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There is life after being one of Russia’s top crime fighters — and it can be very good.
Anatoly Petukhov gave up Moscow’s icy winters for the warm embrace of South Florida, where he’s amassed a $38 million portfolio of condos, office buildings and prime development sites, not to mention a 31-foot powerboat. Petukhov is part of a wave of wealthy Russian businessmen and officials washing up in Miami. The local real estate industry — always happy to take cash with few questions asked — has welcomed him since he arrived in 2010.
So how did Petukhov make his fortune?
The retired policeman, 59, refused repeated interview requests. His biography suggests he may have good reason for avoiding the spotlight: Petukhov served as a general in an elite law-enforcement dedicated to fighting organized crime. The unit was so corrupt — “the most criminalized structure within the police,” according to Louise Shelley, a professor at George Mason University — that it was eventually reorganized and shut down after a scandal involving its top official.
“They thought it was beyond reform,” said Shelley, director of the university’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. “That tells you how bad things were. This almost never happens [in Russia].”
And Petukhov, the unit’s chief deputy, was in the middle of its graft, according to a dramatic lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade circuit court in 2013.
In court filings, shareholders of a chain of Moscow department stores described Petukhov as a ruthless gangster muscling in on a private company to extort millions of dollars between 1999 and 2013. The civil suit accused Petukhov, then a high-ranking police official, of shaking down the investors for cash and stock in exchange for protection from criminals. Petukhov would later use those stolen funds to buy South Florida properties, according to the suit.
A judge sealed the original complaint, meaning the details of the allegations leveled against Petukhov are impossible to know. But documents that remain publicly available in the court docket provide a general overview of the dispute.
In one filing, the company, Yasenovo United Trading House, said Petukhov had “intimidated” its shareholders into naming him a director and claimed he “extorted” $16.8 million. Petukhov was also accused of threatening “violence” against the company’s chairman, Pavel Gornostaev, should he fail to withdraw a criminal complaint in Russia. The alleged threat happened during a meeting in Florida, according to the filing.
Petukhov’s attorneys responded that the allegations were false, as well as “scandalous and impertinent.” They also submitted a written statement from another Yasenovo shareholder, Sergey Kisilev, who said the company did not authorize the Florida lawsuit and that the allegations were the result of a financial conflict between Gornostaev and Petukhov, formerly hunting buddies who vacationed together with their families.
“[Gornostaev] persuaded me that since 2002 the company was illegally paying [Petukhov] cash funds for protectorship,” Kisilev wrote. “However, in fact I have never witnessed and cannot confirm that. … [Petukhov] has never threatened me or extorted the company.”
The suit asked a Miami-Dade judge to award Yasenovo more than $50 million in damages and fees and to place Petukhov’s South Florida properties into a trust.
The next year, the parties settled — agreeing not to sue each other again in any court over the issues raised in the case — and the allegations were formally withdrawn, court records show. A judge agreed to strike the complaint and related filings from the docket to prevent “any damage to the reputation of the parties,” leaving the public no way to view their explosive content.
A prominent litigator consulted by the Herald said the sealing of the documents by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Thornton was highly unusual.
“This is a very rarely used judicial rule,” said Stuart Grossman, a Coral Gables attorney. “There must be something between the two parties that caused [Thornton] to believe something bad was going to happen if the records were unsealed.”
Normally, complaints are left open to the public, even if the case has been dropped. Sealing them is akin to trying to stuff a genie back into the bottle.
Six months after the case was settled, Yasenovo sold its Moscow department stores — valued at as much as $160 million — in a private transaction. Petukhov was listed as owning a 25 percent stake before the sale, according to Russian newspaper Vedomosti. In a public filing, a company controlled by Petukhov in the offshore tax haven of Cyprus reported making $3.6 million from sale of Yasenovo stock. It’s not clear how much more he profited.
Attorneys for both sides declined to comment. Gornostaev, who owns a $1 million condo in Sunny Isles Beach, could not be reached. Petukhov did not respond to phone calls, emails and letters.
“He is not interested in talking to you,” said an assistant at his property management firm, headquartered in a four-story building that he owns on Biscayne Boulevard north of Miami.
Although Gornostaev’s allegations were withdrawn, they are similar to the account of an executive at an American telecom firm doing business in Russia during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
When Russian mobsters shook down the company for protection money, it contacted Petukhov and the police. Petukhov got the gangsters to back off — before turning around and demanding almost the same amount of cash, about $5,000, as a “reasonable monthly consulting fee,” said the executive, who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity because he still does business in the region.
The policeman also had a unique quirk: pointing out things in the office — like a souvenir painting hanging on the wall — and asking for them as gifts.
“Every time he visited us, he would walk away with something,” recalled the executive, who came to believe Petukhov was colluding with the same people extorting money from the firm. The incident was never reported to authorities. In post-Soviet Russia, companies knew they needed krysha, criminal slang for “roof,” or protection, one way or another. It was the cost of doing business.
A mountain of cash
Petukhov and his wife, Yulia, put down roots in South Florida after moving into their $3 million unit at the Continuum, one of South Beach’s most exclusive towers.
Their children now attend a top Miami private school. Petukhov’s real estate management firm, Asko, Inc., owns properties ranging from his spacious condo to retail space in an aging Hallandale Beach tower to a glass-and-steel Fort Lauderdale office building. He’s also building an eight-bedroom mansion on a swanky Beach isle.
Over the past decade, Russian bigwigs have flocked to South Florida, particularly Fisher Island and Sunny Isles Beach. Their ranks include titans of industry, intelligence operatives and politicians. Many are drawn by Miami’s tropical climate and home prices far lower than London or Manhattan. And for those who grew up in the Soviet Union, Miami — the capital of sex and cocaine — remains an aspiring capitalist’s dream. But big money brings big trouble. The FBI runs a team out of South Florida focusing on Eurasian organized crime. The bureau has said the Russian mob, with its skill in cyber crime, poses a bigger threat than la cosa nostra.
Members of South Florida’s Russian community said they’d never heard of Petukhov, who pulled off all but one of his deals without bank financing.
“This man is a ghost,” said one well-connected expatriate.
A former cop with the Midas touch hardly shocks Russian insiders.
“It’s typical for an anti-corruption official,” said Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1991 to 1996 and a frequent critic of President Vladimir Putin who now lives in South Florida.
In the 1990s, Petukhov served as deputy chief of an interior ministry task-force called the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, eventually rising to the rank of police major general.
But in newly democratic Russia, “agencies tasked with policing corruption and economic crime [too often] ended up extorting the gangsters,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian crime at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
The anti-organized crime unit would extort money from the people it was investigating, often with a promise not to bring charges, according to Shelley of George Mason University. Junior officers were expected to funnel some of their illicit earnings up the ladder, she said. Those in the highest positions like Petukhov sat at the top of the pyramid. He was not charged with a crime.
The unit’s commander, Lieut. Gen. Alexander Orlov, used his post to extort vast sums from oligarchs and gangsters in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Another national daily called Orlov a “dark prince of Russia’s Interior Ministry … legendary for his omnipotence and lawlessness.” He fled the country and is said to have surfaced in Turkey, Israel, Thailand and Fort Lauderdale.
Petukhov left the police to work in the interior ministry’s in-house think tank. It’s not clear from Russian media accounts and public records when he retired from active service.
In Russia, too, Petukhov flew under the radar.
He was occasionally quoted in the news media discussing government attempts to crack down on criminal enterprises. The newspaper Kommersant described him in 1999 as a “hawk” who specialized in investigating the money trail of Russia’s powerful organized-crime outfits.
After Petukhov left law enforcement, a Russian opposition party, Yabloko, criticized him over a scandal involving a mansion he owned. Yabloko said a local politician had illegally given Petukhov property inside a Moscow nature preserve. In 2009, a court agreed, ruling the land should be given back. (When Yabloko officials visited the preserve again in 2013, the mansion was still standing.)
In 2010, Petukhov landed in South Florida, paying cash for the 2,500-square-foot condo at the Continuum.
His portfolio grew quickly. Through his firm, he spent $13.6 million on three office buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward, $4.5 million on a strip mall in Fort Lauderdale and $1.5 million for seven storefronts on the ground-floor of a Hallandale Beach condo.
For one of those office buildings, a modest glass complex in Hallandale Beach, Petukhov’s company received a $2.1 million loan from fast-growing Stonegate Bank, which made headlines for providing financial services in Cuba.
While the loan was set to last 10 years, Petukhov paid back the Pompano Beach-based bank in just two, county records show.
Financial institutions are required to do extra vetting of customers who served in government. Asked if Stonegate was aware of Petukhov’s law-enforcement career, a spokeswoman declined to comment, citing bank privacy laws.
Homes on Hibiscus
Petukhov’s biggest-ticket deals were two homes on Hibiscus Island he bought for a total of $14.9 million. The transactions were notable enough to win coverage on a real estate blog. The Real Deal reported that Petukhov listed one of the homes for rent at $40,000 per month. The other he tore down to start construction of a mansion that will be listed for $17 million.
Irina Polisky, a Hallandale Beach Realtor who handles Petukhov’s property deals and was named as a defendant in the sealed lawsuit, refused interview requests. “We do not talk to the media,” she said.
Thanks to a powerful lobbying effort, the real estate industry is largely exempt from the “know-your-client” rules imposed on many businesses susceptible to money laundering. Federal law enforcement officials have urged regulators to start chipping away at that special treatment. In a ground-breaking push to sniff out suspicious home deals, the U.S. Treasury Department singled out cash sales in Manhattan and Miami-Dade County for special scrutiny in 2016. The effort could eventually be made permanent and expanded nationwide.
Julian Johnston, listing agent for the Hibiscus Island home, told the Herald he had no clue Petukhov was a general in his homeland. Johnston described him as “a really nice family man.”
“I don’t really talk to my clients about their backgrounds,” Johnston said, “unless they offer to tell me.”
Lily Dobrovolskaya, a freelance journalist who also works for the Russian chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, reported from Moscow. Transparency International – Russia obtained some of the documents used in this story and provided them to the Miami Herald.