Latvian banker accused of aiding North Korea hires ex-Trump official as lobbyist

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An administrative building of the ABLV Bank in Riga, Latvia. (Alexander Welscher/picture alliance via Getty Images)

A Latvian national accused of laundering billions of dollars for the world’s most dangerous regimes has a powerful new friend in Washington.

Bryan Lanza, deputy communications director for the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, agreed to lobby on behalf of Ernests Bernis, the Latvian citizen and majority shareholder of ABLV Bank, which allegedly laundered money for North Korea’s nuclear program as well as corrupt politicians in Russia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

Lanza, the managing director of lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs who “is in regular contact with White House officials,” revealed in the document that he will advocate on Bernis’s behalf through the company ASG Resolution Capital regarding the liquidation of ABLV, Latvia’s third largest bank, which collapsed in 2018 following proposed sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Treasury detailed the bank’s central role in allegedly facilitating widespread public corruption across Eastern Europe. That includes the theft of more than $1 billion worth of financial assets from Moldovan banks and financial transactions undertaken for nationally and internationally recognized criminal groups. Most notably, the bank had done business with five entities designated by the United States and United Nations as North Korean assets, including some who have been actively supporting the rogue nation’s missile programs.

The Treasury decried the bank’s total lack of risk mitigation or compliance practices, saying that while it could not be certain the bank knew it was facilitating criminal transactions, that ignorance proved the bank abdicated professional responsibility for its own actions. The Treasury cut all ties between the bank and the U.S. market, isolating the bank from American customers and blocking the flow of dollars to the institution.

The Treasury’s announcement came amid the bank’s efforts to expand into the American market.

Following the report’s release, ABLV plummeted toward collapse, losing more than 20 percent of its deposits in less than a week as investors scrambled to withdraw their money before the bank froze its assets. The bank denied all wrongdoing and promised to “rebut this outrageous defamatory information” but could not survive the loss of the deposits, beginning the process of voluntary liquidation in June 2018.

But as of May 2019, the Treasury has not accepted the proposed liquidation plan. Bernis, who owns 43 percent of ABLV shares and would profit handsomely from the liquidation, is likely seeking to influence the Trump administration on the matter.

The man he chose to represent him, Bryan Lanza, has translated his prominent positions on the Trump campaign and transition team into a successful, albeit controversial, lobbying career.

Lanza appeared often on CNN between October 2017 and May 2018 as a Trump surrogate, attracting significant controversy for attacking Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference while simultaneously representing a Russian firm seeking to pressure the U.S. government into dropping the sanctions imposed on it.

That business, EN+ Group, was majority-owned by Oleg Deripaska, a close confidant of Russian president Vladimir Putin who was sanctioned by the Treasury in April 2018 for racketeering, money laundering and potential ties to organized crime and assassinations of his business rivals. Lanza lobbied the U.S. government on behalf of EN+ as the firm restructured the business to reduce Deripaska’s ownership just below the required limit for the removal of sanctions and transferred millions of dollars in shares to Deripaska’s children. EN+ was removed from the sanctions list in January 2019.

Lanza’s group attracted significant attention in 2016 for its work lobbying on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a nonprofit with ties to former Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Mercury, along with Skadden Arps and the Podesta Group, was recruited to improve Yanukovych’s image by future Trump campaign chairperson Paul Manafort, who was himself a lobbyist for another Yanukovych-tied nonprofit. When Manafort pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent, Mercury came under harsh criticism for failing to register its own lobbying work with the Department of Justice.

Lanza has agreed to lobby for a number of other international clients, including Chinese telecom ZTE and the Libyan and Turkish governments.

Lanza has been a stalwart in conservative circles for decades, having also served as communications director for Citizens United, the conservative political committee that served as the plaintiff in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case which, combined with decisions in other litigation enabled the rise of super PACs.

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