United States intelligence authorities were interested in repurchasing from the Taliban. That information was real. It was provided to the intelligence authority. We didn’t know it was acted upon. Of course we wouldn’t know, but F.B.I, agents confirmed that Mr. Slater’s serial numbers he actually provided were actual serial numbers. …
But he also risked his life working with the F.B.I, on unrelated matters, completely unrelated to his case. He flew to Cypress where he met with criminals from Russia in connection with this identity theft scheme which he had no involvement in.
At one point Mr. Slater was [in] Cypress, those Russian criminals told him to get into the car and drive away with him, which he did to the chagrin of the F.B.I, watching him. He’s here to tell the tale, but he really has risked his life in ways that the court doesn’t often see.
He flew to Central Asia to gather intelligence information. That information related to the kinds of individuals, including surprisingly and somewhat surprisingly, Osama Bin Laden, which are really the more extreme enemies of this country. Mr. Slater, really, he provided, and I don’t want to get into all of the details, he provided a telephone number to the government for Osama Bin Laden. He provided locations for Osama Bin Laden. He knew somebody who had a connection to Osama Bin Laden and was able to provide that person with a satellite phone so that that person could relay information, which Mr. Slater relayed to the F.B.I., which the F.B.I relayed to the intelligence authorities.
The kind of cooperation provided – and I’m not minimizing the underlying criminal activity – but had Mr. Slater’s case come to light in 1991, rather than being asked to come back from Russia to surrender, Mr. Slater might have been asked to stay in Russia to provide — he was capable of providing information not because he, himself, was involved in those terrorist-type activities, but because he had contacts who had contacts, who could put him in touch with certain people. So I think there’s a real possibility that he may not have been standing in a court of law in the United States, had his case come to light somewhat later than it did. Again, I’m not minimizing the underlying criminal conduct, but I do think that’s a fact, in light of the changing world after September 11th.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Kaminsky:
Felix Slater worked in the field of foreign intelligence, which [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Miller is going to address in a minute, was just exemplary. He traveled to parts of the country — parts of the world, rather, to countries that the United States had no known ties, that were extremely dangerous, where there would have been no recourse for him,should something have gone wrong, and he went there willingly, voluntarily, and with enthusiasm to help the agency and to help the United States. Then when he was in the process of doing that, he came back to the United States and continued to do the work in the leading and cutting edges of wherever burgeoning fields of crime were first coming forth, international financial fraud, Felix Slater was on the cutting edge of that. Even though he was not a participant,he was able to determine from his contacts what was going on,brought it to the F.B.I., had brought cases to them or he brought instances to them, and once again arrests were made,and whole fields of criminal activity were eliminated to agencies, and arrested were made, and he did this.
Judge Glasser says he will release Sater’s 5k1.1 letter in 30 days, barring an objection from the government.
This is the real gold mine. It’s the official government letter to the court requesting a lenient sentence on a defendant for his extraordinary cooperation. It will catalogue all his work for the government.
No doubt some of it will be redacted, but it may help more of us make up our minds about Felix Sater.
Of all the characters in the Trump/Russia saga, few are more fascinating than Felix Sater.
Sater is many things: a Russian emigre, the son of a gangster, an ex-con, and the guy who scouted real estate deals in Moscow for Donald Trump.
He was also a very valuable informant to the U.S. government for many years, as you can see from some photos I recently came across regarding Evgeny Shmykov, an ex-spy who was Sater’s long-time contact in Russia:
The guy that Shmykov stands shoulder-to-shoulder with? That’s Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban leader assassinated right before the 9/11 attacks.
These photos got some attention on Twitter, but as always, whenever Sater’s name comes up, people inevitably connect him to a powerful Russian Mafia boss named Semion Mogilevich, known as “the most dangerous mobster in the world.”
It’s time to put this to rest.
There is no, I repeat, no credible evidence linking Sater to a Russian Mob boss who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
In writing my book, Trump/Russia, I spent quite a bit of time looking for evidence of the Sater-Mogilevich connection. In the end, I concluded that it just wasn’t there. To paraphrase Robert Mueller, if I had found evidence that Sater was connected to Mogilevich, I would so state.
There’s no doubt Sater did have ties to Russian organized crime. Sater’s father, Michael Sheferfofsky, was a Russian gangster who pleaded guilty in 2000 to two counts of extortion for shaking down businesses in Brooklyn.
Update: In her 2020 book, Putin’s People, Catherine Belton wrote that she spoke to two former Mogilevich associates in 2018 who told her that Sater’s father “become an ‘enforcer’ for some of Mogilevich’s interests” in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Another British journalist, Paul Wood, told me in 2019 that he spoke with someone from Mogilevich’s organization who told him that there is a link between Sater himself and Mogilevich.
Even so, proof is still lacking. There’s no mention of Mogilevich in Sherorfksy’s criminal file.
So where does this claim come from?
The Sater-Mogilevich link is found in a Supreme Court petition for a writ of certiorari in Palmer v John Doe. 14-676.
This sounds like credible evidence. It’s convinced many people, including me, as my 2017 blog post shows.
The thing is it’s bullshit. Yes, I know. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
While reporting my book, Trump/Russia, I tried to get to the bottom of this. I asked Richard Lerner, the attorney who wrote the Supreme Court petition, how he learned about the Sater-Mogilevich connection.
He somewhat sheepishly admitted that it comes from a website called Deep Capture.
This is where things get weird.
Deep Capture was written by Mark Mitchell, a former editor at Columbia Journalism Review, to “expose the ‘deep capture’ of American institutions by powerful and corrupt financial interests.”
Bankrolling Deep Capture was Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, a publicly-traded online retailer.
Byrne is famous for, among other things, a 2005 conference call with investors that touched on subjects ranging from:
“Miscreants, an unnamed Sith Lord he hopes the feds will bury under a prison, gay bath houses, whether he is gay, does cocaine, both or neither, and an obligatory, not that there is anything wrong with that, phone taps, phone lines misdirected to Mexico, arrested reporters, payoffs, conspiracies, crooks, egomaniacs, fools, paranoia, which newspapers are shills and for who, payoffs, money laundering, his Irish temper, false identities, threats, intimidation, and private investigators,” wrote Mark Cuban, the basketball team owner, investor, and host of Shark Tank.
That’s just a sampling. You can read the full thing here.
Byrne has also accused reporter Bethany McLean of giving Goldman Sachs traders blowjobs and said on live TV that he knew for a fact of a fax machine in the offices of CNBC where every morning hedge funds send in “instructions” for journalists. Authorities at Salt Lake City’s airport arrested him in 2013 when they found a loaded handgun in his carry-on luggage.
Sater is one of Byrne’s “miscreants” who appears as a recurring character in Deep Capture, where he is described to this day as a “Mafia boss” and “a Russian mobster and a member of the Mogilevich organization (controlled by Semion Mogilevich).”
To give you a taste of Deep Capture, check out this now-deleted post that describes … well, just read it for yourself:
A month or so after that, an offshore businessman who had provided some information to our investigation received in the mail a beautiful, lacquered, Russian matryoshka doll. And inside this doll, there was a slip of paper.
On the paper was the letter “F” — with a cross on it. The businessman knew right away that the letter “F” stood for “Felix” – Felix Sater.
The businessman said he had called Felix Sater to see what the deal was with the doll. And after talking to Felix, the businessman invited Patrick Byrne to a greasy spoon diner in Long Island. It was urgent, aid the businessman — so Patrick made haste.
And when Patrick arrived at the diner (along with two other people, who can testify to this) the offshore businessman, discarding with formalities, said, “This meeting can be very short. I have a message for you from Russia.”
The message, said the businessman, was this: “‘We are about to kill you. We are about to kill you.’ Patrick, they are going to kill you – if you do not stop this crusade [the investigation into destructive market manipulation], they will kill you. Normally they’d have already hurt you as a warning, but you’re so weird, they don’t know how you’d react. So their first step is, they’re just going to kill you.”
According to the businessman, this threat had come straight from the mouth of Felix Sater.
Maybe this did happen. Then again, maybe the moon landing was faked. Maybe the Illuminati controls the world. Maybe 9/11 was an inside job. I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen.
Editor’s note: I am striking my snarky comments because I was wrong. Patrick Byrne has shown me evidence that this conversation did take place. In a recorded 2007 phone call, a transcript of which is in my possession, Byrne’s associate was told: “And there’s a beautiful box and inside is a matryoshka and I opened up the last matryoshka and inside is an F with a cross on it, which is for Felix.” I was also played the recording of this call. A clear threat was relayed to Mr. Byrne, who did not make this story up. I owe him an apology.
Patrick Byrne emailed me August 4 to say:
“For the record, your email reminded me that Felix wrote me once (while I was very ill) and denied being the source of the Russian death threat against me. He was quite gentlemanly, and I think I said I would post it. However, I think I was in a cardiac unit at the time, come to think of it, and it never got done.”
Byrne didn’t answer my questions about what evidence he has for the Sater-Mogilevich connection, which can still be found on his website.
In 2016, a Canadian judge ordered Byrne and Mitchell to pay $1.2 million (Canadian) over published claims that Altaf Nazerali, a Vancouver businessman, was a gangster, an arms dealer, a drug trafficker, a financier of al-Qaida and member of the Russian and Italian Mafias.
Nazerali is mentioned in the deleted post quoted above about Sater and the matryoshka doll. Nazerali is described as a friend of Sater’s, although I’d wager that they never met.
The judge wrote that Mitchell and Byrne “engaged in a calculated and ruthless campaign to inflict as much damage on Mr. Nazerali’s reputation as they could achieve. It is clear on the evidence that their intention was to conduct a vendetta in which the truth about Mr. Nazerali himself was of no consequence.” Read the decision here.
A month before the ruling was issued, Byrne announced he was taking an indefinite personal leave of absence from Overstock.com to battle stage 4 Hepatitis C. He returned to his duties a few months later.
The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed Mitchell and Byrne’s appeal in August 2018 and affirmed a seven-figure award.
Maybe you think Sater a bad guy. Maybe you think he made amends for his criminal past. Either way, a man whose life is far more fascinating than most of ours will ever be doesn’t need to be embellished with fiction.
Former FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. has been making the rounds with the stunning observation that President Donald J. Trump behaved much liked the mob bosses he put on trial in his days as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
During his time in the White House, Comey says he felt the president repeatedly trying to make him a member of his corrupted inner circle when he famously asked the FBI director for loyalty.
In his last conversation with Comey on April 11, Trump told him: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.” We had that thing. That thing of ours. It’s literally a translation of La Cosa Nostra, which is how members of the American Mafia describe their organization.
Comey tells us a fundamental truth about the man we have elected to the most powerful office in the world: Donald Trump was a mob-friendly businessman.
Well, it took a couple of days, but I finally managed to read through Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson’s 312-page testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Thank you to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for releasing this information last week over the objections of Republicans. Sen. Feinstein said the American public deserve to make up their own minds. Couldn’t agree more. You can find the testimony here.
So I thought I would pick things that jumped out at me from Simpson’s testimony:
1. An internal source in the Trump Organization was providing the FBI with information about Russian collusion.
Simpson learned this from Christopher Steele, the former British spy he had hired to investigate Trump’s links to Russia. Steele’s findings, including the scandalous scene in the Moscow Ritz, were so alarming that he took his findings to the FBI. The FBI told Steele, yes, we’ve heard something similar from our internal Trump source. Simpson refused to answer questions about who this source might have been, but this source was not one of Steele’s source. Huge bombshell. (p. 175)
2. Someone has been killed as a result of Steele’s reports.
Simpson’s lawyer, Josh Levy, drops this on p. 279. “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work,” he says. Curiously, nobody challenges this, which makes it seem an accepted fact. Maybe they were all just tired after 9 hours of questioning. The person is not named, but presumably it’s someone in Russia. Otherwise, it would be a bigger deal, right?
3. Felix Sater is connected to Russian organized crime kingpin Semion Mogilevich This connection has been alleged in a Supreme Court petition filed in 2012 by lawyers Fred Oberlander and Richard Lerner to unseal Sater’s criminal case. The Website Deep Capture made the same claim, but the sourcing wasn’t very strong, as did two New York attorneys in court filings. (Update: Sources I’ve spoken to led me to doubt this claim.) (p.69)
4. Chris Steele broke off talks with the FBI in part because of a story in The New York Times. This was the infamous Halloween 2016 story that reported that an FBI investigation of Trump found no ties to Russia. The Times story and FBI Director James Comey’s bizarre decision to reopen the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email made Steele concerned that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by Trump’s people. (p. 178).
5. Bill Browder’s comical efforts to hide from Fusion GPS and Glenn Simpson.
This isn’t a single event. It’s more like a pattern. Maybe Simpson is a liar as Browder says or maybe Browder doesn’t like anybody nosing around in his business practices in Russia. Read it for yourself and see what you think pp 40-48.
I just finished reading The Scorpion and the Frog, the book by Felix Sater’s Wall Street pal, Salvatore Lauria.
It’s an interesting read about Sater’s time on Wall Street and his dealings with Mobsters.
Even more interesting are the details about his cooperation with the CIA in Russia against al Qaida that helped keep him out of prison for racketeering.
A lot of these details were new to me, so I thought I would post a little summary of what’s in the book.
Sater’s lawyer, Robert S. Wolf, has called some of the CIA-related portions of the book “fabricated.” However, The Scorpion and the Frog was the subject of a 2002 legal proceeding in federal court in Los Angeles. Lauria sought to stop publication of his own book. Not because it was fiction, but because it told the truth.
According to Lauria, he had agreed to write the book on the condition that his real name not be used. His publisher, however, went ahead and used his real name, and Lauria was worried that he could be physically harmed by the people named in the book. A bench trial was held and in the end a federal judge cleared the way for the book’s publication.
With that said, here’s my abridged version of what the book says:
Felix Sater walked away from his Mob-linked Wall Street business in 1996 and headed for Russia. He would spend the next two years there before returning to the United States to surrender to the FBI in 1998 and plead guilty to racketeering.
Sater had two jobs in Russia. The first was a deal to bring AT&T bulk long distance service and pre-paid phone charge cards to the country. The second was to find a deal that could get him out of jail.
Sater began to develop contacts at secret Russian military installations known as closed cities, which held “some of the great secrets of the Soviet Union,” Lauria wrote.
The closed cities were opening up. Their representatives were contacting “various countries and rogue organizations interested in buying everything from missiles to assault rifles to millions of rounds of ammunition,” Lauria wrote. They also would make munitions and missiles “to order.”
“We ran into guys selling shiploads of arms to Arabs and other Muslims — Libya, Iraq — countries that were hostile to the United States,” Lauria wrote.
At some point, according to the book, Sater made an initial contact with “someone connected to the CIA.”
Sater gave this version of events to New York magazine.
One night, Sater told me, he went to dinner with a contact that he assumes was affiliated with the GRU, the Russian military-intelligence agency, where he was introduced to another American doing business in Moscow, Milton Blane. “There’s like eight people there,” Sater said, “and he’s sizing me up all dinner long. As I went to take a piss, he followed me into the bathroom and said, ‘Can I have your phone number? I’d like to get together and talk to you.’ ” Blane, who died last year, was an arms dealer. According to a government disclosure made 13 years ago in response to a Freedom of Information Act query, Blane had a contract with the Defense Department to procure “foreign military material for U.S. intelligence purposes.” Sater says the U.S. wanted “a peek” at a high-tech Soviet radar system. “Blane sat down with me and said, ‘The country needs you,’ ” Sater said.
Back to the book. Sater’s unofficial contact in the CIA came to see him and told him the agency wanted a radar tracking system that the Russians had developed before the fall of the Soviet Union. The radar tracking system had never been deployed, and the CIA worried that the system could fall into the hands of our enemies.
“We looked around through Lex’s contacts and found we could definitely get the radar system. For once, this was a deal we were doing with no interest in the money. We were doing it to enhance our own position regarding the legal charges, and also as something that might benefit the country. Money or profit was not an issue. We just wanted the credit for doing it. With a direct line to the radar system, we contacted our lawyer in New York, who went to Washington DC to talk to the CIA”
The CIA was interested. The agency sent a man to Russia, and Sater located the radar tracking system. (In other parts of the book, Lauria calls it a “missile guidance system.”)
With that success, Sater was approached about acquiring a dozen Stinger missiles. The Stinger was the portable, shoulder-fired missile that used a heat-seeking sensor to home in on an aircraft’s engine. They could be fired from as far away as 5 miles away and could easily bring down a passenger airliner.
The CIA was desperate to get hold of them. Lauria states that at least 12 Stinger missiles were obtained by Osama bin Laden.
As he had with the radar tracking/missile guidance system, Sater found that he could get the Stingers, albeit in a round-about way.
Sater could not buy the Stingers directly from al Qaida. “Instead, he used his contact with a KGB general who claimed he had strong ties with Ahmad Shah Massed, leader of the Northern Alliance,” Lauria wrote. Sater alaso used “connections he thought he had with both sides in the Afghan War.” This is interesting. Was Sater dealing with the Taliban?
According to Lauria, Sater obtained photographs of the Stinger missiles as well as the the serial numbers of three of them to verify their authenticity. Sater also obtained what he thought was an active cell phone number for bin Laden. His attorney supplied it all to the CIA.
The CIA offered to pay Sater $300,000 per missile. Lauria insists there was no profit built into the deal. However, one of their partners, Gennady “Gene” Klotsman went behind their backs and demanded $3 million per Stinger. The CIA was furious and called off the deal.
A few days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Lauria got a phone call from Sater. The information they had provided about Osama bin Laden was now being actively pursued.
“Our situation had improved,” Lauria wrote.