A former Russian government official—and business partner of Donald Trump’s—is gaining new notoriety, as the federal investigation into alleged election meddling widens.
Meanwhile, this Kazakh-born real estate mogul, Tevfik Arif, is doing his best to clean up his past, trying to purge the web of references to his arrest in an underage prostitution bust. He was later acquitted in the matter.
Arif, a former Soviet trade minister whose company once prospected for the Trump Organization in Russia and Eastern Europe, has demanded the removal of allegedly defamatory information about that arrest from websites that have investigated or recapped controversies involving some of President Donald Trump’s past business associates.
Some of those associates are now of keen interest to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators probing Russian influence in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s knowledge of it. According to a Thursday report from Bloomberg, Mueller is examining the finances of a Trump project involving the investment firm Arif founded.
Trump partnered with that investment firm, the Bayrock Group, in the mid-2000s and they eventually collaborated on at least four projects in Florida, New York, and Arizona. Bayrock also scouted potential Trump deals in Russia, Trump said in a 2007 deposition, including a real estate deal in Moscow that eventually fell through.
Bloomberg’s report comes just a few months after Arif’s former colleague—a Russian real estate investor who for years served as an FBI informant and once worked out of an office Trump Tower—threatened to reveal information about Arif that would expose unseemly details of his relationship with Trump.
That former business partner, violent felon Felix Sater, worked with Trump attorney Michael Cohen during the early stages of the Trump administration to devise a plan to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Through Bayrock, Sater and Arif helped finance the Trump SoHo Hotel under a licensing deal with the president’s company. The firm “was a key source of capital for [other] Trump development projects,” Bloomberg noted. Arif’s ties to Trump have drawn scrutiny from reporters examining the president’s decades-long business career, and his ties to Bayrock in particular.
Many of their reports have noted one scandalous detail in Arif’s recent past: in 2010, he was arrested in a Turkish prostitution sting. Authorities busted him aboard the world’s largest luxury yacht and accused him of linking up wealthy businessman with Russian and Ukrainian hookers, some of them underage. Charges against Arif were later dropped.
Since last year, he has sought through Turkish courts to block internet access to dozens of news stories that recap his role in the controversy, many of them in the context of his business relationship with Trump. The news organizations targeted include the Huffington Post, New York magazine, the New York Daily News, and The Daily Beast. Stories on those websites, and others targeted in a Turkish court order from March, are no longer accessible to internet browsers using Turkish IP addresses. Many of those stories prominently note Arif’s eventual acquittal.
Not content with confining those efforts to the availability of those stories in Turkey, Arif has recently sought to remove allegedly defamatory content from the internet altogether.
Since May, he has sent four takedown requests to Google and one to Automattic, the owner of popular web publishing platform Wordpress, demanding that they remove content from websites hosted by their respective companies that Arif claims is defamatory. Each complaint contained documents from Turkish court orders requiring the removal of similar web content. The takedown requests were first reported by the blog Shooting the Messenger.
A January 2016 post on one of the Wordpress-hosted websites at issue claims that Arif was “charged with smuggling underage girls into the country for prostitution” and “accused of being the organizer of an international ring involving young girls.” It does not note that the charges were dropped.
Automattic partially complied with the request and blocked access to the website in Turkey, the company told The Daily Beast. Paul Sieminski, Automattic’s general counsel, said it risked the country’s government blocking access to all Wordpress-hosted sites if it failed to comply.
“This is not a decision we take lightly, but in our experience, failing to comply with a court order of this kind results in the blocking of all of WordPress.com, in Turkey—which removes the site in question, plus the millions of other sites that we host,” Sieminski wrote in an emailed statement.
Google did not respond to requests for comment on the takedown notices, though the websites listed in Arif’s complaint are still accessible from a US IP address. Efforts to reach Arif were unsuccessful, and Bayrock did not respond to questions.
Defamation laws in Turkey are far more restrictive than those of the United States—unlike American libel laws, truth is not a defense in itself under Turkish defamation standards—and the Turkish government has recently stepped up efforts to censor online information that displeases the government and other powerful individuals.
That makes Turkey a particularly inhospitable place for the freedom of information online, according to Automattic, which says it has even received a number of takedown notices demanding the removal of information about the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The sites that Arif demanded be removed are still available in the US, meaning American readers looking for information on Arif’s ties to Trump will still be able to find the information targeted in Turkey.
There’s no indication that Arif’s complaints were designed to shield any information pertaining to Trump directly. But developments in an ongoing legal dispute between Sater and Arif suggest that there could be additional information about Arif’s relationship with the president that has yet to come to light.
“Clearly, if this matter between Mr. Sater and Mr. Arif escalates to public litigation, the media spotlight will be negatively cast on Mr. Arif and his past relationship with President Trump and the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Sater’s attorney wrote in April.
Sater has been at the center of allegations that Bayrock had engaged in fraudulent stock schemes at the behest of organized crime syndicates. He turned states’ evidence years earlier and provided federal authorities with a wealth of information on alleged mob activities at another firm.
And Sater himself has ties to Trump’s businesses. For years, the Washington Post reported last year, he worked out of a Trump Tower office two floors below the president’s, and burnished Trump Organization business cards. Trump and his attorneys have said he has no recollection of working with Sater, but have not disputed his apparently prominent role in scouting real estate deals for the company..
Trump partnered with Bayrock in the mid-2000s and they eventually collaborated on at least four projects in Florida, New York, and Arizona, including the Trump SoHo Hotel. Bayrock also scouted potential Trump projects in Russia, Trump said in a 2007 deposition, including a real estate deal in Moscow that eventually fell through.
That deal was arranged by Sater, who, it was revealed years later, had been an informant helping federal authorities investigate alleged organized crime involvement in financial “pump and dump” schemes. Bayrock has faced similar allegations: two former executives engaged in a long running legal battle with the firm have alleged that Bayrock was "substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated." Attorneys for Arif, Sater, and Bayrock deny it engaged in any criminal activity.
Trump’s Bayrock ties were therefore of particular interest to journalists and amateur online investigators probing the then-candidate’s decades-long business career during the 2016 presidential campaign. Sites that linked Trump’s business arrangement with Bayrock to Arif’s 2010 arrest are now among those that he is demanding be taken down.
With the FBI looking into the Trump family’s finances with a particular interest in their work with Bayrock, that relationship threatens to come to the fore once again.
But those following along from Turkey might be short on reference material.