A new report about convicted felon Paul Manafort’s work in Central Asia offers a chance to dive into why former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole decided to take a position on the board of the most controversial bank in the region, linked to dictators and grand corruption alike.
The short answer? Money.
Last week, the Russian media outlet Project revealed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, now a convicted felon, had attempted to kick the American military out of the U.S.’s final Central Asian military base, located in Kyrgyzstan.
Since then, former Kyrgyzstani officials have denied that they’d ever heard of Manafort’s reported work in the country, and those close to Kyrgyzstan’s former Bakiyev regime — which was overthrown in bloody protests in 2010 — have also said they had no recollection of Manafort in Kyrgyzstan.
Nonetheless, the report offers a chance to re-examine a mystery that has long clouded U.S. relations with Kyrgyzstan — specifically, ties between former American officials and the most notoriously crooked bank in Central Asia, AsiaUniversalBank (AUB).
The bank, which was the focus of a substantial 2012 report from transparency watchdog Global Witness on how Western countries enable kleptocratic regimes, stood at the heart of the Bakiyev regime’s last-ditch moves to loot Kyrgyzstan’s coffers before protesters toppled their regime eight years ago. (The bank also happened to be linked to one of the Belize-based shell companies also tied to Manafort.)
As Global Witness’ investigation found, companies with accounts at AUB maintained “significant indicators that suggest money laundering: hundreds of millions of dollars seemed to be moving through their accounts while they were not engaged in any real business activity.” One company even apparently used a dead Russian to mask the identity of someone passing $700 million through the company’s AUB account.
— Casey Michel 🇰🇿 (@cjcmichel) August 26, 2018
AUB’s success came despite the Russia Central Bank’s 2006 warning against doing business with AUB. The key to overcoming allegations of financial impropriety? Installing former American officials — specifically onetime GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, as well as former senator J. Bennett Johnston — on its board.
While Dole’s involvement with the bank didn’t generate much coverage in the United States, it played a seminal role in revealing just how easily supposedly pro-democracy American officials could be bought. As one former Kyrgyz official told ThinkProgress about Dole, “I remember being disgusted by how cheap U.S. politicians [were] on sale.”
For years, it’s been a mystery how and why Dole ended up joining AUB’s board. Not anymore. ThinkProgress spoke with Eugene Gourevitch, one of the key players in AUB’s operations, about Dole’s role with the bank. Described by Bloomberg as a “finance whiz” — and identified by Foreign Affairs as Kyrgyzstan’s “premier financier” — Gourevitch, an American citizen, was sentenced in 2014 on fraud charges stemming from his work in Kyrgyzstan.
Gourevitch — who was recently released from prison — described to ThinkProgress how Dole, who didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’s request for comment, first joined the bank’s board, how few questions Dole asked about the bank’s operations, and what that said about the state of affairs in Washington.
Let’s talk about how Bob Dole first joined the board of a bank like AUB, which so few in Washington had even heard of. How did he end up there?
The story about Dole was this: Back in 2006, the Russian Central Bank issued a letter basically instructing its client banks to suspend all operations with AUB because AUB was involved with an [illegal] imports scheme. The Western partners that AUB had, they came running to us saying, “We can’t possibly continue clearing your dollar and Euro transactions, because even though this is Russia, it just doesn’t look good on us to continue doing this.” We had a brainstorm and said, “Well, what is it we can do to sort of fight back against this?” One of the ideas that we had was to bring in, since we had U.S.-based shareholders, a U.S. consulting company to see if there was anything we can to do to sort of reassure Western partners.
I didn’t know how Washington worked, and that people are basically willing to sell their reputation to the highest bidder.
We brought in [U.S.-based PR firm] APCO Worldwide, and APCO Worldwide already had a reputation for taking on risque clients. We approached them, and their recommendation was, “Well, why don’t we get somebody on your board who’s really a heavyweight and who will sort of stand up and say that the bank is a squeaky clean institution and that it’s doing absolutely nothing wrong, etc., etc.” We asked who they could get, and they started throwing around names that we honestly thought there was no way they could get. My feeling was that there was absolutely no way any of these reputable people would ever get involved with a bank in a small country, and I certainly wouldn’t expect a former presidential candidate to even consider it.
But I didn’t know how Washington worked, and that people are basically willing to sell their reputation to the highest bidder, which we now keep seeing again and again and again.
What really surprised me, jumping ahead a bit, was how little understanding the senators and the professionals at APCO had about anything having to do with the banking business. And I like Dole — he’s obviously a war hero, and it’s not like I have anything personally negative to say about him. But there was this lack of even the most basic curiosity about what we do, even just as simple as asking, “How is this Central Asian bank able to generate the money to pay me what they pay me?”
Were there any other steps before hiring Dole? Any other steps to clean up AUB’s reputation before he signed on?
Well, APCO said that they couldn’t in good conscience recommend joining the AUB Board to their clients, and they need to get an audit or something, some kind of authority to come in and say, “You’re good.” We shopped around and said, “What if we bring in Kroll Associates and confirm that we have this amazing anti-money laundering system, that we’re doing absolutely everything by the book, that it’s a world-class institution, etc., etc.”
I feel like it’s a microcosm of the way world works: everyone pretends things are okay.
We just picked up the phone — this is the second thing that amazed me — and said we needed Kroll to come look at our compliance systems. And we didn’t say that they needed to confirm that we’re kosher and legitimate. It was understood that we weren’t going to be paying them these outrageous fees just to say we weren’t running a world-class, compliant operation. They came over and gave us a clean bill, but said that we really need to get a regular maintenance plan with them. It was a classic deal with the devil — they could give us a clean bill, and they would also keep getting paid.
I feel like it’s a microcosm of the way world works: everyone pretends things are okay. You have kind of this round-robin system, where APCO says everything is cool because Kroll says everything is cool, and Kroll says everything is cool because they hear no evil, see no evil. And Dole says that if APCO says it’s okay and Kroll says it’s okay, relying on these sort of white-shoe institutions to say they’re okay, they’re okay! And basically as soon as the senators joined the board, the amazing thing about it is it worked. As soon as we revealed that Dole and Johnston were on the board, all of these Western companies agreed to continue doing business with AUB.
So these companies get AUB a clean bill of health — even though that’s not really the case — and Dole says he’s fine with joining the bank’s board? What did they actually do at the bank? Did Dole ever ask how the bank could be so prosperous?
Dole’s and Johnston’s job was they had to show up in [Kyrgyzstan] once or twice a year, and we had to charter a private plane and bring their whole entourage there. We would also show up and have a board meeting in Washington once in a while, and come there, and we’d bring the financial reports and presentations, but that was all. And the senators would pat us on the back and congratulate us on doing a tremendous job, to keep doing it. It was all this fluff.
My expectation was Dole would say, “You guys are all fucking insane, how dare you even suggest this, don’t you know who I am.”
At first, there was just a sense of disbelief — when [they] brought up Dole’s name, our jaws universally dropped. We thought, like, maybe APCO can get some former junior congressman no one had heard of — but they said Dole would listen. But then they brought him in, and the guy didn’t ask any questions. My expectation was Dole would say, “You guys are all fucking insane, how dare you even suggest this, don’t you know who I am.” And then when I met him, and he looked at the presentation and was open to it, it was just a revelation. It was absolutely surreal.
With Dole, it was like if I was invited to join the board of an aerospace engineering firm. I could pretend to know what was going on, but I wouldn’t really. It was the same thing with Dole. He had no expertise in banking or Central Asia. In my opinion, he was there for the money.
Obviously, with the recent revelations about Manafort and Kyrgyzstan, the story with Dole and AUB has a new relevance. But you didn’t see Manafort during your time in Kyrgyzstan?
From the people I talked to who were pretty close to the Bakiyev administration, there is zero evidence that Manafort or [Manafort associate and alleged Russian intelligence asset Konstantin] Kilimnik were ever in Kyrgyzstan, so I don’t know where that story came from, or why it even became a thing, beyond why people are just looking for a new angle. I’ve seen no evidence about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.