MOSCOW — Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian-American lobbyist who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in June 2016, had one consistent message for the journalists who met him over the years at the luxury hotels where he stayed in Moscow, London and Paris, or at his home on a leafy street in Washington: Never use email to convey information that needed to be kept secret.
While not an expert in the technical aspects of hacking nor, he insisted, a spy, Akhmetshin talked openly about how he had worked with a counterintelligence unit while serving with the Red Army after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and how easy it was to find tech-savvy professionals ready and able to plunder just about any email account.
A journalist who visited his home was given a thumb drive containing emails that had apparently been stolen by hackers working for one of his clients.
On another occasion, at a meeting with a New York Times reporter at the Ararat Park Hyatt hotel in Moscow, Akhmetshin, by then a U.S. citizen, informed the journalist he had recently been reading one of his emails: a note sent by the reporter to a Russian-American defense lawyer who had once worked for anti-Kremlin oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In that instance, the reporter's email had become public as part of a lawsuit. But the episode suggests Akhmetshin's professional focus in the decades since he emigrated to the United States and the experience that he brought to a meeting last June in New York with President Donald Trump's oldest son, Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the then-head of the Trump presidential campaign, Paul Manafort.
The meeting was arranged on the claim that a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, would provide dirt on Hillary Clinton, though in the end, Trump and his son have insisted, neither Akhmetshin nor Veselnitskaya provided anything of value.
But Akhmetshin, a gregarious, fast-talking man with a sharp sense of humor, was a skilled practitioner in the muscular Russian version of what in U.S. politics is known as opposition research. From his base in Washington, Akhmetshin has been hired by an ever-changing roster of Russian clients to burnish their image — and blacken that of their rivals. Some clients were close to the Kremlin. Others involved its bitter foes.
Akhmetshin often warned his friends and contacts: "Nothing is secure." It was a conviction that emerged from the chaotic and often violent corporate battles that convulsed Russia in the 1990s, when "chyorny PR" or "black public relations" based on stolen or fabricated documents — became a powerful weapon for businessmen seeking to damage their rivals without resorting to physical threats, another frequently used tool.
The practice was rooted in Soviet techniques of "kompromat," the collection of compromising information by the KGB against foes of the Communist Party, but reached its full flowering after the 1991 collapse of communism and the privatization of the dark arts formerly dominated by the KGB.
Instead of simply examining old media reports, court records and other public documents to try to dig up dirt or embarrassing gossip, Russian-style "chyorny PR" has often focused on pilfering private information through hacking and physical intrusion into offices and filing cabinets.
In his own investigations over the years, Akhmetshin has acquired a reputation for obtaining email records, information from spyware and other data that appeared to be drawn from Russian hackers, something he has denied.
There is no evidence his efforts were illegal or that he engaged in the technical aspects of hacking himself. His emphasis on unearthing emails in Russian-related matters also clearly served the interests of his clients, irrespective of whether they had close or hostile relations with the Kremlin.
An international mining company controlled by a trio of flamboyant millionaires from Kazakhstan filed a lawsuit in a New York state court charging that Akhmetshin orchestrated a hacking campaign against their company to benefit a rival Russian tycoon, Andrey Melnichenko. Each side of the dispute had already attracted its share of allegations of fraud, corruption and lavish excess.
Court papers filed in November 2015 on behalf of the Kazakhs' company, International Mineral Resources, described Akhmetshin as "a former Soviet military counterintelligence officer who moved to Washington, D.C. to become a lobbyist" and "developed a special expertise in running negative public relations campaigns."
Akhmetshin has called this characterization misleading. He was, he said, drafted as a young man to serve in a military unit performing counterintelligence functions during the Soviet-Afghan war. As an enlisted man, he said, he never received any training in "negative public relations."
The suit alleged that Akhmetshin was retained by EuroChem VolgaKaliy, a Russian potassium mining company controlled by Melnichenko, which was involved in a $1 billion litigation with IMR. The suit also names as a defendant Salisbury & Ryan, a New York law firm representing EuroChem.
The lawsuit alleged that Akhmetshin was hired to hack into the computer systems of IMR and had stolen approximately 28,000 files, or about 50 gigabytes of data. It said the sensitive material was then distributed to journalists and others in an effort to harm the company's reputation.
The suit claims that Akhmetshin stole passport information, emails and personal contact lists for executives within IMR; IMR bank account information; loan agreements; business strategy documents; board meeting minutes; drafts of market-sensitive documents; and financial forecasts and projections.
An IMR investigator personally witnessed and overheard a conversation at a London coffee shop during which Akhmetshin handed over to a third-party an external hard drive that he described as containing files obtained from IMR computers, according to the lawsuit.
Akhmetshin has denied that he hacked the company's computers. IMR dropped the lawsuit before it was adjudicated, without explanation.
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An early client of Akhmetshin's was an opposition leader from Kazakhstan who, from self-imposed exile in the West, was waging a lonely campaign against one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest allies, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
And in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, he helped unravel a brazen corruption scheme by a former pro-Kremlin leader and his family that had been cheating the population, poor already, out of millions of dollars.
On other occasions, however, he worked on causes that clearly benefited the Kremlin, like a long-running campaign spearheaded by Veselnitskaya to get Congress to repeal legislation imposing sanctions on Russian officials suspected of corruption and involvement in the death of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009.
Akhmetshin had also at times been in touch with Russian government officials, court records show.
In 2010, he submitted an op-ed column to The Washington Times newspaper on behalf of Viktor Ivanov, at the time director of Russia's anti-narcotics police, according to one of Akhmetshin's own emails, subpoenaed as evidence in a case in the Southern District of New York. Ivanov is a longtime veteran of Russia's security services.
Akhmetshin has spoken openly about his service in the Soviet military in Afghanistan, and his current work throughout Russia and Central Asia.
Once, a reporter turned up for a meeting at a Moscow coffee shop with Akhmetshin and peered around the room trying to see where he was sitting.
Akhmetshin had come in with what amounted to a disguise: He sat smiling at a table, wearing a hat resembling a skull cap and his beard grown to an impressive length. He was headed next, he said, on an assignment to Afghanistan and had assumed the appearance of an Afghan elder.