A billion-dollar recruiting firm incorporated in Delaware wired payments to a relative and business partner of a senior Russian government official in 2013 and 2014, Forensic News can reveal after a review of leaked banking documents.
Those documents, interviews with sources who worked for the company, and other business and corporate records, reveal that the freelancer platform Toptal has deep connections to Russian government-affiliated individuals and entities.
There was little information available about the Russian executive paid by Toptal, Philip Cheglakov, only that he received three incoming wires labeled “gift” from Toptal. However, in the years following the payments, it was revealed that Cheglakov was in business with Andrey Cheglakov, a relative and then-senior official at the Russian state telecoms company Rostelecom.
Bank investigators found the payments to Cheglakov to be unusual for several reasons, including, “wire payments appear to indicate our client Toptal LLC is operating out of a hotel in Moscow, Russia.”
Forensic News believes in transparency in the journalism process. Go behind-the-scenes to see how this story was created with the Stone video bibliography:
Toptal was founded in 2010 by Taso Du Val, a freelance software developer, and fellow developer Breandan E. Beneschott. According to a 2019 profile published in The Information, annual revenue exceeds $200 million a year. Du Val, as well as an independent financial analyst who spoke with Forensic News, believes the company is worth approximately $1 billion dollars.
Toptal LLC is incorporated in Delaware, but the firm has no headquarters and no offices, with its roughly 600 employees spread out over 70 countries. Freelance developers, numbering thousands more, are similarly spread out all over the world – from Ukraine to Russia, to Brazil. Toptal, which stands for “Top Talent”, connects those developers with prospective clients.
The Information profile, which Forensic News confirmed with company sources and a review of contracts, revealed a highly unusual financial arrangement. Initially, Toptal took funding from venture capitalists like Andreesen Horowitz and Adam DeAngelo, promising shares in the company once they took a second round of outside funding. After Toptal became successful, Du Val declared that the company did not need more outside funding, leaving investors and early employees empty-handed.
To date, Du Val is listed as the sole manager, detailed below, on Toptal’s LLC filings.
The Suspicious Activity Report on Toptal
In the first quarter of 2014, Bank of America analysts drafted and sent to the Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Unit a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) on Toptal LLC. The bank noted that — among other unusual activities —Toptal sent three “smaller rounded dollar” payments to Cheglakov.
“It is unclear why our client is paying what appears to be ‘gifts’ to the CEO of a Russian business nor why the wire payments do not include any clear purpose for payment nor any address information for the beneficiary or beneficiary bank.”
The SAR contains little else about Cheglakov besides the fact that he was the CEO of a Russian IT firm called Distributed Digital Clouds. Investigators did not note that Distributed Digital Clouds was owned by a Cyprus company, which in turn was beneficially owned by Andrey Cheglakov, the then-senior Rostelecom official, according to Russian media. That association wasn’t publicly known until a late 2014 Russian media report.
In 2016, Andrey Cheglakov made headlines when details emerged that he was indirectly financing the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar – a gathering of the world’s top intelligence professionals.
In 2017, it was revealed that Philip Cheglakov became the CEO of another company called “MTV Holdings”, which was largely owned by Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi intelligence officer and close associate of Vladimir Putin. Thomas Martin Hendel, former head of the Russian Germany Energy Agency (RGEA), and Vasily Tsuprik, an ex-Army investigator and top manager at state-owned Russian holding conglomerate Rostec, were also shareholders.
The relationship between the younger Cheglakov and Toptal dates back to at least 2012 when Cheglakov tagged himself on Facebook with Toptal founder Taso Du Val at various locations in Moscow.
Forensic News contacted Cheglakov asking about the payments from Toptal, but he did not reply.
Also flagged by Bank of America was the debit address listed for Toptal.
“the ‘debit party detail’ includes an address of Tverskaya Street # 3′ which internet research shows as the location of the Ritz-Carlton. Moscow…The wire payments appear to indicate our client Toptal LLC is operating out of a hotel in Moscow. Russia.”
According to the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence’s report (p. 661-662) into “Russian Active Measures,” referencing former President Donald Trump’s travels to Russia, at least one intelligence officer was “permanently stationed” at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow in 2013,
“According to two former employees of the Ritz Carlton Moscow, in 2013 there was at least one [REDACTED] officer permanently stationed at the hotel. This non-uniformed (REDACTED) officer was believed to be a (REDACTED) and had access to the hotel’s property management system, guest portfolios and notations, as well as the network of hundreds of security cameras at the hotel.”
There is no explanation given about why wire transfers from a recruiting platform incorporated in Delaware would be originating from a Moscow hotel.
SARs are written by bank investigators. They are not evidence of a crime. Financial institutions are required by law to submit suspicious activity to FinCEN, and there is no evidence that FinCEN ever followed up on the reports.
There are many other instances of Toptal’s links to Russian government-connected individuals and entities.
The Woman Who Kissed Putin and a Powerful Kremlin-Connected Rabbi
Maria Drokova’s life story is one filled with many twists and turns and has been previously examined by investigative journalist, Seth Hettena.
Drokova first came to the public’s attention as a 16-year-old, after she was filmed kissing Vladimir Putin on the cheek after becoming a leader in a Kremlin youth movement. At the age of 19, she was awarded a Russian state medal but soon left Russia for the U.S., where she branded herself as a PR expert and later began her own venture capital fund.
Among her earliest contacts is Konstantin Rykov, a known Kremlin propagandist, whom she worked for at Russia.ru as a young adult.
Rykov, according to the Senate investigation into Russian Active Measures, “has played a significant role in the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic influence efforts.”
A search of Twitter shows that Drokova and Rykov communicated hundreds of times from 2010 to 2014.
The Putin youth-leader turned Silicon Valley darling counted Toptal and Taso Du Val amongst her clients in America.
In a 2019 interview, Drokova named Du Val as one of the people she is most thankful for in her career. “Dave Waiser from Gett, Taso Du Val from Toptal, and Houzz and HotelTonight teams been incredible to my growth,” she said.
Drokova appears on a 2015 press release for Toptal, and records show that she was issued a company email address. From at least October 2015 to May 2016, Drokova promoted Toptal on her personal social media accounts.
Drokova did not offer comment after being reached via email.
Her earliest known work for Toptal in the summer of 2015 coincided with a Jewish Chabad rabbi named Avraham Berkowitz joining the Toptal team.
Have you worked at Toptal? We are interested in hearing from you. You can contact Scott Stedman securely on Signal at +1 6572176295 or email ForensicNews@protonmail.com
Berkowitz, according to multiple sources who asked to remain anonymous due to the potential impact on their careers, is a man with numerous connections in the Russian business and political arenas. Two years after graduating from a small private Chabad college in Morristown, New Jersey, Berkowitz was thrust into the powerful position of CEO of the Israeli-Uzbek diamond oligarch Lev Leviev’s Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS.
In this position of seniority in the Chabad movement, Berkowitz worked closely with Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar, another Putin-insider.
“During Berkowitz’s tenure, the federation cultivated close ties with the Russian government,” the Jerusalem Post wrote, “and became the dominant force in establishing Jewish communities in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union.”
One source, who has met Berkowitz multiple times, described him as someone who, “wants to have a prayer and discuss business simultaneously.”
A different source familiar with Berkowitz’s activities in Russia told Forensic News that he has long had access to a trio of powerful oligarchs, including Viktor Vekselberg, Roman Abramovich, and Len Blavatnik, all of whom are large donors to various Jewish causes.
Another institution where Berkowitz, Drokova, and Vekselberg all have ties is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In 2010, Vekselberg, a powerful Russian billionaire and close ally of Vladimir Putin, was appointed co-chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, a nonprofit tech school organized by the Russian government.
Considered a way to strengthen cooperation between Russia and the West, Skolkovo was later singled out by the FBI in 2014 as a potential, “means for the Russian government to access our nation’s sensitive or classified research, development facilities and dual-use technologies with military and commercial applications.”
Days after Vekselberg was appointed to lead the foundation, Skolkovo and MIT signed an agreement “to evaluate options for collaboration in education and research in Russia.” Vekselberg proclaimed, “[n]ever before has Russia been so open to international advice and cooperation.”
News of the growing MIT-Skolkovo partnership was shared on Twitter by a then-20-year-old TV producer, Masha Drokova. Drokova continued to promote MIT and Skolkovo on social media dozens of times in the following years.
In 2012, a 26-year-old Silicon Valley CEO named Taso Du Val made an appearance at a small Skolkovo entrepreneurial club meeting and spoke of “starting his business in Russia, and [how] he had managed to cope with the local shortcomings using his Valley connections.”
Du Val has also attended other Russian government-connected business events, including the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, as seen below:
“Russia really does have that top 1-2%… If it was my choice – which we have made that choice – we would choose Russia and we will continue to do so.”
Berkowitz, who personally knows Vekselberg, according to sources, lists the MIT Media Lab as an employer from 2016 to 2021 and, like Drokova, has promoted MIT events on Facebook and Twitter.
MIT began to quietly decouple itself from Vekselberg and Skolkovo after sanctions were levied against the oligarch in 2018.
At Toptal, Berkowitz introduced Du Val to global business leaders, and philanthropists, according to two former employees. One of the employees said that Berkowitz acted as Du Val’s “mentor,” and both of the former employees who knew both men said that Du Val appeared to be following Berkowitz’ lead.
“Berkowitz was in the business of connecting people,” said one of the former Toptal executives, who confirmed that Berkowitz was paid for his work as Du Val’s senior advisor.
Berkowitz did not reply to an email requesting a comment.
Du Val still lives in Moscow, according to his Facebook page. Neither he nor the press contact for Toptal responded to multiple requests for comment about their relationship with Russia.
[give_form id=”10571″ show_title=”false” show_goal=”false” display_style=”onpage”]