San Jose Mercury News
By Jamison Firestone
Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 06/23/2010 08:00:00 PM PDT
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Silicon Valley this week in hopes of wooing executives to invest in Russia. But as high-tech leaders think through the pitch, they might want to consider what could happen when their Russian investments are up and running.
I am a member of the New York Bar who’s served on the board of directors of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia for the past six years and managed a law firm in Moscow for 17 years. My firm represented the largest foreign investor in Russia, Hermitage Fund, which once had more than $4 billion invested there.
In 2007, officials from the Moscow Interior Ministry raided my offices and my client’s offices and took all of Hermitage Fund’s statutory documents and seals. Even the Russian government now concedes in Moscow court filings that those documents and seals were then used to fraudulently re-register the companies into the name of a convicted killer. A criminal group subsequently applied for a refund of the $230 million of taxes that the Hermitage Fund paid in 2006. The payment was granted in one day, no questions asked. It was the largest tax refund in the history of Russia, a country where even the smallest refunds take months, if not years.
Hermitage hired five law firms to report the thefts and recover the stolen companies. In the two years that followed, I personally witnessed Russian officials implicated in the crimes attempting to arrest every lawyer who was involved in the investigation or reporting of the thefts. In a classic case of Kafkaesque absurdity, two of Russia’s most famous and respected lawyers were criminally prosecuted for reporting the theft. They fled the country.
third respected corporate lawyer, my partner Sergei Magnitsky, refused to flee Russia because he thought the law would protect him. He testified against the corrupt officials. One month after his testimony, he was arrested by the very officials he testified against. The next day, they tried to arrest three more lawyers, all of whom fled Russia.
Magnitsky was kept in pre-trial detention for 12 months and was tortured to get him to withdraw his testimony, but he refused. On Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky died as a result of torture at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two young boys.
Since then, it became public that the same group of officers and criminals had been accused of similar crimes in the past. It was also discovered that immediately after the thefts were reported, the officers’ families acquired millions of dollars in assets.
Like many people, I find Medvedev confusing. He speaks about fighting corruption, building rule of law and fostering investment, but Russia’s level of corruption continues to increase. Silicon Valley may see him as the first Russian leader to surf the Web and use e-mail, but television news still is under state control, and independent journalists, human rights activists, businessmen and now their lawyers are arrested and killed with impunity.
I would like to believe that Medvedev is sincere. But he has done nothing to bring Sergei’s killers to justice, to find the stolen government money, to help my client recover its companies or to stop the attacks on lawyers.
What happened to my client can happen to anyone doing business in Russia, and no law firm in the world can defend you in a land without law. Large companies that were sure they would have government support, like Shell, BP, Carrefour, Telenor and Ikea, were left to the wolves. In each case, the Kremlin either attacked or allowed corrupt officials to attack foreign investors that bought into the same pitch you just heard.
JAMISON FIRESTONE is managing partner of Firestone Duncan, Moscow. He wrote this article for this newspaper.