WASHINGTON — Sanctions that the Trump administration slapped on a Russian oligarch as part of an effort to punish the country for its hostile behavior in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria likely delayed the delivery of sewage pump equipment to the headquarters of the National Mall last month, forcing National Park Service employees to continue using portable toilets at work.
The Russian in question is Viktor Vekselberg, the billionaire reportedly involved with $500,000 in payments to President Donald Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen.
HuffPost was alerted to toilet troubles at the National Mall and Memorial Parks headquarters last month by an Interior Department employee with knowledge of the situation. The employee said at the time that the agency was working to find a new distributor to obtain a pump after the Russian sanctions held up the original order.
Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service, confirmed that the historic building, located just east of the Jefferson Memorial, has had ongoing issues with pumps in the building’s sewage pit. The pumps were replaced last summer, but burned out again in March, rendering the restrooms unusable.
For weeks, employees had to use portable toilets or facilities in nearby buildings, Litterst said.
The difficulties at the National Mall and Memorial Parks headquarters comes as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is pushing an energy- and infrastructure-focused agenda. He has repeatedly promised to address the ballooning $11.3 billion maintenance backlog at national parks.
It appears the restrooms would have been up and running sooner had Sulzer, a Swiss industrial company that specializes in pump equipment, not gotten wrapped up in the Russia sanctions. On April 6, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against seven Russian oligarchs with ties to President Vladimir Putin and 12 companies those individuals control or own. Among those targeted was Vekselberg, the Ukrainian-born owner of Renova Group, an investment company that specializes in metals, energy and chemicals. Until recently, Renova held a majority stake in Sulzer.
To obtain new pumps, the National Park Service hired Chesapeake Environmental Equipment, a company based in Forest Hill, Maryland, that distributes Sulzer’s products. An online summary of the $9,468 contract lists the purchase as “Sewage Ejector Pumps For National Mall and Memorial Parks HQ Waste System.”
Initially, Litterst told HuffPost that NPS was obtaining parts from two suppliers. He later clarified that the agency only dealt with Chesapeake, which was getting parts from two suppliers.
Reached by phone, Chesapeake’s president, Jason North, immediately hung up. He and other company representatives did not respond to numerous subsequent calls and emails seeking comment.
Litterst confirmed that Sulzer manufactures the pumps and system controls the park service received through Chesapeake. Asked specifically if sanctions imposed against Sulzer impacted the contractor’s ability to supply NPS the required parts in any way, Litterst said, “Chesapeake Environmental Equipment provided the equipment we ordered, and did so within the requested time frame.”
He suggested HuffPost contact Chesapeake with questions about the contractor’s suppliers.
After learning of the Treasury’s actions against Vekselberg, Sulzer CEO Gregoire Poux-Guillaume “stepped into crisis mode” in order to come up with a plan to limit the impact to the company’s U.S. operations, Bloomberg reported. And on April 12, Sulzer announced that it had acquired 5 million of its shares from Renova in order to make Renova a minority shareholder, thus freeing Sulzer from the sanctions. Sulzer said at the time that its activities “have been considerably disrupted,” but that it “does not believe that its long-term performance will be affected.”
Christopher Scott, a U.S.-based attorney for Sulzer, told HuffPost that while the sanctions temporarily froze the company’s assets in the U.S., he could not speak to how exactly it might have impacted its business with Chesapeake.
NPS’s contract with Chesapeake is dated March 19, roughly three weeks before Sulzer was ensnared in the sanctions. Litterest said the pump controls were delivered to headquarters on April 13 ― one day after Sulzer freed itself from the penalties.
So while the sanctions likely were not the sole reason for a delay, they appear to have further slowed toilet repair at the park service building. The toilets at the headquarters building were back up and running April 20, and the portable toilets were removed from the headquarters parking lot this Tuesday, according to Litterst.
In an April 6 release announcing sanctions against Vekselberg and other oligarchs, the Treasury Department noted that in 2016 Russian prosecutors stormed Renova’s offices and arrested two top executives for “bribing officials connected to a power generation project in Russia.”
Unrelated, the attorney representing adult film star Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, revealed this week that Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, received payments totaling about $500,000 from Columbus Nova, a U.S. affiliate of the Russian billionaire’s company. Special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly interviewed Vekselberg this year both about payments to Trump’s lawyer and as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to reports from CNN and The New York Times.