Michael Caputo, a former senior aide to Donald Trump, who spent decades working in Russia and former Soviet states, failed to disclose a lavish painting gifted to him by a Ukrainian lobbying group in 2020.
The review of Caputo’s lobbying comes after a recent report from the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election which revealed that Russian intelligence assets “helped produce” a documentary created by Caputo and aired on One America News Network (OANN) in January 2020.
The documentary, entitled, “The Ukraine Hoax: Impeachment, Biden Cash, and Mass Murder” spread numerous unfounded theories about the uprising in Ukraine in 2014 that ousted the pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, as well as Hunter and Joe Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.
According to ODNI, Konstantin Kilimnik and Andriy Derkach, both of whom are suspected of working for Russian intelligence, worked on the documentary.
The failure to report his gift to the Justice Department – likely worth thousands of dollars – coupled with the fact that he was paid just $1 for his lobbying efforts, has raised numerous questions about the true purpose of Caputo’s work given his concurrent work with Russian spies.
The revelations that Caputo worked with Kilimnik and Derkach in an attempt to smear the Biden candidacy puts into new light his lobbying for an opaque Ukrainian NGO which has its own ties to Derkach. The $1 contract between Caputo and Kateryna Odarchenko, the leader of The Republic of Ukraine’s Institute for Democracy and Development (PolitA), was filed with the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agent Registry on the same day that the Caputo documentary was announced by OANN.
Caputo registered as a foreign agent for Odarchenko and PolitA in January 2020, affirming that he would “render government and public affairs to the principal, Kateryna Odarchenko, on a daily basis” for a total of $1.
A further filing by Caputo indicated that he would help organize “a working visit of a delegation of 10-15 Ukrainian political campaign professionals in Washington DC by arranging meetings with US Congressmen and Senators, representatives of the Trump Administration, media, and leaders of democratic development non-government organizations.”
PolitA’s announcement of the meetings included a list of “partners” of the NGO, with a few notable, troubling inclusions. Included in the list of partners is “Good Morning, Country” — a television program on Andriy Derkach’s Era-Media. In January 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Era-Media by stating that the network is a “media front [company] in Ukraine that push[es] false narratives at Derkach’s behest. Derkach has been the de facto owner of Era-Media-related companies since the 1990s.” The Treasury Department dubbed Derkach, “an agent of the Russian intelligence services.”
After her trip to the United States, Odarchenko appeared on Derkach’s Era-Media to discuss her meetings with Caputo and other U.S. officials, invoking George Soros as a negative influence on Ukrainian politics.
The Ukrainian delegation meeting with Michael Caputo in March 2020. Caputo’s book about alleged corruption in Ukraine, with Joe and Hunter Biden on the cover, is visible.
Also on PolitA’s list of partners were Znaj.ua and Politeka, Ukrainian news aggregators reportedly connected to Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk. Facebook had previously deleted Znaj and Politeka’s pages for what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and analysis by the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council found that Znaj and Politeka “ran a series of inauthentic Facebook pages to amplify external links to their own content and build their national audience,” in part focusing on attacking Ukrainian politicians.
Alexander Lemenov, an anti-corruption activist and law enforcement expert in Ukraine, wrote in 2020 that Odarchenko told him that she presented information on Biden to Caputo during their meetings. Contacted by Forensic News, Lemenov confirmed that this was the case and that Odarchenko represented to Caputo that she had information on potential criminal cases against the Biden family being pushed by Russian intelligence.
Odarchenko’s ally, Iryna Vednikova, was slated to attend the meetings with Caputo in Washington D.C., according to the FARA paperwork, but ended up not attending. Days after the Ukrainian delegation returned from the U.S., Vednikova was announced as Ukraine’s prosecutor general and soon after announced that she would seek investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden.
Near the end of the term of her contract with Caputo on March 9th, Odarchenko gifted the Trump aide a painting by famed Ukrainian artist Vladimir Kozyuk.
Odarchenko posted the gift on social media, including on her Instagram account. “Little gift for Trump’s adviser Michael Caputo for Ukrainian delegation,” she wrote. In a message to Forensic News, Odarchenko confirmed that she gave the painting to Caputo.
In Caputo’s filings with the Department of Justice just three weeks after receiving the painting, however, he denied that he received anything of value from Odarchenko apart from the $1 contractual agreement.
Though the exact value of the painting cannot be determined, Kozyuk’s pieces of art regularly sell for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. A review of an art gallery featuring Kozyuk’s pieces shows that his paintings retail for anywhere from $2,000 to approximately $50,000.
The unusual $1 payment coupled with the undeclared gift has raised serious legal questions in the minds of FARA experts.
Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, told Forensic News that while pro bono representation within FARA is not unprecedented, this case stands out.
“I have come across instances where nonprofits or other foreign principals may be represented pro bono but in those cases, there are generally no fees paid at all and the only money changing hands is usually to cover expenses and the like,” Massoglia said.
“Knowing something of value changed hands without being disclosed puts the small fee noted in the registration materials into a new light. The statutes forms are pretty explicit about what things of value need to be reported, which include gifts given in connection with activities on behalf of any foreign principal.”
Though she had not seen cases specific to art, Massoglia was clear that such a gift would need to be disclosed: “The painting seems like it would pretty clearly fit the disclosure requirements for a thing of value.“
Ben Freeman, the Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, echoed Massoglia’s sentiments.
“It’s not unheard of to have low dollar or even pro-bono FARA contracts. But, this is different because he appears to have not disclosed the payment. FARA effectively has a ‘or anything of value’ approach to payments like the FEC, so this would certainly qualify,” he said.
The assertion that a painting would qualify under the “thing of value” rule is affirmed in a 1982 Federal Election Committee legal opinion which said, “the Commission concludes that a foreign national artist would be prohibited…from donating his uncompensated volunteer services to the Committee to create an original work of art.”
Though that statute applies to election-related donations, FEC Chairman Ellen Weintraub explained in 2019, citing the Second Circuit, that a “thing of value” is a term of art across criminal statutes, not unique to campaign finance. She cited examples of a gold coin, a boat, a mailing list, and the production elements for an event, among others, as “things of value” in past criminal cases.
Michael Caputo’s Work with Russian Spies and Cutouts
The ODNI report stated that “Putin had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach… [who] has ties to Russian officials as well as Russia’s intelligence services.” A Senate Intelligence Committee report from 2020 detailing interference in the 2016 campaign stated plainly, “Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer.”
On Twitter, Kilimnik used his burner account, as revealed in the Senate Intelligence Committee report, to promote the documentary numerous times. “The world deserves to know the truth,” the Russian intelligence officer said.
One person interviewed for the documentary was Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the former Head of the Security Service of Ukraine. Nalyvaichenko has pushed for investigations into Hunter Biden’s dealings with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, as well as unfounded allegations that Ukrainian officials interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In December 2018, Nalyvaichenko’s “Justice” political party used a Polish shell company to pay lobbyist Michael Esposito $400,000. The payment was ostensibly for meetings with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. However, the meeting requests were declined according to a FARA filing.
Then in October 2019, Nalyvaichenko published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal reiterating his calls for investigations in the Bidens and the 2016 presidential election before appearing as a main figure in Caputo’s documentary.
It is also unclear how Caputo’s documentary and related travel expenses were funded. The production company listed during the documentary’s credits is named Surfside Productions LLC. According to corporate records, Surfside was incorporated in Wyoming but lists a postal box in Surfside, Fla. as its address. The postal box is just ten minutes away from Trump Towers II in Sunny Isles, Fla., where Caputo’s company Zeppelin Communications is registered.
Additionally, Surfside was incorporated on Jan. 10, 2020, just two weeks before the documentary aired. In an interview with One America News to promote the documentary, Caputo acknowledged that he flew to Ukraine in August 2019 to shoot the film. The timing of these events suggest that Surfside had little role in helping to produce the documentary.
Contacted by Forensic News, the Secretary of State office for Wyoming said that they had received no inquiries from law enforcement, or anyone else for that matter, regarding the shell company.
The $1 payment, the undeclared “thing of value” received from a foreign national, and the work with Russian assets raises numerous legal red flags about Michael Caputo’s unusual lobbying efforts.