New York

Top Eric Adams Appointee Did Business With Trump and a Russian Oligarch Who Was Sanctioned by the U.S.

Krista Kennell | Patrick McMullan | Getty Images
  • New York Mayor Eric Adams has appointed to a top city job an executive with ties to businesses and officials who have come under legal scrutiny, including the Trump Organization and Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
  • Edward Mermelstein, whom Adams named earlier this month to be commissioner of New York's international affairs office, also is linked to public relations executive Ronn Torossian, who has worked for clients such as the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • In an interview with CNBC, Mermelstein said part of his job is to lure people and companies to do business in New York.

New York Mayor Eric Adams has appointed to a top city job a veteran real estate executive with ties to influential businesses and officials who have come under legal scrutiny, including the Trump Organization and Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Edward Mermelstein, whom Adams named earlier this month to be commissioner of New York's international affairs office, also is linked to public relations executive Ronn Torossian, an Adams ally who has worked for several high-profile figures over the years and has gained a reputation for being a confrontational firebrand. Torossian's clients have included the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been criticized for anti-democratic power grabs.

Details of these connections had yet to be reported since Mermelstein was appointed earlier this month to be commissioner of international affairs, who acts as the primary liaison between the city government, foreign leaders and the United Nations. Marjorie Bloomberg Tiven, who held the position while her brother Michael Bloomberg was mayor, once said the job is meant to ensure "your head of government is behaving in a way that doesn't offend other heads of government."

Mermelstein is a Russian-American foreign investment attorney who has given "expert help navigating the complex foreign investment process in the United States," according to his still-active personal website. The mayor's office website says he came to the United States in the 1970s as a refugee from Ukraine.

In an interview with CNBC, Mermelstein, who donated just over $5,000 to Adams' political operation after the November election, did not discuss the details of his previous clients, or how he got the position. He did say, however, that he intends to lure business to the city.

"As you are aware, lots of companies have left New York over the last couple of years and I'm looking to bring as many back, especially, my focus is international," he said. Forbes has reported that since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, financial firms on Wall Street, including Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley have relocated thousands of jobs out of New York.

Since joining Adams' administration just over two weeks ago, Mermelstein said he's met leaders from Belgium, France, Italy, India, Israel, Qatar and Australia. He said he has not been in touch with any business executives and has focused his time on diplomatic circles.

Mermelstein did not provide many details on the process of completing any type of financial disclosure. Yet he noted that the application he filled out was "about two and a half inches thick" and required him to disclose "anything and everything."

If the Adams administration deems that Mermelstein's role is full time and has "substantial policy discretion," the real estate executive would have to file a financial disclosure form, and he would be restricted from political fundraising or accepting gifts from those deemed as special interests, according to John Kaehny, executive director of watchdog Reinvent Albany.

Mermelstein was a founder and CEO of real estate firm One & Only Realty, as well as a founder and CEO of One & Only Holdings, "a company that caters to the needs of high-net-worth individuals," his website says. The site boasts of One & Only Holdings' "international strategic alliances."

In February, the mayor's office "sends a list to the Conflict of Interest Board naming all of the people and positions with substantial policymaking authority," Kaehny said. "We'll see if this person or position are listed."

A spokesman for Adams' office pointed to Mermelstein's previous work leading ZAKA International, a nonprofit that's been recognized by the United Nations and, according to their website is "Israel's dominant non-governmental rescue and recovery organization."

"As the mayor has repeatedly said, he is picking the best people for the right jobs, and Ed is the right person. New York City is the center of the universe and we need an international affairs commissioner with extensive global experience, including leadership of a UN-recognized international search and rescue organization," the spokesman said. "Ed has already proven himself to be a dedicated and talented public servant, and his work at the Mayor's Office of International Affairs will advance our mission of cross-cultural collaboration between our city and municipalities around the world."

Key link in the PR world

Ronn Torossian and Eric Adams attend the Mayor Elect Eric Adams Celebration Party at Zero Bond on November 02, 2021 in New York City.
Eugene Gologursky | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Ronn Torossian and Eric Adams attend the Mayor Elect Eric Adams Celebration Party at Zero Bond on November 02, 2021 in New York City.

Mermelstein has been friends for years with public relations executive Torossian, according to people familiar with the matter and social media photographs showing the two together. Those who declined to be named in this story did so in order to speak freely about private matters.

A person with direct knowledge of their relationship says that Mermelstein was once a client of Torossian's. The two reportedly went out to dinner with Adams himself days after his November election victory.

Torossian had nothing to do with Adams hiring Mermelstein, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be named.

Mermelstein would not comment on his past links to Torossian, who is the founder and CEO of 5WPR. Torossian also declined to comment.

Torossian's links to the mayor are under scrutiny since it became public that he had spent time with Adams since the later stages of the campaign through Election Day. Adams and Torossian have not seen or spoken with each other since the latest wave of stories, according to people familiar with the matter.

The New York Times reported an Adams fundraiser that was supposed to be co-hosted by Torossian was cancelled. A person familiar with the matter said Adams and Torossian haven't spoken or been in contact since Dec. 1.

Torossian helped organize an election night victory party at the members-only nightclub Zero Bond, where former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, rapper Ja Rule, actor and director Forest Whitaker, along with Knicks and Rangers owner James Dolan were all present.

Shortly after it was discovered that Torossian was becoming close to Adams, the Daily Beast reported that former 5WPR staffers were disgruntled over how Torossian dealt with people who were deemed to be disloyal to him. Torossian has disputed those accounts.

Torossian was once reportedly close to Republican former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who served time in prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud.

Torossian has also done public relations work for the Erdogan-led Turkish government, which has been accused of human-rights violations and anti-democratic policies. One of Mermelstein's first visits was to Turkey's new permanent mission in New York, which is known as the Turkevi Center.

Torossian has also represented Felix Sater, a convicted criminal and former Trump business associate who had ties to Russian mobsters.

5W's website says the firm also has represented Payless, L'Oreal, Topps and various blockchain companies, among others.

Ties to an oligarch

Russian businessman and billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images
Russian businessman and billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

Mermelstein also told CNBC that one his past clients was a foundation called The Link of Times, which was founded by Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch. Vekselberg's net worth is just north of $9 billion, according to Forbes.

Mermelstein's website lists him as a previous U.S. regional director of the foundation, which helped establish the Faberge Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He held the post for the foundation between 2004 and 2009, according to his site.

"The items of greatest value in the collection are nine Easter eggs made by artisans employed by the House of Faberge for the last two Russian emperors," the museum's site says.

Vekeslberg, who was born in Ukraine, founded the Russia-based conglomerate known as the Renova Group. Its portfolio includes investments in a wide variety of industries such as oil, metals and telecom businesses.

In April 2018, the U.S. Treasury under then-President Donald Trump announced sanctions against Vekeslberg and other Russian oligarchs over what was defined as the government's "malign activity around the globe." That activity, according to then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, included the 2014 invasion of Crimea in Ukraine.

"Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government's destabilizing activities," Mnuchin said in his statement at the time.

Vekselberg said last year that he has more than $1.5 billion in frozen overseas assets that he cannot access without permission from the Treasury, due to the sanctions.

Vekselberg was also once connected to Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. The New York Times previously reported that the Russian businessman was questioned by investigators from former special counsel Robert Mueller's team. Mueller was looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A spokesman for Vekselberg did not return an email seeking comment.

Business with Trump

The entrance to Trump Tower on 5th Avenue is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., June 30, 2021.
Angus Mordant | Reuters
The entrance to Trump Tower on 5th Avenue is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., June 30, 2021.

Mermelstein also told CNBC that he conducted business with Trump's real estate company, the Trump Organization, which is under investigation for potential tax fraud in New York.

Mermelstein said he worked with the Trump management office as an attorney and as a real estate broker for clients who wanted to buy or rent properties in Trump buildings.

"I don't know how many times, but just like with any other company we worked with, if properties that our clients are living in or renting, we work with them. Trump is just one of them," Mermelstein said.

"It's for any Trump building. You have to go through the process. When you rent an apartment or when you buy an apartment you go through an application process, I'm assuming. That's what I did on behalf of my clients," he said.

"If you are looking for an apartment and you used my company to do that, I would, at a certain point, have to speak to whoever the property manager is that deals with approving or going through the process of on boarding, whether it's the tenant or a buyer," he added.

Mermelstein did not provide further details on whom he helped get an apartment at a Trump Organization building.

A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization did not return a request for comment.

Copyright CNBCs - CNBC
Contact Us