Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine Took $200,000 From Russia-Linked Oligarch

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine (left) shakes hands with MBPD Maj. W. Anthony Jones.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine (left) shakes hands with MBPD Maj. W. Anthony Jones. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine / Facebook

In any race for the Florida governorship, it's fair to question why a candidate's political committee took $200,000 from a Ukrainian-born billionaire oligarch who owns a huge stake in an aluminum company with direct ties to the Kremlin. It's doubly relevant in 2017, as Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans continue to question whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to hack Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign email accounts.

Despite that brouhaha, the fundraising committee for Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — a former Clinton surrogate and pro-Democrat TV talking head — took a $200,000 payout from Leonard Blavatnik, an ultrawealthy oligarch with business ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian tycoon involved in the FBI's Trump-Russia investigation.

According to state records, Levine's "All About Florida" political-action committee took the $200,000 check on June 21. (The Miami Herald's Mary Ellen Klas was the first reporter to note the donation, but did not elaborate on Blavatnik's ties. Activist Grant Stern, who is currently suing Levine for blocking him on social media, was the first to put two-and-two together on his own blog last night.)

"All About Florida has broad support from a long list of donors, including several who in previous years donated to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden," a spokesperson for the PAC said.

Blavatnik has been conducting some real-estate business on the island lately: He's business partners with uber-developer and large-hat aficionado Alan Faena, who just redeveloped a massive portion of South Beach into his ultraluxury "Faena District," a collection of hotel rooms and condos pitched toward the one-percenter jet-set. That, of course, just shows how deeply Miami Beach's luxury real-estate world is propped up via international investors, though Blavatnik is a U.S. citizen.

Activists in October 2015 told New Times that Levine has long seemed close to the Blavatnik family, who also helped bankroll his mayoral bids. (Blavatnik's real-estate-developer brother, Alex, also received some major zoning benefits from the Miami Beach City Commission the next year.) But the donations have now come under added scrutiny as Democrats — including Levine — have criticized the Trump campaign for its ties to Russian interests.

Levine, who made millions selling cruise ship advertisements before running for mayor, hasn't said publicly whether he's running for governor or not. So far, he's raised a pretty large chunk of cash — more than $4.5 million, including more than $2.5 million of his own money — but has not found a niche in the early polls. (His Trumpian ability to put his foot in his own mouth and/or insult reporters and those who criticize him hasn't helped.) Though he's currently a Democrat, he has referred to himself as a "radical centrist" and floated the idea of running for governor as an independent — a move political analysts suggest would all but certainly split the Democratic vote and guarantee a Republican win.

Other major donors to the All About Florida PAC include $50,000 from Israeli donor, Univision chairman, and Power Rangers franchise magnate Haim Saban; $50,000 from Almod Diamonds, part of the DeBeers Diamond empire; $25,000 from Miami Heat owner and cruise ship billionaire Micky Arison; and $250,000 from Robert Kotick, the CEO of major video game company Activision Blizzard and a board member of the Coca-Cola company. Blavatnik's brother, Alex, also donated $25,000 personally to the PAC. State records show the Blavatniks have not donated to any other 2018 gubernatorial candidates.

Leonard Blavatnik donated through Access Industries, a company he runs out of a Fifth Avenue office in Manhattan that sits across the street from Trump Tower.

But given Blavatnik's business ties, it's surprising a fundraising committee for someone so close to the Clinton campaign would take hundreds of thousands of dollars from him.

Last week, the Dallas Morning News published a deep-dive into Blavatnik's business connections, as well as his habit of bankrolling GOP candidates. Through multiple sources, Blavatnik has given $6.5 million to Republicans, including $2.5 million to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and $1.6 million to Florida Sen. and recent nuclear-war apologist Marco Rubio. (Federal records show Blavatnik gave smaller amounts to several Democrats in the last election cycle, including Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Michael Bennet.)

In 2015, the Sunday Times Rich List named Blavatnik the wealthiest man in Britain, worth an estimated £16.9 billion, roughly $22 billion. He was dropped to the number two slot in the Times' 2017 rankings.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Blavatnik has a large stake in RUSAL, the world's sixth-largest aluminum company. RUSAL is controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Vladimir Putin currently tied to the investigation of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. (The FBI raided Manafort's home before dawn on July 26 to seize documents.) Blavatnik served on RUSAL's board until December 2016. Deripaska also married into former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's family in 2001. The Putin-chaired Russian state bank, Vnesheconombank, gave Deripaska a $4.5 billion loan in 2009 to pull him out of bankruptcy.

The New York Times has said Deripaska is "a member of the inner circle of the Russian president," and in May reported that Deripaska offered to collaborate with a federal investigation into Manafort in exchange for legal immunity. (The feds said they couldn't accept his terms and the offer failed.) The Times reported that the U.S. State Department has in the past refused to issue Deripaska a visa to enter the country out of concern that Deripaska is engaged in organized crime.

Even if the current tension with Russia didn't exist, a massive donation from someone with Blavatnik's record would seem questionable for a Democrat, and especially for an anti-climate-change warrior like Levine. Processing aluminum requires mining for the mineral bauxite. Bauxite mining operations have long been criticized for exploiting workers in disadvantaged nations, and RUSAL owns bauxite mines all over the world, including in poor nations such as Guyana and Jamaica.

Likewise, the process certainly isn't good for the environment: Making one ton of aluminum releases one and a half tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Records show the Blavatniks also donated to Relentless for Progress, former Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson's controversial, Levine-tied PAC that raised money from city vendors before closing amid an ethics investigation.

Regardless of how the public feels about the investigation into Trump's alleged Russian ties, Levine has said on-record he feels they're legit, which raises questions about why his political committee is OK with taking money from a source so close to Putin. On a CNN appearance seven days before Election Day, Levine stated flatly that the Russian government hacked Clinton's campaign. (His comments begin at the 5:30 mark in the clip posted at the top of this story.)

"We know what's going on with the Russian hacking," Levine said. "Why didn't [former FBI Director James Comey] release the Russian hacking information? Totally connected to Donald Trump's campaign."

Correction: This piece previously misidentified the commissioner who headed the Relentless for Progress PAC.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.