How Do You Hide a 255-Foot Superyacht? If you’re Putin crony and sanctioned-billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, the answer is relatively straightforward: pay someone else to do it for you. Unfortunately for Vekselberg, the men he delegated the task to fell short of expectations, causing his $90 million superyacht, Tango, to become one in a series of Russian-owned luxury vessels seized by federal authorities back in April.
Superyachts are conspicuous by design, hard enough to conceal from the insatiable readers to SuperyachtFan.com, let alone the U.S. government. But the yacht itself never had to disappear: the men only needed to conceal Vekselberg’s ownership, and to mask the vessel’s name in any transactions with U.S. companies, payments routed through U.S. banks or made in U.S. dollars. New details in a pair of indictments unsealed in Washington D.C. on Friday show exactly how they tried and failed to evade U.S. sanctions, including, in one alleged instance, ordering an employee to put the yacht’s U.S. expenses on their debit card.
One of the men, a British citizen named Richard Masters, owner of Master Yachts, the company that managed Tango, was arrested in Spain on Friday; a warrant for the other, Vladislav Osipov, “is still outstanding,” according to the Department of Justice.
Per the indictment, their scheme involved “layers of shell companies, intermediaries and bank accounts,” as well as the use of a false name, all in an effort to conceal Vekselberg’s ownership. (The ship’s real name, “Tango”, which it shares with an orange soda available in the U.K., was substituted on paperwork with “Fanta,” the name of the more ubiquitous orange soda available worldwide.)
If Vekselberg’s name sounds familiar, it may be because of his connection to former President Donald Trump. Back in 2017, the Daily Beast reported, Vekselberg’s cousin and money manager, Andrew Intrater, funneled money to Trump’s erstwhile personal lawyer, Michael Cohen — eight payments in eight months through his company, Columbus Nova. Columbus Nova, meanwhile, appears to have been a client of serial fabulist George Santos’ back when he was working at Harbor City Capital, the investment firm later accused of running a Ponzi scheme.
According to the Washington Post, Harbor City accepted a “$625,000 deposit from a company registered in Mississippi that identifies Intrater as its lone officer” in 2020. Intrater and his wife went on to become major backers of Santos’ bid for Congress in ‘22, giving $56,100 to committees backing the embattled NY representative. Santos, meanwhile, went on to distinguish himself as an outspoken critic of Ukraine, which he called “totalitarian regime” in an interview at CPAC last year.
The scheme to hide Tango first began in 2018, when Vekselberg was among a set of Russian oligarchs slapped with sanctions as retribution for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The pressure ratcheted up a notch in February 2022, when President Biden issued an executive order authorizing the Treasury department to seize and liquidate the assets of Russian oligarchs to help fund U.S. aid for the war in Ukraine. (That idea appears to have backfired: instead of being liquidated, the U.S. is now footing the bill to maintain the yachts it has seized — in Tango’s case, a cost that is estimated to run about $10 million per year.)
Legal documents named a British Virgin Islands-based corporation the owner of Tango. But that BVI-based company was, at one time, owned by a Panamanian company, which was in turn owned by a Panamanian foundation — whose sole beneficiary was a different BVI LLC owned by Vekselberg. Among other mistakes, a Tango employee is said to have emailed Osipov a chart of the shell company’s holdings as part of a conversation about how to evade sanctions. In a separate email, the same employee described to Osipov “discussions” that had taken place about how to “circumvent” Vekselberg “having his name on” the boat’s letter of authority.
In a separate incident, a representative of Masters’ company, Master Yachts, is said to have written in an email to the boat’s insurers, “Please note that if you ever have to make a transfer to the bank account I gave you, please make absolutely certain that there is no mention of ‘Tango.’ Reference should read ‘Fanta.’” And, in perhaps the most brazen act of all, Master Yachts is accused of ordering a total of 58 robes — embroidered with Tango’s logo — from a U.S.-based luxury robe company, while instructing the company to refer to the ship as “Fanta” on its invoice.
(Last February, Master Yachts commemorated its 22nd anniversary with a cheekily-titled press release — “It takes more than 22 to tango” — said the company “embraced challenges and delivered customized service… with the best interest of its clients at heart.” Tango was seized by Spanish authorities less than two months later.)
All the while, the Tango cruised indiscreetly between the Seychelles, Egypt, Croatia, Spain, Turkey, Montenegro, Italy, Greece, Gibraltar, the Maldives and other destinations under its real name, according to ship-tracking data provided by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.