New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?

By the time I get Ian Urbina on the phone Wednesday afternoon, he’s ready to tell his story. He picks up on the first ring and makes quick work of the pleasantries. “So, if it’s okay with you,” he says, “my inkling would be to start with kind of its origin story? You’re welcome to record.” Sure, I say, and away he goes.

It’s not hard to hear the edge of unease in his voice, the anxiety of a veteran newspaperman who has had a hand in crafting many narratives and has spent the last five days watching his own spin decisively out of control. To be fair, his particular crisis is one that a Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times reporter could scarcely have imagined unfolding even a few years ago. It’s a distinctly 2021 scandal, and one he’s figuring out how to navigate on the fly.

The week before had started out actually quite well for Urbina. On Sunday, November 28, the New Yorker published his 10,000-word opus about Libya’s renegade coast guard militias, a piece that landed him a spot on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes and NPR’s All Things Considered. But then, on Thursday, came something unexpected. A musician and YouTuber named Benn Jordan posted a 20-minute video entitled “How A NYTimes Reporter Collects Royalties From Hundreds of Musicians” that accused him of engineering an elaborate swindle in an entirely different line of business. Urbina was signing up artists to make music for a side project by promising them huge exposure that never materialized in exchange for collecting half the revenue. The case laid out by Jordan was strange, outrageous, and not entirely accurate —and triggered a swift Twitter pile-on.

It was at this juncture that Urbina made a questionable tactical decision. He went on the attack. Instead of engaging with the charges, he tried to crush them, blocking Jordan on Twitter along with anyone else who criticized him. He posted a statement on Medium calling Jordan’s video a “mass trolling.” And he shut down journalists trying to report out the story. When Inputmagazine reached out to him, Urbina declined to answer questions, nor did he respond when Rolling Stone asked for comment.

The results were not good. “Folks were making death threats,” Urbina tells me.

“You’re getting death threats?” I ask.

“Not a lot of them. But yes, we’ve gotten, you know, it’s just — you would be amazed.” Then he catches himself, and I feel the weird hall-of-mirrors effect of interviewing someone who is very experienced at interviewing others and therefore very aware of how his words sound and how they might be used. “But, you know, I don’t know if I should say that on record, because it could be like, ‘Oh, look, he’s complaining and he’s trying to play this.’ And I’m not doing that.”

He presses on, explaining in a clear, steady cadence what happened and why. It’s all a misunderstanding, he says; and where Jordan sees a scam, Urbina describes a plan to expand the reach of his journalism to a new audience. The case he makes is mostly compelling, but there are gaps. Continue reading New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?

New York: ‘It Was Weird and Culty’: Carlos Watson’s Mismanagement of Ozy

In the end, Ozy got the attention it always craved. The digital media site was founded in 2013 with the intention of breaking the mold of conventional media. But few of its stories ever got traction, and the site itself was rarely talked about. That all changed this past Sunday, when the Times’s Ben Smith revealed that its two top executives had attempted to deceive potential investors on a conference call by pretending that one of them was a YouTube executive — an act that prompted an FBI investigation. The story exploded in media circles. Wave after wave of follow-up stories uncovered new layers of deception. Everyone was talking about Ozy but in the worst possible way: as a fraud, a media Potemkin village, as former Ozy editor-at-large Eugene Robinson described it to Smith. On Friday evening, the company announced that it was shutting down.

If the company had merely been an empty shell propped up to lure positive publicity and venture-capital dollars, it likely would have been less alarming than the apparent reality. According to the five former Ozy staffers Intelligencer spoke with, what’s remarkable isn’t how little there was behind the façade but how much. These staffers say that founder and CEO Carlos Watson’s demands, expectations, and plans were often detached from reality, yet were enforced with an intensity that some felt bordered on cruelty. They describe throwing themselves into the challenge, often at the expense of their mental health, even as the company failed over and over to gain popularity with the public.

“It’s an incredible dereliction that speaks to a great tragedy,” says Ozy’s former editor-at-large Eugene Robinson. Continue reading New York: ‘It Was Weird and Culty’: Carlos Watson’s Mismanagement of Ozy

Men’s Journal: Tether Is a Trail of Shady Deals and Shattered Promises. Too Bad Cryptocurrency Now Depends on It

CAS PIANCEY could feel his heart pounding as the elevator doors slid open onto a tiled corridor of the eighth floor of the K Wah Centre. He was sweat-grimed and wrung out after a day of scouring Hong Kong for traces of a mysterious corporate entity. This was his final stop. Ahead lay a door marked “Proxy CPA Co. Ltd.” Piancey reached for the buzzer, then paused. What if the people he was chasing were really here—and understood what he was after?

It was September 2018, and Piancey, a cryptocurrency journalist, had flown from Los Angeles on a hunch. (“Piancey” is a pseudonym; doxxing is an occupational hazard best conducted anonymously.) He suspected that a handful of very clever and not particularly scrupulous people had come up with a way to create money in any quantity at the stroke of a keyboard—artificial electronic dollar bills that could be swapped for the real stuff. If he was right, these people were pulling off the swindle of a lifetime, a scam that would dwarf Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. If he was wrong, he owed some serious apologies.

Piancey pressed the buzzer. A Chinese woman in her 40s appeared. “Hello, can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Tether. This is the listed address. Is this Tether?”

“No, no,” she shook her head. “I have never heard of Tether. Sorry.” She disappeared.

And there it was. A company that supposedly held $3 billion in assets didn’t have a real office. Continue reading Men’s Journal: Tether Is a Trail of Shady Deals and Shattered Promises. Too Bad Cryptocurrency Now Depends on It

New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

Belarus’s use of deception and military threat to waylay a Ryanair flight Sunday and detain a prominent journalist critical of the country’s dictator was a clear-cut violation of international aviation law, legal experts say. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” said Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.

Ryanair flight 4978 was transiting Belarus airspace en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when, according to the airline, air-traffic controllers told the flight crew that there was a bomb aboard and asked them to land in the capital, Minsk. A MiG-29 fighter jet dispatched to intercept the flight added weight to the request. Upon landing, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, was removed from the plane and taken into custody.

“International law obviously prohibits the use of armed force against commercial aircraft,” says aviation attorney Arthur Rosenberg. The International Civil Aviation Organization “has standards governing the interception of commercial aircraft by the military.”

ICAO, an agency of the U.N., was established by an international agreement called the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944. The Chicago Convention is the foundational document of international aviation law and has been ratified by virtually every country on Earth, including Belarus. It specifically prohibits the use of military force against passenger flights, stating: “The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.” There are situations in which a state can use force against a civil aircraft, such as self-defense, or if a plane violates its airspace without permission, but neither applies in this case. Continue reading New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

Within a few months of the disappearance of MH370 I began investigating why a Russian and two Ukrainians were on the plane, as I’ve previously described here and here.

I quickly learned that the two men jointly owned a furniture company in Odessa, Ukraine called Nika Mebel. The company started a website around June, 2013, that retailed furniture it made in its own factory. Within a few months it added furniture imported from China and Malaysia. On the site the company described itself like this: “Continuous improvement of technological equipment and staff training helped us grow into a large furniture manufacturing company in Ukraine….  Over a 15-year period of time, we managed to make ourselves known on most of the territory of Ukraine, as well as beyond its borders.”

In an affadavit filed in 2017 as part of her effort to have her husband declared legally dead, Tatiana Chustrak stated that:

“In the court session it was established that the applicant’s husband was engaged in private business, namely, with his friend and business partner, Deineka Sergey Grigorievich, had a shop for furniture production.
March 02, 2014, a man, along with a partner, went on a business trip abroad. The purpose of the trip was to visit the international furniture exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and on March 8, it was planned to fly to Beijing Airport, China, and then fly to Guangzhou, China, where an international furniture exhibition was also planned. According to this plan, the relevant tickets were purchased.”

I hired researchers in Ukraine and asked them to reach out to Dmitriy Kozlov, the manager of Nika Mebel. I figured that he’d have detailed knowledge of the trip, because according to Nika Mebel’s filings he was the only person authorized to operate the company apart from Chustrak and Deineka — in effect, for years after their disappearance, he was Nika Mebel.

My investigators reported back to me: Continue reading Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

New York: Michael Cohen on How ‘Monster’ Trump Will Undermine Biden

Back in February 2019, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen declared at a House Oversight Committee hearing that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, “there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Years of service as Trump’s bagman and consigliere — including participation in crimes that landed Cohen in prison with a three-year sentence — had provided him unique insight into the thoughts of the man he once called the Boss. With that in mind, New York asked Cohen to interpret Trump’s ongoing election meltdown.

Is there a strategy behind the tantrum Trump has been throwing since November 3? 
It’s all a shameless con job. He sees his claims of fraud as driving up donations — there’s nothing behind it beyond greed. Trump is using the moment to raise money. The number is actually shockingly large, over $150 million, a majority of it from small-dollar donations. This money is not going to his Election Defense Fund; it’s to keep him relevant in the GOP and launch his media brand. It’s all about money and power, and you need one to get the other.

Does he really believe massive election fraud took place?
There is that part of him that cannot accept losing. In his mind, the only way Biden could have won is through fraud. He has convinced himself of a narrative and is being fed back what he wants to hear from sycophants. The only one of these scumbags who truly believes this crap is Sidney Powell, but she is legitimately insane. Continue reading New York: Michael Cohen on How ‘Monster’ Trump Will Undermine Biden

New York: Times’ Trump Tax Scoop Doesn’t Prove Criminality. But Does it Point the Way?

The New York Times’ blockbuster unveiling of President Trump’s tax returns features a wealth of unsavory revelations, including the fact that he used aggressive accounting to avoid paying taxes on hundreds of millions of dollars of income. But while the scoop may yield political fallout, there’s little in this phase of the Times’ reporting that in itself suggests criminal exposure for the president in the form of tax-fraud charges. “What you have,” says former IRS criminal investigator Martin Sheil, “is a pattern of constantly pushing the envelope, exploiting every tax advantage that the Internal Revenue Code legitimately provides.”

The president was able to pull this off because of decades of political pressure from the wealthy to recast the tax system in their favor, Shein says: “There are so many legal deductions that businesses — such as real-estate moguls — have lobbied for and obtained and that Mr. Trump is now exploiting.”

Even if Trump is eventually found to have gone beyond the bounds of the law — if, for instance, IRS auditors ultimately reject the $70,000 that Trump deducted in hair-styling expenses — that would only be a civil matter, resulting in the imposition of a monetary penalty.

Trump’s tax filings could put him in danger, Sheil says, is if they are contradicted by other financial filings that indicate the president knowingly misrepresented his finances on one or more of them. As I recently reported for New York about Trump’s criminal exposure, falsifying business records can be charged as a felony with a maximum penalty of five years in prison if it is committed in the furtherance of another crime, such as tax fraud.

One place to look for inconsistencies, Sheil says, is in the tax forms’ depreciation schedules. “It sounds pretty arcane,” he says, “but it might be important, because when you depreciate an asset you have have to show the cost basis of that asset on the tax return. It should be the same amount that you use in loan applications to banks when you use it as collateral to purchase additional commercial property or golf courses or whatever. If you are enhancing these assets’ value falsely — putting down a different number on your financial statements than what’s on your tax returns — how do you explain that? You’re boxed in.” Likewise, any inconsistency between property-tax filings or insurance applications could also suggest fraud.

The Times’ revelations come as Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. seemed poised to win a yearlong subpoena battle against Trump to obtain financial documents from Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars. If Vance’s bid is successful, he could obtain not only Trump’s tax returns but other financial filings and correspondence with his accountants that could reveal discrepancies and demonstrate an awareness on Trump’s part that he was engaging in criminal conduct — a prerequisite for felony fraud charges. Last week, in a court filing with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Vance’s office indicated publicly for the first time that it was weighing tax-fraud charges against Trump.

The origin of Vance’s case was the discovery by Mueller investigators that Trump had directed Michael Cohen to make hush-money payments to a former lover, the porn star Stormy Daniels, and then falsely claimed the expenditure as legal expenses. “It raises the question in my mind of why a guy who is so privileged, has access to the best lawyers and accountants and can take every advantage of the tax code—why would someone like that have to go even further and commit tax fraud? What kind of person does that?” asks Sheil. “It’s not too hard for a jury, once they’re informed as to the pattern of illegitimate financial conduct by a person, to understand his state of mind. I think that Mr Trump has created a real problem for himself if these things turn out to be true.”

This story originally ran in New York magazine on September 28, 2020.