An investment fund backed by Russian oligarchs sanctioned by the European Union following the invasion of Ukraine has ties to Teneo, an influential US-based business advisory firm.
The PR and strategy giant was hired in 2020 by LetterOne, a Luxembourg-based private equity firm that counts sanctioned billionaires Mikhail Fridman from Ukraine and Petr Aven among its co-founders. The contract appears to have paid Teneo more than $3.6 million to arrange interviews and consult on media strategy in the United States.
LetterOne was founded by Fridman, Aven, Alexei Kuzmichev, Andrei Kosogov and German Khan, all of whom are among the wealthiest Russian-based business leaders. All five founders served on LetterOne’s board of directors, with Fridman serving as chairman, according to PitchBook data reviewed by CNBC. The executives launched the company in 2013 after creating Alfa Group, one of Russia’s largest conglomerates.
Fridman and Aven have been accused by the EU of having ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, allegations that were denied in a statement emailed to CNBC. The statement didn’t answer any of CNBC’s questions about LetterOne’s work with Teneo or how the investment fund plans to move forward now that two of their founders have been sanctioned. Fridman’s bank, Alfa Bank, was also sanctioned by the United States. He called for an end to the war in Ukraine.
After CNBC questioned a LetterOne representative on Monday about their business, including their relationship with Teneo, several pages of their website, including the “our people” section, appear to have been scrubbed Tuesday morning. An error message now appears on this section which lists the founders and managers of the company. The LetterOne council section is still active but it no longer shows Fridman and Aven as members of their council.
LetterOne spokesman Joshua Hardie said Fridman and Aven resigned from the board on Tuesday. CNBC first contacted the private equity firm on Monday.
Although the emails to Teneo were not returned, Kathleen Lacey, senior managing director of Teneo who was listed in a document as working on the LetterOne account, told CNBC in a brief phone call Monday that they were no longer a client of hers and believed her. the company no longer represented them.
The Justice Department’s FARA unit, which oversees U.S. lobbying and advisory work for foreign officials, told CNBC on Tuesday that the contract between Teneo and LetterOne “remains active.”
LetterOne has multiple ties to Teneo, which was founded by two Democratic consultants who worked for former Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The private equity firm has been involved in nearly a dozen deals valued at over $1 billion, according to PitchBook. Uber saw a $200 million investment from LetterOne in 2016.
Teneo has since grown into a consulting giant, with former clients including Dow Chemical and Coca Cola. Foreign clients include Neom, a company backed by the juggernaut Public Investment Fund with the aim of creating a megacity in Saudi Arabia and a foundation headed by an Emirati princess.
Their listed senior advisers are a who’s who of political and business leaders, including former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, former Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris and Harvey Pitt, l former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Doug Band, who was once one of Bill Clinton’s closest aides, founded Teneo with Declan Kelly and Paul Keary. Kelly worked as special envoy to Northern Ireland in the Obama administration and helped Hillary Clinton run for president in 2008. Band and Kelly have since left the company. event organized by the Global Citizen association. Keary became the CEO after Kelly resigned.
A contract between Teneo and LetterOne reviewed by CNBC shows the consulting firm was hired in 2020 for a $150,000 per month retainer to advise the fund on its media strategy. Teneo, according to the contract, was to “provide strategic advice and advice on stakeholder engagement to the company and its board members (including, but not limited to, scheduling interviews with media, assist with press briefings, coordinate stakeholder engagements and related activities).”
Under the contract, LetterOne was on track to pay Teneo more than $3.6 million since September 2020. There were at least four Teneo representatives working on the account, according to other DOJ filings. .
Other documents show that until last year, Teneo took credit for trying to arrange interviews for LetterOne executives with producers and TV presenters, including those from CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox Business. A document shows that a Bloomberg representative was contacted almost a dozen times to see if LetterOne could sponsor one of their Bloomberg Invest events.
There are other links between Teneo and LetterOne.
LetterOne’s non-executive chairman is Evan Davies, a British businessman who was formerly Minister of State for Trade, Investment and Small Business. He is also a Senior Advisor at Teneo.
VEON, a telecommunications company operating in Russia and Ukraine, is listed on LetterOne’s website as one of its active investments. Ursula Burns served as chair of the board of VEON for nearly three years before stepping down in 2020. She then became chair of Teneo.
Meanwhile, VEON announced on Tuesday that Mikhail Fridman has resigned from its board of directors.