Tropical Hypocrisy: One Russian Lawmaker's Florida Real Estate Problem

The chairman of Russia's ethics committee opposes foreign property holdings -- except for himself.

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Visitors walk along Ocean Drive, temporarily closed to vehicles for the weekend, during the Urban Beach Weekend, on southern Miami Beach on May 26, 2012. (Andrew Innerarity/Reuters)

The late Christopher Hitchens liked to say of any outspoken homophobe from the Beltway to the Bible Belt that "sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite." A similar, if slightly less colorful, rule applies to loudmouth Russian officials who inveigh against the evils of the United States and routinely render glory unto the Motherland. One need only count the hours before a portfolio emerges showing a strong preference for beachfront properties located everywhere but on the Black Sea.

Not only does a jingoistic anti-American Russian lawmaker love the Sunshine State, he also clearly enjoys doing business in a country with transparency and the rule of law.

Embattled anti-corruption campaigner and opposition political figure Alexey Navalny had great good fun in the last fortnight showing how Vladimir Pekhtin -- not just a decade-long United Russia State Duma deputy but the chairman of the State Duma Ethics Committee -- was in violation of the bill he has co-sponsored banning state officials from owning property, bank accounts or assets abroad, punishable by a $328,000 fine and five years in jail for violators. A slightly watered-down version of the bill (this one proscribing stocks and bank accounts but allowing "declared" property) passed the lower house of parliament unanimously on Friday and will almost certainly become a law as part of Vladimir Putin's new " deoffshorization " effort to keep rubles from leaving Russia.

It seems that none of the Floridian condos, homes or land plots which Pekhtin co-owns with his 35 year-old son Aleksey, and which Navalny reckoned are worth more than $2 million, had been declared in Pekhtin's public financial disclosures. Even before the ban on foreign holdings is passed, these hidden assets would pose a problem for any state official the Duma's draft code of ethics for deputies: "The failure by any Duma deputy to submit a declaration of his income, assets, and liabilities, as well as the income, assets, and liabilities of his spouse and underage children, or the submission of an untrue or partial declaration, is a violation of the laws of deputy ethics."

For a man who supports the current ban on American adoption of Russian orphans, as well as the paranoid effort to register NGOs as "foreign agents," Pekhtin's voting record is in his many property deeds and bills of purchase in Florida. And his response to the disclosures, which Navalny obtained from the original spadework of Russian blogger/physicist Doctor Z, was a marvel of semantic ingenuity. An initial interview with the pro-regime newspaper Izvestia went like this:

Izvestia: "Tell me, in principle, do you have any property outside of Russia?"

Pekhtin: "Well, practically nothing."

I: "Practically? So yes or no?"

P: "No, I do not! I've lived here all my life in Russia."

Pekhtin later corrected himself and said that everything listed in his name belonged to his son who first went to the U.S. for academic study, then started businesses there; if Pekhtin's name was scribbled onto a few property deeds, well, that didn't make him an owner. But this absurdity was plainly too much for Putin. On February 15, Pekhtin resigned from the Duma Ethics Committee chairmanship pending an investigation into the offshore assets he claims he doesn't have. Then, on February 20, he resigned from parliament altogether with a stentorian valedictory that was broadcast on state television and had his fellow MPs on their feet with applause.

"I will give up my mandate, which I always achieved in honest political battle, and my rivals, my opponents, know this," he said. "Nevertheless, I will not cling to it. Because I think that my personal matters are secondary to United Russia. Thank you for many years of work, and for your devotion. We will fight on."

Presented by

Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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