DeWine, Brown, Portman Sent Letters Asking for Lax Regulations at Steel Mills Owned by Ukrainian Oligarchs


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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman all wrote or signed on to letters advocating for more lenient restrictions at steel facilities in Ohio and West Virginia owned by Ukrainian oligarchs, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation has found. The oligarchs are alleged to have acquired a vast portfolio of American real estate and metallurgical assets with proceeds from an elaborate money laundering scheme.

The major story, which exposes the extent of the hazardous working conditions at facilities owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, also demonstrates the leverage supplied by U.S. elected leaders, who urged environmental regulators and top officials to ease restrictions on the basis of potential job loss.

Both Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown signed a letter to the EPA in 2015, alongside West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and others, that warned that steel plants in West Virginia and Ohio could be forced to shut down if they were required to install expensive equipment and submit to more stringent testing for pollution.

"It would be extremely disappointing if the companies were forced to stop operating," the letter read, according to the Post-Gazette.

After the letter, the EPA dropped a requirement that would have made the West Virginia plant install a costly pollution detection system. That plant, Felman Production, has been dinged with more health and safety violations since 2007 (36) than any other facility in the Kolomoisky portfolio. The Ohio plant, Warren Steel, has 18 violations.

A Rob Portman spokesperson sent a statement advising Scene that Sen. Portman had met with executives from the Ohio company Eramet Marietta—which was not in the Kolomoisky portfolio—and that Portman had asked the EPA "to give the company more time to comply with the burdensome rules issued by the agency.”

In 2017, then Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine sent a letter to three of the country's top Republicans — Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan — making a direct appeal to limit restrictions on similar grounds.

"There is no doubt that protecting the public health from hazardous air pollution is critical," he wrote, "but a proper balance should be struck to prevent job losses, let alone a risk of closure to local businesses."

All the while, Kolomoisky and his associates were amassing a fortune. From the Post-Gazette investigation.
There's no indication the elected officials knew at the time the companies were steeped in an alleged laundering conspiracy, and public campaign reports do not show any of the officials received money from the owners.

But the help that key lawmakers lent to Mr. Kolomoisky's companies underscores the lack of scrutiny by elected leaders at a time when warning signs of hazardous work conditions were escalating, and the government was supposed to be on guard against foreign operators investing in industries vital to the nation's security.

"Unbelievable," said Raymond Baker, a financial crimes scholar who has testified several times before Congress on money laundering. "They were going through all sorts of gymnastics not to ask the questions as long as money was coming into the economy."
The final quote by Raymond Baker above echoes comments by Cleveland elected leaders, who helped facilitate the oligarchs' acquisition of downtown properties with financial incentives.

One of the buildings acquired by Kolomoisky's companies in Cleveland is now the Westin Hotel. It was purchased in 2011, as a Crowne Plaza, in partnership with a Denver-based hospitality group. Cleveland City Council okayed a suite of tax abatements and $43 million in government incentive loans.

In a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, former councilman Jay Westbrook said that more due diligence probably should have been performed before the incentives were authorized, but at the time, on the heels of the Great Recession, the city was overjoyed to have any downtown investment at all. "It was like bringing water to a very thirsty person," he said.

Scene first reported on the Ukrainian oligarchs and their elaborate money laundering schemes in 2017. The alleged financial crimes, dubbed the "Optima Schemes" by international investigators, led to the oligarchs' acquisition of more commercial real estate in downtown Cleveland than any other single property owner in the late aughts and early 2010s.

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