MOSCOW -- Jared Kushner's December meeting with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov is a focus in the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, sources told ABC News.
In the wake of reports that Kushner, the president's son-in-law, discussed establishing back-channel communications with the Russian government during Trump’s transition, Kushner and Gorkov's meeting is once again under scrutiny.
Attention has also naturally fallen on Gorkov, the banking executive, who graduated from a Russian security services school and now runs one of Kremlin’s key financial institutions.
Gorkov refused to answer questions about the meeting when stopped by reporters on the sidelines of an economic forum in St. Petersburg today, saying he had nothing more to add.
"We have already given all our comment on this," Gorkov said. "We have a lot of meetings."
Gorkov is chairman of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a non-commercial development bank controlled by the Russian government. Tasked with funding efforts that will develop Russia’s economy, VEB’s role has often been to effectively serve as a piggy bank for major Kremlin projects that have more of a political justification than a financial one.
An obvious illustration of the bank’s role was during the Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in 2014 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The bank supplied most of the funding for the vast infrastructure construction undertaken for the Games, providing loans for projects that were deemed unlikely ever to make returns, according to the Associated Press. Opposition activists alleged the Games, which were ultimately estimated to cost over $50 billion, were exploited for corrupt construction deals.
VEB was used in particular to ensure that the facilities for the Games were completed, even when their costs began to run far ahead of the returns they could be expected to produce. The bank guaranteed 70 percent of many of the Olympic projects, sometimes more.
“VEB is used by the government as a second budget,” Sergey Aleksashenko, a former deputy chair of Russia’s Central Bank and now a fellow at Georgetown University told Bloomberg at the time. The U.S. has noted the bank’s role, imposing sanctions on it in response to Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
In March 2016, the FBI caught a man working for Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, known as the SVR, posing as a senior employee of Vnesheconombank in New York. The man, Evgeny Buryakov, pleaded guilty to espionage and was deported earlier this year. During his trial, Vnesheconombank paid Buryakov’s legal costs.
In a further twist, it has emerged Buryakov was part of an effort at the time to recruit Carter Page as an intelligence source. Page, a U.S. businessman and one-time Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, is now also under scrutiny in the Russia investigation. The FBI indictment of Buryakov includes his description of the attempts in 2013 by Russian operatives who held themselves out as Russian trade officials to persuade Page to provide them with documents on energy policy. The attempt took place years before Trump declared his candidacy and Page has denied he was aware the men were spies. In a statement to ABC News in April, Page wrote that he shared "basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents."
Gorkov himself has a connection to the intelligence world. According to his official bio at the Russian bank, Sberbank, where he later worked, in the early 1990s, Gorkov graduated from an academy run by the Federal Security Service or FSB, the successor to the KGB.
That background is common among top officials in Putin’s government. Gorkov, however, has a feature on his CV that that does stick out among Putin’s inner circle. After graduating, Gorkov began working as a human resources director at the Russian bank Menatep, which at the time belonged to the oligarch and later Putin nemesis, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky was famously jailed for 10 years after challenging Putin’s political authority. Gorkov also headed the HR department at YUKOS, Khodorkovsky’s oil company, which after his downfall was carved up and parceled out to parts of Putin’s inner circle.
Gorkov’s time at YUKOS, however, appears to have done no harm to his career under Putin. After YUKOS was broken up, Gorkov completed a three-year stint at a private transport company and then moved to Sberbank, Russia’s largest state bank, again managing human resources. The Russian newspaper, RBC, reported that at Sberbank, Gorkov was tasked with overseeing mass layoffs. Between 2008 and 2010, he cut 30,000 jobs at the bank.
His experience at Sberbank illustrates a different side of Gorkov: his career as a corporate bank executive. In interviews with his former colleagues given to the Russian business paper, RBC, Gorkhov is described as an effective -- if slightly colorless -- administrator. In his public speeches dedicated to banking topics, he speaks in detail about managerial issues and finance technologies.
It is this side that perhaps in part explains Gorkov’s rise to head VEB. He was appointed chairman of VEB in 2016, when the bank was in serious trouble, requiring a $16 billion bail-out. The bail-out was partly the legacy of its financially questionable loans for the Kremlin’s politically motivated projects. Gorkov’s appointment at the time was seen as bringing in an effective crisis manager to replace Vladimir Dmitriev, a Putin insider under whom things had run out of control.
Nonetheless, Gorkov’s security services background was apparently still important. At the time, an anonymous source close to the bank told RBC that Putin’s administration felt someone with a “security services background” would make the best candidate for the job. Of the 11 deputy chief executives at Sberbank, RBC noted, Gorkhov was the only one who fit the bill.
VEB has confirmed the meeting with Kushner took place, saying it was part of a series of meetings the bank held with top Western executives to inform a new strategy it was developing.
"As part of the preparation of the new strategy, executives of Vnesheconombank met with representatives of leading financial institutes in Europe, Asia and America multiple times during 2016," VEB said in an emailed statement to Reuters. “Including the head of Kushner Companies, Jared Kushner."
The White House has said the meeting was routine, although the subject of their conversation has not been made public.
Kushner's lawyer said he would be willing to share with Congress "what he knows about these meetings."