It is still not clear whether Benczkowski plans to recuse himself from all other matters related to Alfa Group, whose founders—Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, and German Khan—were named on a Treasury Department list of “senior foreign officials and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.” Khan’s son-in-law, Alex Van der Zwaan, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI earlier this year about his interactions with associates of Paul Manafort, the former Trump-campaign chairman who is now awaiting trial on charges related to his work for pro-Russian former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Whether Benczkowski recuses himself from Alfa Group–related matters is significant because the company has come under scrutiny in the United States before: Three years ago, a telecommunications company majority-owned by Fridman and listed in New York, VimpelCom, was fined more than $400 million by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission after it admitted to bribing a government official in Uzbekistan, in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “VimpelCom also agreed to … cooperate fully with the department’s ongoing investigation, including its investigation of individuals,” the Justice Department wrote in a 2016 press release. A spokesman for Fridman and Alfa Group said he was not aware of any “ongoing investigations of Alfa Group or Mr. Fridman in relation to the Uzbek matter concerning VimpelCom.”
The Senate Democrats Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Richard Blumenthal, Mazie Hirono, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Mark Warner, Ron Wyden, Martin Heinrich, and Jack Reed will send a letter to Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus on Tuesday, specifically raising concerns over Benczkowski and Alfa Group, according to a copy of the letter I obtained. “Before his confirmation, Mr. Benczkowski committed to recuse himself … from all matters related to Alfa Bank,” the lawmakers write. “He did not, however, commit to recuse himself from all matters related to the Alfa Group Consortium, the parent company of Alfa Bank, or individuals related to that entity.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to discuss the possibility of recusals from specific probes, “because to do so could confirm the existence or scope of an investigation,” she told me. “Like all DOJ attorneys, Mr. Benczkowski has testified that he would consult with our career ethics advisers to determine what, if any, ongoing matters he would need to recuse from.”
Alfa Group is one of the few remaining private companies in Russia, and Fridman is arguably Russia’s most successful private banker. A dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, said that Alfa is “on very good terms with” Putin, and that they have done each other “significant favors.” Fridman and others named in the dossier sued BuzzFeed in May 2017 for publishing the document, which they claim contains false and defamatory accusations.