Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

The megadonor with Russian allies campaigns don’t talk about

BOSTON — Not all political cash is tainted by ties to Russia.

Economic sanctions imposed by Western governments since Russia’s assault on Ukraine have sent the ruble crashing. K Street lobbying firms are dumping contracts. And Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) is taking heat from a Republican rival for accepting $5,800 from a now-former Nord Stream 2 lobbyist even though she’s been a staunch opponent of the project.

As an anti-Russian fervor envelops campaign season, donations from Leonard Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born industrial magnate made wealthy off decades-old Russian business deals, are beginning to attract unwanted attention. Yet Democrats and Republicans are clinging to the campaign contributions he’s sprinkled across top politicians in both parties this election cycle and in years past — a lengthy list that includes Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s inaugural committee.

Blavatnik, a dual citizen of the United States and United Kingdom, isn’t among the eight people sanctioned by the federal government in the past two weeks, or the dozens more facing visa restrictions. That fact is helping lawmakers and congressional campaign committees defend the thousands of dollars in donations they’ve taken from the billionaire over the years, or dodge inquiries about the cash entirely.

And Blavatnik has been known for keeping the Kremlin at a distance: He eschews being labeled an oligarch, has, in the past, through his company, strenuously denied “dealings with the Russian government or its leaders,” and counts Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny among his defenders, saying Blavatnik is “not a political oligarch.” His firm, Access Industries, also asserts that less than than 1 percent of its investments “are in any way Russian-related.”

But criticism persists in part because his fortune stems from Russia’s “aluminum wars” in the 1990s and oil, as do his ties to oligarchs. He’s reportedly close with Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018.

If anything, Blavatnik and his American-born wife, Emily, have blunted potential critics by donating so much to so many in both parties for more than two decades.

“Unless the government takes action against him and he’s sanctioned, it’s a gray area,” Ryan Williams, a GOP strategist and former Mitt Romney aide, who has routinely called on politicians to send back money from questionable sources in the past, said of candidates keeping Blavatnik’s cash.

“If he were donating to one party versus the other, you would see it pop up in campaign attacks and advertisements and mail,” he said. “If both sides are compromised, it’s not a political issue.”

Access Industries, a multi-sector conglomerate, defended Blavatnik’s political giving.

“As an American citizen for nearly 40 years, Mr. Blavatnik has made donations in support of both Democrats and Republicans. The donations are motivated by his desire to further a pro-business, pro-Israel agenda in government,” Access Industries said of the Jewish businessman in a statement. “The donations are a matter of public record and comply with all legal requirements.”

Blavatnik’s businesses are also starting to take a stand against Russia. Warner Music, which is owned by Access Industries, announced Thursday it would suspend its operations in Russia because of the invasion of Ukraine.

“What is happening in Ukraine is unimaginable,” Access Industries said in a separate statement Thursday. “We all hope and pray that the conflict ends quickly and that all Ukrainian citizens are once again able to live their lives in peace.”

In the 2022 election cycle alone, Blavatnik has given roughly $348,000 to a handful of congressional lawmakers, according to FEC records — directly to candidates or through their associated political action committees. The list includes Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

He also gives to state parties as well as campaign arms — $239,200 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in November and $255,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in June. Spokespeople for the committees declined to comment on the donations.

One recipient in particular stands out: Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), the sole freshman to receive a Blavatnik donation this cycle.
Auchincloss was asked to defend keeping $11,600 — the maximum donation allowed by federal law — he received from the Blavatniks during a recent television interview. The couple has given the first-term congressman a combined $22,800 since 2019, according to FEC records.

“If there’s any evidence that there are people who are supporting the Kremlin right now, I of course would not take any contributions. That is not the case,” Auchincloss told a correspondent for WCVB, an ABC affiliate in Boston.

An Auchincloss spokesperson later told POLITICO the congressman does not have a personal relationship with the Blavatniks. What he does have is support from several pro-Israel groups in the U.S., including the Pro-Israel America PAC and DMFI PAC, which works to elect Democrats supporting Israel to Congress.

Blavatnik’s donations to educational institutions have raised ire in the past, and his campaign contributions have long drawn scrutiny as well. A meme went viral in 2019 that incorrectly claimed that Blavatnik was the largest donor to Mitch McConnell, who was Senate majority leader at the time. And his donations boosting Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine made headlines in 2018.

Russia’s assault on Ukraine has refreshed talking points about whose money is acceptable — even when it comes from people, like Blavatnik, who haven’t been accused of wrongdoing, said Scott Ferson, a Massachusetts-based Democratic consultant who has done work for the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy and Reps. Seth Moulton and Stephen Lynch.

“You should, just as a demonstration of what your campaign stands for, return money from bad actors,” he said. “This doesn’t seem to rise to that category.”

Some groups and campaigns are still reluctant to talk about him.

A campaign spokesperson for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who took $2,800 from Blavatnik in 2019 and $2,600 in 2013, declined to answer questions about what, if anything, Markey would do with the donations.

Blavatnik, who owns several properties in New York City and has supported Empire State politicians at many levels, gave a combined $69,700, the maximum allowable contribution, to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in recent months. Her campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The scale and breadth of the donations also provide an easy way to deflect questions about his money.

“He hasn’t given to the NRSC this cycle, so I’m not really sure what you’re asking,” NRSC communications director Chris Hartline said in an email, when asked whether the committee would return Blavatnik’s donations or refuse future contributions from the billionaire.

“It appears he has given to Schumer this cycle,” Hartline said. “So feel free to ask him.”

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