The National Republican Congressional Committee launched an attack ad earlier this month aimed at the Democratic candidate for Florida Congressional District 26, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Focused on alleged connections with Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the ad failed to mention that Republican candidate Carlos Curbelo is in no position to cast stones. Curbelo has kept the client list of his lobbying firm hidden from the public by putting the company in his wife’s name.
Who is Ihor Kolomoisky?
The NRCC political advertisement prominently features Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky (described as a “Ukranian shady militia leader”). It alleges that a Kolomoisky-owned busineses paid Mucarsel-Powell’s family $700,000, and that Kolomoisky associates have donated thousands to Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign. Like all good propaganda, there is some truth to the allegations. But not a huge amount.
As is normal for Ukrainian oligarchs, Kolomoisky is regularly questioned about both the source of his fortune, and how he chooses to spend it.
He is a well-known supporter of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko – a prominent leader in the 2004 pro-western Orange Revolution. In the pre-Trump Republican party, this would have generally been seen as a good thing.
The oligarch may have militia connections, but he does not exactly lead one. According to Forbes, the Kolomoisky-founded bank, Privatbank once maintained its own quasi-military force. This unit used thuggish tactics to force through business deals that were in the bank’s interest, giving new meaning to the term “hostile takeover.”
Kolomoisky has received criticism for militia-type activity from the pro-Kremlin separatist enclave in Crimea. The unrecognized local regime accused Kolomoisky of “using prohibited methods of war” and confiscated $18 million of his assets.
Ukrainian politics is murky, and one would be hard-pressed to find any oligarchs not embroiled in controversy (just ask Paul Manafort). But there is generally a divide between the pro-western and pro-Russian groups. The causes Kolomoisky backs are in direct opposition to pro-Kremlin parties and the Russian forces currently occupying much of the country.
Until recently, having ties to pro-Western, anti-Kremlin forces in the Ukraine would be seen as broadly positive in most Republican circles. Now, the NRCC is trying to smear Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for having a connection to one of Putin’s enemies.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and the Ukrainian connection
The attack ad is correct in its assertion that Ihor Kholomoisky and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell have a connection, but it is not necessarily a very direct one.
Mucarsel-Powell and her husband received $700,00 in legal fees from a Miami-based metal firm Felman Trading. According to reports in the Daily Beast, Felman Trading is a wholly owned subsidiary of Georgian-American Alloys, partly owned by Kolomoisky. And husband Robert Powell may represent other high-value clients owned partly by Kolomoisky.
Providing legal services for a company, even highly paid legal services, for a company partly owned by Kolomoisky is not at all the same as working directly for Kolomoisky, however.
Speaking through his wife’s campaign, Robert Powell denied having any direct business ties to the oligarch himself. “I have never worked for, represented, answered to, or received any payment from Mr. Kolomoisky at any time,” he said.
The CEO of one of the Miami-based companies partly owned by Kolomoisky also denied Powell had any ties to the Ukrainian, saying he only did routine legal work. “Employees of our business don’t have anything to do with the shareholders,” he explained.
Hypocrisy, thy name is Republican
While Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s connections to a Ukrainian oligarch are far from ideal for a candidate, she did at least declare the income in her financial disclosure form. Her husband’s business ties are out in the open for everyone to consider.
This is very much not the case with Mucarsel-Powell’s opponent, Republican Carlos Curbelo.
As reported by the South Florida watchdog website Political Cortadito, Curbelo signed over his public relations firm Capital Gains to his wife Cecelia Curbelo in 2009. This means if any Ukrainian oligarchs are paying large sums to Curbelo via his company, the public will never know. As Curbelo himself is no longer (at least on paper) the owner of the company, he is exempt from declaring its interests.
A Ukranian connection may be unlikely, but Curbelo may have reasons for wanting to keep his client list private. A self-described public relations firm specializing in public sector related work, Capital Gains has been described perhaps more accurately as a “lobbying shop.” As lobbyists, the firm would have clients regularly seeking to influence elected officials.
One of the few Capital Gains clients that is publicly known is the Malaysian casino firm Genting, who hired Curbelo as a spokesperson in their bid to buy land owned by a Florida school board.
Who are Capital Gains’ other clients? No one knows.
This is not the first time Capital Gains’ ownership has been a campaign issue. The Florida Democratic Party requested a federal investigation into Curbelo’s creative company structure in 2014.
Why does it matter?
While rarely read by the average voter, candidate financial disclosure forms serve a vital role in the electoral process. Knowing who a prospective legislator may be indebted to helps prevent wrongdoing (and the appearance of wrongdoing). Sometimes candidates struggle to fill the forms out correctly, but deliberately evading the spirit of the rules is a much more serious issue.
Will Floridians prefer a congressman with a tangential but declared connection to a Ukrainian oligarch, or a congressman who hides his business connections behind his wife’s name? The world will find out in six weeks time.
Will the NRCC pull their campaign advertisement because of its stink of hypocrisy?
Don’t count on it.
News Growl would like to acknowledge and thank “Ladra” and her Political Cordatito blog post about the Debbie Mucarsel-Powell ad for providing the foundation for this article.