Miami men with Ukrainian political ties laundered money, DOJ says

The Department of Justice filed civil forfeiture complaints this week in Miami federal court accusing

The Department of Justice filed civil forfeiture complaints this week in Miami federal court accusing two Ukrainian oligarchs and their Miami-based associates of stealing money abroad and laundering it in the United States by moving it through a Ukrainian-owned bank and into Miami companies operating as “slush funds” for real estate investment.

In two separate complaints filed Thursday, the DOJ said Ukrainian oligarchs Ihor Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Boholiubov, along with Mordechai Korf and Uriel Laber in Miami, created a web of Miami-based companies that laundered money from 2008 to 2018. The oligarchs controlled PrivatBank, one of Ukraine’s largest banks, until the Ukrainian government nationalized it in 2016.

Two days before the complaints were filed, the FBI conducted raids in Cleveland and Miami on Korf and Laber’s offices, home to a group of companies referred to as the “Optima Family.”

“Korf and Laber used the Optima Family’s funds as one large pool of money,” the government said in its complaint, which sought to seize two office buildings, one in Dallas and another in Louisville, worth $70 million. “They transferred funds back and forth between the different entities, both to launder the money and to try to make money. Korf discussed those transfers with Kolomoisky and Boholiubov, and they approved the use of the money.”

Korf and Laber invested in and managed metal companies and real estate holdings in Ohio, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia on behalf of Kolomoisky and Boholiubov, according to the Justice Department. It does not specify locations of the companies or real estate in Florida.

An attorney for Korf and Laber, Marc Kasowitz, said the men deny the allegations and called the government’s claims “false and completely without merit.”

Miami businessman Mordechai “Motti” Korf and his associate Uriel Laber were accused of money laundering by the Department of Justice. Both men deny the allegations.
Miami businessman Mordechai “Motti” Korf and his associate Uriel Laber were accused of money laundering by the Department of Justice. Both men deny the allegations.

The accusations from the government mirror an ongoing civil suit filed last year in Delaware Chancery Court brought by representatives from PrivatBank that accuses Korf and Laber of participating in a multinational money-laundering operation from 2006 until 2016 in association with Kolomoisky and Boholiubov. Kolomoisky also faces a criminal probe by the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland for possible money laundering.

Kolomoisky, who has ties to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has maintained that all allegations against him are politically motivated.

During the time Korf and Laber’s companies were accused of laundering money on behalf of Kolomoisky by the Justice Department and representatives for PrivatBank, Robert Powell — husband of Miami Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — worked as the chief legal officer and general counsel for four companies named in the DOJ filings this week.

He worked for the companies — Georgian American Alloys, Warren Steel Holdings LLC, Steel Rolling Holdings Inc and Optima Specialty Steel — from 2008 to 2017. The DOJ complaints say the Ukrainian money entered the U.S. from 2008 to 2016, though money laundering in the U.S. continued after PrivatBank was nationalized. Five of Optima Specialty Steel’s wholly owned subsidiaries are also named in the DOJ complaint, and Powell also represented them, according to Georgian American Alloys’ website.

Powell is not named in the Justice Department’s complaints and has not been accused of wrongdoing. He left Georgian American Alloys in 2017 and now works for Fiesta Restaurant Group, which owns Pollo Tropical. He began work at Fiesta in August 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“Robert has nothing to do with — and there’s never been any evidence that he had anything to do with — the allegations made in this suit,” Mucarsel-Powell campaign manager Andrew Markoff said in a statement. “He has never worked for, answered to, or represented Igor Kolomoisky and is shocked by these allegations. Robert Powell was the lawyer for an American company and steel mills that employed hundreds of American workers. In this role, he handled routine legal matters to support the day-to-day operations and received a regular monthly salary. Any insinuation he had anything to do with this matter is completely false.”

Robert Powell, husband of U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Robert Powell, husband of U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

Powell’s work for Korf and Laber was the subject of Republican attacks during his wife’s first congressional campaign two years ago. Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat, is currently running for reelection to Congress in Florida’s 26th district. She’ll face Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez or firefighter Omar Blanco in the general election on Nov. 3.

In the Justice Department filings this week, the government accused companies where Powell worked as general counsel of operating as a “slush fund.”

“There are many examples of this ‘slush fund’ approach to related business entities,” the government wrote of the Miami-based firms.

The document outlined one example, an approximately $19 million loan from Optima Acquisitions to Warren Steel — another Optima company — that was repaid through loans from yet another related company. Moving the money was an attempt to cover its source, according to the DOJ complaints.

Powell listed at least $695,000 of income in 2016 and 2017 from two Optima subsidiaries, Felman Trading and Felman Trading Americas, on Mucarsel-Powell’s 2018 federal financial disclosure form. Mucarsel-Powell later amended her disclosure to list Powell’s income as “N/A.” Her net worth in 2018 according to Open Secrets is estimated to be $272,000.

Felman Trading and Felman Trading Americas, among the five wholly owned subsidiaries named in the Justice Department complaints, are ferroalloys trading corporations that were owned jointly by Kolomoisky, Boholiubov, Korf and Laber, according to the Justice Department.

Kasowitz, the attorney for Korf and Laber, said in a statement to the Miami Herald that he is “unaware of any misconduct by any company employees.”

The DOJ actions were filed two days after the FBI conducted a raid on Korf and Laber’s offices in Cleveland and Miami, according to FBI spokesperson Vicki Anderson.

Kolomoisky also denied the allegations against him through his lawyer.

“Mr. Kolomoisky emphatically denies the allegations in the complaints filed by the Department of Justice,” Michael J. Sullivan, a lawyer for Kolomoisky, said in an email to the Washington Post.

Kolomoisky has been accused of bribery, murder and embezzlement in recent years by business partners and government authorities. The Telegraph of London reported in 2016 that a former partner accused Kolomoisky during a heated lawsuit of threatening him and attempting to have him killed through a murder-for-hire plot in which the hitmen were later themselves killed — a claim Kolomoisky strenuously denied.

Laber, one of the two Miami businessman named in the federal complaint, donated $2,500 to Mucarsel-Powell’s 2018 campaign. Korf donated $50 in June 2020 to WinRed, the Republican Party’s online fundraising tool.

Miami Herald reporters Jay Weaver and Erin Doherty contributed to this report.

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