As written in the article of Radio Svoboda
In the early 1990s, when Ukraine regained its independence and put an end to Soviet restrictions on religion, Mordechai Korf and Uriel Laber came to Ukraine as volunteers for a Jewish religious humanitarian mission.
When Korf, a freshman at the Rabbinical Institute, came to Ukraine in 1991, he was less than twenty. His friend Laber, whom he met at a Jewish religious school in Detroit, also arrived a few years later.
When they returned to the United States more than a ten years later, they ran, at least on paper, a commercial empire in Miami whose assets, from ferroalloy plants to specialty tires and real estate, together cost more than $ 1 billion.
Korf and Laber bought a lavish estate in Miami Beach. They made millions of dollars in charitable contributions to Jewish charitable foundations, earning a reputation as generous philanthropists.
The US Department of Justice accuses them of helping two Ukrainian oligarchs launder hundreds of millions of dollars in misappropriated funds taken from a Kyiv bank over a decade, which were then invested in dishonest assets in the United States, making a good profit in the process.
One of those oligarchs is one of the richest and most influential citizens of Ukraine, an entrepreneur who supported the promotion of the former comedian and TV actor to the presidency of Ukraine in 2019.
The man, Igor Kolomoisky, and his partner, Gennady Bogolyubov, deny the allegations and say the US asset management, which is now run by Korf and Laber, came from selling their steel business in Ukraine to a $ 2 billion competitor from Russia.
Neither these oligarchs nor Miami businessmen have been charged with criminal charges: the US Department of Justice's lawsuit, announced on August 6, is a civil case involving the confiscation of dishonestly earned funds. But the ministry said the investigation was ongoing.
Two days before the announcement of the US Department of Justice, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a search in the expensive office of Korf and Laber in Miami, from which they ran companies, the beneficial owners of which are Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov.
Korf and Laber, through their lawyer Mark Kasowitz, have denied the US government's allegations and say it is "an element of a coordinated political attack" on Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov by Privatbank shareholders.
Over the years, Korf and Laber rarely, if ever, mentioned the names of Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov in press releases published by various companies that had the common word Optima in their names. But their relationship began at least 20 years ago and covers a wide range of industries, from communications to oil and gas.
The growth of Korf and Laber as wealthy entrepreneurs began in the Dnieper, then Dnepropetrovsk, Kolomoisky's hometown, the fourth largest in Ukraine, a large industrial hub with a population of about 1 million.
Korf, whose formal education seems to have ended with the completion of a religious school in New York, was also among them.
By 1995, Korf and Laber had registered a company in Florida called Optima International of Miami.
And on a larger scale, Korf and Laber began buying shares in oil and gas companies during the privatization process that took place in Ukraine in the 1990s. For smart investors, this has become a way to gain control over large companies. And an industrial center like Dnipro had some of the most attractive assets in all of Ukraine.
It is unclear when Korf and Laber began cooperating with Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov, who consolidated significant stakes in Ukrainian energy companies in the 1990s.
The US Department of Justice said that Miami entrepreneurs sold a stake in Optima to Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov, but did not specify when it was, what was the volume of the stake and the amount of the deal. Korf and Laber declined to say when they sold the package.
In 2000, Korf and Laber had already dealt with the oligarchs on a variety of investments, including privatizations and acquisitions, according to a blog post on Seeking Alpha. Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov eventually appointed Laber to the supervisory board of Ukrnafta.
A 2002 book on Jewish communities in the diaspora quoted Laber as saying that he had introduced him to "Russian partners" — an obvious mention of Russian-speaking rabbis who arrived in the Dnieper in 1990, like Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov in eastern Ukraine. year.
Kolomoisky's characterization, which, as Laber recalls, was given to him by Kaminetsky, sharply disagrees with the opinion of those who see the oligarch as one of the most dangerous raiders of Ukrainian enterprises.
Kaminetsky's connections went far beyond the local Jewish community — he knew the city's most influential people. In 2008, a Ukrainian magazine named Kaminetsky one of 15 «influential foreigners» in Ukraine.
The battle for telecommunications
There is little open information about the various investments that Miami entrepreneurs have made with the oligarchs in Ukraine.
One such investment, in which Korf was involved in the early 2000s, concerned a Ukrainian communications company, for which he competed with Kolomoisky, the Kyiv Post reported in several articles.
During the fight for the Ukrainian radio systems mobile operator (it worked under the WellCOM brand), they reportedly ordered a group of Koreans to be physically evicted from the company's building to help run its business.
In 2010, two Ukrainian investors sued Korf in Florida, accusing him of stealing a 10 percent stake in the operator and transferring it to an offshore front company. The share was later resold to a major Russian telecom operator for $ 23 million.
The lawsuit eventually ended in failure: one of the investors later withdrew from it, and the other went to a settlement with Korf, according to court documents.
American steel and real estate
But the success that Miami entrepreneurs and oligarchs have achieved together in Ukraine has not matched their achievements in the United States, where they have faced bankruptcies, foreclosures and property losses in favor of creditors.
According to corporate registers, Korf and Laber had four major businesses: a specialized steel company, a ferroalloy holding company, a commercial real estate business, and a tire company for industrial and special equipment.
Their steel company, Optima Specialty Steel, owned seven production facilities in five states. It declared bankruptcy in 2016, resulting in the loss of approximately $ 200 million invested by Korf and its partners.
Warren Steel in Ohio closed forever in 2016. The Steel Rolling plant in Michigan did not operate most of the time they owned until they sold it in 2015, the media reported.
Another company, Georgian-American Alloys, has been under constant shutdown at two of its plants in the United States for several years. Its Kentucky unit is currently temporarily closed, and only one of the three production lines operates at the plant in West Virginia. The latter was unprofitable most of the time, according to its 2013 chief accountant.
Entrepreneurs have also invested in commercial real estate in various US cities through a company called Optima Ventures.
They paid $ 16 million for an empty shopping area in Illinois, but never found a client to rent it. Eight years later, they sold the property for $ 7 million cheaper, paying several million more in property taxes and utilities.
But Optima's real losses appear to have been exacerbated by other taxes and maintenance costs it has had to pay over the eight years, says Charles Eldridge, director of one of the economic development corporations in the region where the facility is located.
«It was clear from the beginning that they were speculators who thought they were buying real estate cheaply and then being able to resell it at a profit,« Eldridge told Radio Liberty. «But they didn't succeed.«
Another office building in Dallas, Texas has been without a tenant since 2016, and another house in Louisville, Kentucky, has lost many tenants after several banks merged.
Optima Ventures paid about $ 125 million for the two buildings, according to court documents. The US Department of Justice, which is seeking to confiscate the property, currently estimates it at only $ 70 million.
Meanwhile, the FBI, which is part of the US Department of Justice, said after its August 4 searches that its investigation was ongoing.