Unmasked: The Russian who secretly paid ex-Trump aide to lobby for Albanian politician in Washington

Moscow businessman named as owner of mysterious Scottish firm that paid for access in DC

In March 2018, midway through Donald Trump’s term as president, investigative website Mother Jones published an article that caused huge controversy in Albanian politics, and which shook the American lobbying scene.

The article detailed how in 2017 an obscure Scottish shell firm had paid $150,000 to a lobbying business owned by ex-Trump campaign aide and veteran Republican activist, Nick Muzin.

The money, Muzin declared, counted as a “foreign agent” payment under US rules because Edinburgh based Biniatta Trade LP had hired him to lobby for the Democratic Party of Albania (DPA), the right-wing, populist opposition in Tirana.

Muzin then arranged a series of events in the US to help raise the profile of the party's outspoken leader, Lulzim Basha, a self-avowed fan of Trump, who, with Muzin’s help, borrowed heavily from the US president’s campaign playbook.

Basha met a string of Republican Congressmen, featured in a sympathetic profile on Breitbart News and was even able to grab a photo opportunity with President Trump. The DPA leader then used that photo (main picture, above) as part of his ultimately doomed attempt to lead his party to power in the 2017 parliamentary elections under the slogan 'Make Albania Great Again'.

The Mother Jones article caused controversy, not just due to the characters involved, but also because, amid mounting concern about Kremlin-backed attempts to influence US politics, it speculated that this payment too, made from Biniatta Trade, might ultimately have come from Russia.

Payments to US lobbyists by foreign political actors are strictly regulated under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and must all be publicly declared in filings to the Department of Justice.

Though Biniatta Trade was named by Muzin, it was an enigma: no one from the company worked at its official Edinburgh address, which was also home to hundreds of other shell firms; and the firm was controlled via two front companies registered in Belize, one of the world’s top secrecy havens.

“Who is behind Biniatta Trade, the Scottish shell company?” the Mother Jones article asked. “This is the heart of the mystery.” Some of the clues they found point in one direction: “​​Did Russians use the US political system to fuel political discord in the Balkans?”

Allegations that Russian sources bankrolled the DPA have swirled around Basha and his party ever since. Last year, US officials with access to intelligence reports told reporters from the AFP newswire that Russia spent around $500,000 to covertly back the party in 2017.

On social media, Basha responded: “The Democratic Party has never received any foreign funding, much less from a Russian source.”

Likewise, the DPA has denied any link to Biniatta Trade, calling the 2018 Mother Jones article a “deeply ridiculous”. Meanwhile, Muzin has reportedly said that, at the time, he believed Biniatta Trade was a private company owned by supporters of the DPA.

But now an investigation by FU, the BBC and Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation into the use of UK partnerships by shadowy figures in the former Soviet Union can reveal the man behind Biniatta Trade.

He is a 40-year-old Russian businessman called Maxim Trofimets, born in Moscow, where he still lives.

Maxim Trofimets, Russian ex-helicopter equipment and service sales director (from LinkedIn)

Documents from the Pandora Papers data leak reveal a series of confidential agreements through which Biniatta Trade’s two Belizean partners effectively transferred management and ownership rights over the Scottish firm to Trofimets.

According to his LinkedIn profile — on which there is no mention of Biniatta Trade — Trofimets started working at Russian helicopter company Exclases Holding in 2018, working as an equipment and services sales director.

Until disrupted by the war in Ukraine, Exclases sold civil-use helicopters made by the Italian aerospace and defence group Leonardo, formerly Anglo-Italian group AgustaWestland, in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union.

As well as selling to the offshore oil and gas industry, law enforcement agencies and what it describes as “VVIPs and VIPs”, in 2012 Exclases also sold Leonardo helicopters to at least one Russian government agency, which has not been named, to perform what the Italian firm called “special security missions”.

Exclases said Trofimets’s job was terminated in November 2022 following the suspension of the firm’s staff in Russia nine months earlier, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. Exclases has not sold any helicopters into Russia since the invasion.

There is no suggestion Exclases or Leonardo knew of, or had involvement in, Biniatta Trade.

Though leaked documents record Trofimets as the “beneficial owner” of the Scottish firm, it is far from clear whether he used it to secretly pursue his own personal interests, or whether his actions were influenced by someone else. Journalists found no links between Trofimets and Albania, and no obvious reason why he might bankroll foreign agent activities in Washington on behalf of Basha’s DPA.

Finance Uncovered attempted to contact Trofimets via email, WhatsApp and LinkedIn but received no response. Basha, Muzin (pictured below) and the DPA also did not reply to requests for comment.

US lobbyist Nick Muzin

While little is known about the man behind the corporate mask, one thing is clear: extraordinary measures were taken to keep Trofimets’s name private. This was done with the help of the secrecy industry enablers in Liechtenstein, Belize, Scotland, the Marshall Islands and the Seychelles.

One of the key enablers in this chain was Victoria Valkovskaya, a Russian corporate secrecy expert who has made a fortune through her firm Alpha Consulting, which she runs from the Seychelles.

Biniatta Trade is one of hundreds of shell firms Valkovskaya has helped set up, largely for end-clients in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Revelations about Biniatta Trade are among a raft of findings from a collaborative investigation coordinated by Finance Uncovered and involving the BBC and Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation. They have spent months looking into the work Alpha Consulting carries out for its secretive end-clients.

There is no suggestion that Alpha Consulting or its nominees have acted illegally by fronting UK firms. They had no involvement in the management of Biniatta Trade or any other firms they helped set up. Decisions at these businesses are taken by Alpha Consulting's end clients.

In part, the journalists built their reporting around unpublished documents found in the Pandora Papers, a trove of almost 12 million files from the offshore corporate services industry, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and first reported on in 2021.

Without these confidential documents the name of Trofimets, and many other corporate secrets, would have remained hidden behind opaque layers of ownership and control resembling a series of matryoshka, or "Russian", dolls.

Well, I do declare…

March 2017 was a new beginning for Muzin. After years of advisory work for top Republicans, most notably for Senator Ted Cruz and his attempt to win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the qualified doctor and lawyer turned political operative was moving into the lobbying industry.

And because one of his first clients was the Democratic Party of Albania, under Washington rules, Muzin had to declare himself a “foreign agent”. As part of his accompanying FARA filing, he published a copy of a $25,000 agreement with the DPA, signed by its leader Basha.

Two days later, however, Biniatta Trade LP quietly made a much larger payment of $150,000. At the time, Muzin did not declare this income to the Justice Department as a “foreign agent” payment.

W​​ithout that declaration, the payment and what it was for may never have been made public. That changed, however, when, eight months later, Muzin amended the FARA filings he had previously submitted.

The revised filing, not only publicly disclosed the funds received from Biniatta Trade, but said money amounted to “foreign agent” payments benefitting the DPA. This declaration was made just weeks after another lobbying scandal burst into the public arena, no doubt causing Muzin to think hard about his own declarations.

That other scandal was the October 2017 arrest of Paul Manafort, another lobbyist and a former Trump campaign manager. Manafort was accused, and later convicted, of having secretly acted, years earlier, as a foreign agent for Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions, led by Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych.

Oligarchs close to Yanukovych had channeled payments to Cypriot shell companies secretly controlled by Manafort, including through at least three anonymous UK partnerships.

Manafort was convicted of failing to register under FARA and associated cover-up offences. Eventually, in 2020 he was pardoned by Trump, though not before the lobbyist served significant jail time.

Less than three weeks after the Manafort indictment was made public, Muzin put in his revised FARA declaration. Though the rules require such payments to be properly disclosed within 10 days, Muzin was many months late. Previous filings should be updated, he said, because he had failed to declare the full extent — and source — of payments he received to act for the DPA.

In his FARA declaration, Muzin belatedly explained to the US Justice Department that he had received $675,000, not $25,000 for his work on behalf of the DPA. But the under-declaration was not all. There was a twist.

Though much of the bill for his services had been paid by the DPA, part of it — the $150,000 payment — came from Biniatta Trade LP, the mysterious firm in Scotland that had been carefully set up, using two corporate nominee fronts in Belize, so as to hide the identity of its ultimate owners.

Attached to Muzin’s official FARA filing, the lobbyist included a copy of an unsigned agreement with Biniatta Trade LP. Muzin explained that, though not formally executed, this document set out the basis on which his lobbying firm had proceeded. The draft also set out a larger schedule of proposed payments that Biniatta Trade would make, wiring as much as $950,000 to Muzin’s lobbying firm over three months, though eventual payments were lower.

The agreement also stated that Biniatta Trade was most definitely not a front for any foreign nation state.

“BT’s interest in this consultation is not on behalf of any government or political party,” the unsigned draft stated. “[And] the funding provided for this representation is not sourced directly or indirectly from or through any government or political party.”

Muzin’s disclosure caused a stir in the Balkans and was later picked up by US publication Mother Jones.

Despite intense speculation, however, journalists never discovered who was behind Biniatta Trade.

Mother Jones suggested the hidden owner might be Russian. Its journalists pointed out that the two Belizean nominee companies that had been used to form Biniatta had elsewhere formed other UK partnerships on behalf of Russian owners.

While this deductive reasoning was stretched, ultimately, it turned out to be pointing in the right direction.

The Matryoshka doll plan

When press attention first started to fall on Biniatta Trade in late 2017, the UK had recently begun requiring opaque Scottish firms, fronted by nominees, to name their ultimate owners. Since August 2017, all limited partnerships in Scotland were required to declare these “persons with significant control” (PSCs), as they were called in regulatory jargon. But Biniatta Trade had made no such declaration.

In UK law, if a firm has lots of investors, but no one with a quarter of voting rights (or equivalent control), then the business can carry on without ever reporting a PSC. And in September 2017, an Alpha Consulting staffer signed Biniatta Trade paperwork sent to Companies House stating that all PSC declarations — of which there were none — were up to date.

But leaked documents from the Pandora Papers suggest there was someone with significant control over Biniatta Trade. In fact, on three occasions, the same Alpha Consulting employee signed private agreements granting Trofimets power of attorney over Biniatta Trade’s affairs.

Redacted copy of Maxim Tromifets's Russian passport found in leaked documents (Source: Pandora Papers/ICIJ)

These agreements granted Trofimets authority “to transact, manage, carry on and do all and every business matters” for Biniatta Trade.

Other leaked files also describe Trofimets as the “beneficial owner” of Biniatta Trade.

In UK law, it is a criminal offence for a director or representative to withhold the name of a person who owns or otherwise has significant control over a UK-registered firm. It carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail and a fine.

Little is known about Trofimets. In 2016, he lived in an apartment within a slightly shabby, 14-storey block, above a beauty salon in the Severnoye Butovo suburb of Russia’s capital.

Despite these humble digs, other files from the Pandora Papers suggest Trofimets had connections in more rarefied circles. In 2016, in relation to another offshore company he was setting up, a bank in Liechtenstein wrote him a letter of reference.

In it, two bankers testified to a “very satisfactory” relationship with Trofimets, who was “highly respectable, trustworthy and professional”. How they reached this view is puzzling, however, since dates in the letter suggested the bank had been doing business with him for less than two weeks.

Asked about Alpha Consulting’s dealings with Biniatta Trade the Seychelles firm’s founder Victoria Valkovskaya said: “We have never provided services of hiding end users behind our nominees neither in regards to Biniatta Trade LP nor any other companies whatsoever.”

She added: “We are a provider of corporate services which include company formation, secretarial services, fiduciary services and obtaining documents from the regulators on behalf of the client. As I mentioned several times before, we have never been involved in the business activity of this company.”

But leaked documents from the Pandora Papers show, in 2018, Valkovskaya did at least help revise Biniatta Trade’s complex ownership structure. In one email she describes a plan to distance the Scottish firm from Alpha Consulting’s end client by transferring it to new nominee companies in the Marshall Islands, in turn controlled by a five-person Seychelles foundation.

Valkovskaya’s email seemed to describe these manoeuvrings — and especially the introduction of the five-person foundation — as a mechanism that would allow Alpha Consulting’s end client to avoid being named as a person with significant control (PSC). Under the plan, she wrote, “The beneficiary is a private Seychelles foundation, in which there are five councillors, so as not to declare a controlling person.”

Shortly after Valkovskaya’s email, the plan she outlined appears to have been executed. The immediate control of Biniatta Trade did indeed switch to two new corporate nominees in the Marshall Islands. And these Marshall Islands companies were controlled via a foundation comprised of five councillors, all Seychelles citizens, recruited by Alpha Consulting.

Asked about the foundation, Valkovskaya insisted its five councillors all had “duties to operate independently, and did operate independently to the best of our knowledge.”

She added: “As such, we and the end client considered that Biniatta Trade would not have had any [Person with Significant Control].”

* This article was updated on November 30 and December 1 after Exclases contacted us to say that Trofimets had not worked for the company since 2022.

* Editing: Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason

*Fact check: Richard Smith