Foreign buyers have long parked their fortunes in so-called "safe deposit boxes in the sky": Manhattan's condo towers. But they're doing it now more than ever, and the identities of the purchasers of these multi-million dollar apartments are often shielded behind a twisty trail of limited-liability corporations, trusts, or other shell companies. An impressive, thorough Times investigation that took over a year exposed the flesh-and-blood people behind 200 of these opaque companiesand it turns out that several of the owners are in some way tinged by scandal. The first two installments in a five-part series called Towers of Secrecy are now live. The first piece zooms in on the uber-expensive Time Warner Center, which is the "New York archetype of the global phenomenon, reflecting intertwined trendsthe increasing sums of foreign money in high-end real estate and the growing use of shell companies. ... In 2003, one-third of the units sold in Time Warner were purchased by shell companies. By 2014, that figure was over 80 percent."
Within the dark, glassy towers, completed in 2003 in Columbus Circle, ownership isn't tracked too carefully. "The building doesn't know where the money is coming from," a former manager said. "We're not interested." Said one broker of the proliferation of condos, with less stringent restrictions than New York's white-glove co-ops: "It's a way foreigners can do whatever they want here." At Time Warner Center, the Times counted 17 Forbes-minted billionaires among the owners, hailing from locales that range from Russia and Kazakhstan to China and Malaysia. The ownership roster, past and present, also includes celebrities like Tom Brady and Jimmy Buffett, plus more dubious bold-faced names, like a "Millionaire Matchmaker" love-hunter. But the most interestingand scandalousdiscoveries the Times made was to lay bare some of the foreign buyers at Time Warner Center who are or were embroiled in various misdoings (alleged or proven).
For more details on the 14 unmasked buyers below, head to the Times piece, which is fascinating and meaty as all get out.
1) Vitaly Malkin, $15.65 million
A former Russian senator "barred from entering Canada because of suspected connections to organized crime" bought a 74th-floor apartment in 2010 behind a 25CC ST74B LLC. Said one of the brokers on his purchase: "They have to have the money. Other than that, that's it. That's all we need."
2) Dimitrios Contominas, $21.4 million
Down the hall from Malkin, a Greek magnate owned a condo, but he sold it last fall after he was arrested "as part of a corruption sweep." Contominas, though, denies allegations that he "used a commercial loan for personal expenditures"specifically, to buy his daughter a house in London.
3) Wang Wenliang, $25.6 million
Columbus Skyline LLC bought three condos, and the Times doggedly traced the LLC back to "the family of a Chinese businessman and contractor named Wang Wenliang. His construction company was found housing workers in New Jersey in hazardous, unsanitary conditions." In China, his construction company is known for building consulates and embassies, and he is on the board of trustees at NYU, an institution to which he donated $25 million. When asked about Wang's purchase, a broker for Time Warner Center replied, "How do you know about him?"
4) Anil Agarwal, $9.1 million
Units 72B and 51E were purchased by The Amantea Corporation, which turns out to be a shell company for Indian mining mogul Anil Agarwal. The Times pithily sums up his scandal: "An Indian judge found that he and family members had improperly moved money out of the country. His company was found to have caused severe pollution in India and Zambia."
5) Anna Ai Fang, $2.1 million
The daughter of a former Chinese official bought 58E in 2004listing her Columbia dorm room on the deed. Though her father, Fang Fenglei, hasn't been implicated in any wrongdoings, he did leave a career running Chinese state-run banks to work for Goldman Sachs around the time the condo changed hands.
6) Alexander Varshavsky, $20.5 million
Prime International Management Group shelled out that $20.5M for apartment 62CEin cash. Turns out that company is controlled by Russian auto-dealership owner Alexander Varshavsky. Varshavsky, who is a U.S. citizen, is currently under investigation for not reporting a foreign bank account: "A lawyer for Mr. Varshavsky disputed the allegations and said he expected the complaint to be dropped. Meanwhile the case is pending, and Mr. Varshavsky posted bailhis Time Warner condo."
7) Prince Bandar bin Sultan (and relations)
Members of the Saudi royal family picked up some units in the Time Warner Center back in 2006and a member of the condo board at the time had no clue. One of the apartments was linked to "Princess Haifa bint Faisal, the daughter of a former Saudi king, and her husband, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the United States." The princess had made headlines "because of reports that some of her money had gone to a figure who aided the Sept. 11 hijackers. (The United States commission that investigated the attacks found no evidence that the money assisted the hijackers, either directly or indirectly.)"
8) Pablo Ardila, $4 million
"A former provincial governor in Colombia known for hunting trophies and lavish spending. Mr. Ardila acknowledged to The Times in 2004 that he and his parents had set up a shell company to buy a $4 million condo in the building. In 2007, while he was in office, Mr. Ardila was arrested and immediately jailed by local officials on charges of enriching himself illicitly."
9) Stewart Ford, $6 million
"Stewart Ford, another Time Warner owner, was facing a fraud investigation in October 2010 when he transferred the $6 million condominium he had bought in his own name to a shell company. At the time, Mr. Ford's firm, Keydata Investment Services, was at the center of one of the biggest financial collapses in Britain, with an estimated 30,000 victims."
10) James Nicholson, $8.5 million
"Just two months after the collapse of the Ponzi scheme run by Bernard L. Madoff in 2008, another Ponzi schemer was arrested: James Nicholson, whose Time Warner condominium was frozen. Mr. Nicholson's $8.5 million unit would become the only one in the complex to be seized and sold off by law enforcement officials, even though other owners have been accused of wrongdoing. The difference is that Mr. Nicholson is an American citizen."
11, 12, and 13) Maxim Finskiy, Robert Tsao, and Adam Chen
At present, these folks aren't tinged with any sort of legal troubles; they're merely big spenders who have set up shop in the Time Warner Center. Maxim Finskiy is a Russian businessman connected to Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov; Robert Tsao is a major art collector who gave up Taiwanese citizenship after he got sued by authorities there; and Adam Chen is a 2014 NYU graduate who celebrate his last birthday at the building's gold-standard restaurant (which costs about as much), Per Se.
14) Jho Low, $30.55 million
A mysterious Malaysian businessman and major player on the global social scene, Jho Low is the fascinating, complicated subject of part two in Times series. He has complicated ties to the Malaysian prime minister's family, and has served as a buyer of real estate for numerous others. (He's spent $140 million total on homes in New York and L.A.)
Here's Low's Time Warner Center tie: "With the penthouses on the top five floors of the north tower came wraparound viewsthe Catskills far off to the northwest, the Statue of Liberty just beyond the southern tip of Manhattan, and Central Park right next door. Mr. Low went to view Penthouse 76B with a retinue of women and told people involved in the deal that he would pay $30.55 millionall cash, as in his other real estate purchases." Low's friends already owned apartments there, and another high-profile Malaysian figure did, too.
The Times tried to ascertain where Low was buying for himself or for others. "One member of the condominium board and another person with direct knowledge of the deal said they believed that Mr. Low was buying for a group of investors. One of them recalled Mr. Low saying that a main investor was the family of Prime Minister Najib. In its statement to The Times, the prime minister's office said Mr. Najib had no financial interest or any agreement related to any Time Warner condominiums. Mr. Low's statement said that the condo was owned by his family's trust and that he and other family members 'stay there from time to time when they are in New York.'"
UPDATE: The next installment in the Times series chronicles the case of Indian builder Kabul Chawla, whose development projects at home remain unfinished as he purchased a Time Warner Center apartment.
15) Kabul Chawla, $19.4 million
The developer faced backlash in India due to delays in completing a residential development in which hundreds of buyers had made purchases. And while under fire back home, the Times unearthed documentation that connects Chawla to the $19.4 million cash purchase, in 2012, of a 4,050-square-foot Time Warner condo on the 68th floor "with five bedrooms, a media/playroom, soaring ceilings and Central Park views." Chawla claims that his cousin owns the apartment, while he just stays there, but his son's Instagram account, e-mails between brokers, and other investigating all point to Chawla himself.
It seems former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's wishful thinking, stated on his radio show in 2013, has become more like a
dream nightmare-come-true: "If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend."
· A Summary: The Hidden Money Buying Condos at the Time Warner Center [NYT]
· Well Connected at Home, Young Malaysian Has an Appetite for New York [NYT]
· Amid Complaints in India, a Real Estate Deal in Manhattan [NYT]
· Good and Bad Super-Luxury Condo Buyers Love the LLC [Miller Samuel]
· The 13 Most Insane Lines from NY Mag's Foreign Buyers Story [Curbed]
· All Time Warner Center coverage [Curbed]