The Hollywood producer at the center of the corruption case against the National Rifle Association has had a years-long financial, creative, and apparently political relationship with a tycoon from the former Soviet Union, The Daily Beast has discovered.
Multiple reports have identified Associated Television International (ATI) president David Stanton, also known as David McKenzie, as the anonymous figure who lavished gifts and trips on top NRA officials, as described in a lawsuit New York Attorney General Letitia James brought earlier this month. But unreported until now are Stanton’s dealings in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, which date to the late 1990s and have intensified in recent years with a series of joint ventures with a Russian oligarch named Sergey Sarkisov.
For his various overseas projects, Stanton has enlisted the assistance of former KGB officials, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and influential politicians tied to President Vladimir Putin. With Sarkisov, Stanton inserted himself into one of the most contentious disputes in the Russian “near abroad”.
This makes Stanton the most recently revealed in a string of figures tied to elites in both the NRA and in the former Soviet Union. A 2015 trip brought a delegation from the group into contact with a sanctioned deputy to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while The Daily Beast uncovered emails showing the organization’s then-head hoped to meet with the autocrat himself. A 2019 U.S. intelligence report determined that the pair that organized the trip—Russian central bank official Alexander Torshin and confessed Russian agent Maria Butina—did so with the Kremlin’s blessing.
The NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article, and both Stanton and Sarkisov insisted that ATI’s work with the gun lobby never cross-pollinated with its endeavors in Eurasia. But it is beyond dispute that Stanton—whose best-known productions in the United States include the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade, the CW magic show Masters of Illusion, and a pair of travel programs starring his wife and daughter—is an enormously wealthy man who enjoyed unparalleled access to and influence over NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and former Chief Financial Officer Wilson “Woody” Phillips.
The complaint James filed earlier this month details the depth and extent of the relationship between Stanton and LaPierre, as well as the extravagant treatment the latter received at his Hollywood benefactor’s expense. While the NRA was paying a handful of Stanton-owned firms millions to run its public relations and member engagement programs, LaPierre was spending Decembers in the Bahamas for “celebrity retreats” at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, hosted and financed by Stanton.
LaPierre often visited the opulent Caribbean island in the summertime too, staying with his extended family on Stanton’s 108-foot long pleasure vessel, Illusions. The complaint quotes LaPierre describing Illusions under oath as “a big, big yacht.” The legal document proceeds in greater detail.
“Illusions is equipped with four staterooms, a 16-foot jet boat, and two jet skis,” it reads, adding that the crew includes a chef.
James’ brief adds that LaPierre also used Stanton’s Illusions on “two European trips for the purpose of recruiting celebrities for the NRA.” Her office uncovered reimbursement requests LaPierre submitted for 20 private flights to California he took to visit Stanton between 2013 and 2017, as well as for $6,700 in gifts LaPierre gave Stanton and his family.
LaPierre was not alone in luxuriating in the producer’s largesse. Phillips borrowed Stanton’s other yacht, Grand Illusion, for two trips in 2018. Online profiles of Grand Illusion show that it is 145 feet long, weighs 420 tons, and has five cabins. Stanton appears to have at least at one point owned a third yacht, the 38-foot-long racer Illusions III, through a limited liability company—although the craft does not surface in the New York attorney general’s lawsuit.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Stanton insisted a “confidentiality agreement” with an undisclosed party prevented him from discussing his interactions with LaPierre or Wilson. He was, however, willing to speak in limited detail about his history with the NRA, which he said began in the 1990s with a project involving the group’s late ex-president, actor Charlton Heston.
The NRA contracted ATI to produce a radio program starring LaPierre, as well as the syndicated show Crime-Strike, which the executive vice president also hosted. Stanton asserted that the latter program ran for in excess of 250 episodes, though there is very little record of them online, and no more than 27 are available to view on Amazon.
At the time Crime-Strike went into production in 1998, Stanton and ATI were directing and producing multiple supernatural and conspiracy-themed documentaries. These included titles such as Roswell Top Secret and Ghost Stories, as well as a string of films based on allegedly concealed files from the Soviet intelligence service.
The Secret KGB JFK Assassination Files was shot in Moscow in 1998 and featured interviews with multiple former Soviet intelligence officials, including former KGB Chairman Vladimir Semichastny. Directed by Stanton himself, it aired again on NewsmaxTV in 2015.
In 2005, ATI filmed The Secret KGB UFO Files, which McKenzie/Stanton told The Hollywood Reporter was produced in Russia “with the cooperation of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former officials within the Soviet intelligence community.” Now deceased, Luzhkov was a founding member of Putin’s United Russia party.
Stanton told The Daily Beast he gained access to these and other high-ranking personages in Russia because they were eager to meet the show’s host, former James Bond actor Roger Moore.
According to Stanton, his partnership with Sarkisov began in 2014 or 2015, after the two met at what he described as “several social events” while the Russian magnate was serving as consul-general of the Republic of Armenia, in Los Angeles.
A veteran of Soviet insurer Ingosstrakh, Sarkisov founded the private firm RESO-Garantia in Moscow in 1991. The company is now one of the largest insurers in the country, and as of a 2017 auditor’s report maintained operations in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Lithuania, and Cyprus. With his brother Nikolai he owns more than 60 percent of the company, which—along with their extensive international real estate holdings—landed them the eighth-place spot on Forbes’s 2019 list of the richest families in Russia, with assets totaling $1.6 billion. Though not among the oligarchs sanctioned by the U.S. government, Ukrainian authorities accused the two of fraud in late 2018, but dropped the charges the following year.
Sarkisov also co-owns Blitz Films, a production company with offices in California and in Moscow, with his son, also named Nikolai.
“Any billionaire from the region has some odious/sketchy ties.”
— Peter Stronski, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, associated Sarkisov with the circle of Russian plutocrats orbiting the Kremlin. The mogul sits with a host of other oligarchs and top government officials on the board of trustees at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, run by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Any billionaire from the region has some odious/sketchy ties,” Stronski warned.
Stanton and Sarkisov shared an interest in entertainment and in Armenia, a former Soviet state and now a Russian ally and military client, as well as a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. The two had grown close enough by February 2016 that Stanton was one of just four lay figures to accompany Sarkisov at an intimate ceremony in the holy city of Vagharshapat, Armenia, where the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church bestowed on the oligarch the Order of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
In 2017, Blitz Films and ATI—along with two of Stanton’s frequent collaborators, former daytime TV personality Montel Williams and Masters of Illusion host Dean Cain— in 2017 released the documentary The Architects of Denial.
The film ostensibly focuses on the genocide the Ottoman Empire perpetrated against ethnic Armenians during World War I. But it repeats what Stronski characterized as a typical Armenian government line: that pogroms against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ongoing conflict between the two nations over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh, are part of a continuous campaign by ethnic Turks to exterminate them as a people.
Stronski and other experts have argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin has intentionally prolonged tensions over the disputed section of Azerbaijan, which Armenians call Artsakh, as a means of maintaining Moscow’s hegemony in the Caucasus.
“[Russia] doesn’t want a solution as it is useful to manipulate both Armenia and Azerbaijan and to retain influence in the region,” Stronski said. “I don’t think the Russians control the trajectory of events there and certainly don’t want it exploding, as it did in 2016 and in July of this year. But, unresolved conflict probably suits them fine.”
The Architects of Denial leans heavily on interviews with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, then sequestered in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for fear of arrest. American officials of both parties have identified Assange, a former host on Russia’s state-sponsored RT, and his website as Kremlin intelligence assets. Although the now-imprisoned Australian national has denied it, the Senate has concluded Wikileaks collaborated with hackers employed by Russian intelligence services in releasing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.
But The Architects of Denial makes no allusion to the controversy around Assange, and one of its many title cards hails him as the “world’s foremost corruption whistleblower.” Stanton told The Daily Beast he arranged and attended the interview with Assange personally, without assistance from Sarkisov—and maintained his complete ignorance of the famed leaker’s links to the Kremlin.
“Had I heard that, and I felt it would affect his credibility, yeah, I would have had second thoughts,” Stanton said. “He had knowledge and aspects that no one else did, and I thought it was important to hear from him.”
Nonetheless, Stanton admitted he was “highly criticized” for Assange’s inclusion in the film at the time. A version of the documentary aired as Denial on NewsmaxTV in 2018. Blitz Films and ATI have since collaborated on multiple other projects, including a film festival in Armenia that brought Stanton into contact with high-ranking government officials, and a tourism video that encouraged viewers to vacation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 2019, Blitz Films announced on Facebook it had inked a $1.25 million deal with ATI to distribute its films To Paris and Krasny. According to the post, the former was directed by Sarkisov himself and “supported by ROSKINO”—the arm of the Russian government charged with promoting the nation’s cultural content abroad. Blitz Films’ now-defunct Russian webpage previously noted that the Russian Ministry of Culture had recommended the movie receive government subsidies.
In an interview, Stanton called The Daily Beast’s questions “McCarthyite,” and denied knowing that Sarkisov’s film had received Russian government support. He admitted that the film festival was an outgrowth of Blitz Films’ “Armenian connections,” but asserted that Sarkisov had had no role in arranging the meetings with top-level government officials, and maintained the oligarch had invested little other than “sweat equity” in their joint endeavors.
Stanton, who described himself as an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ causes, claimed that his interest in Armenia was driven purely by humanitarian impulses.
“The people of Armenia are going to all be subject to another genocide if someone doesn’t wake up and call attention to all the conflict that’s going on over there,” he warned. “There’s suffering over there. There’s a lot of suffering over there.”
Stanton further denied that Sarkisov or any of his associates had ever boarded any of his yachts, or attended his retreats in the Bahamas, or visited him at his residences, or come to any other location or event where he hosted NRA officials.
“To comment on where exactly and when we worked with our co-producers and how we did this would pose a serious security risk to me and my family as there have been multiple threats to me and my family both while in the U.S. and abroad.”
— Sergey Sarkisov
Answering questions via a Blitz employee, Sarkisov declined to back up Stanton’s assertions regarding the locales where they had met in the past, citing concerns about his personal safety. He also refused to answer a question about how much he had invested in projects with Stanton.
“At no time were any other people invited to the shoot or meetings except for those people directly related to the project and whose credits are included in each project at the end of the film,” a statement Sarkisov sent to The Daily Beast read. “To comment on where exactly and when we worked with our co-producers and how we did this would pose a serious security risk to me and my family as there have been multiple threats to me and my family both while in the U.S. and abroad.”
However, Sarkisov did echo his partner’s assertion that he had never met with anybody affiliated with the NRA besides Stanton. He insisted his creative output was “non-political”—but also highlighted his relationship as consul-general with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). Schiff represents a large Armenian-American community and has been an aggressive advocate of U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, and is the only Democratic Party politician The Architects of Denial depicts favorably. Schiff is also a fierce critic of the NRA and, since assuming the chairmanship of the House Select Committee on Intelligence in 2019, has become one of a number of Democrats to aggressively probe Russian meddling in American affairs.
Those varied investigations have included inquiries into the NRA. Schiff has questioned whether Russia attempted to use the NRA as a “backchannel” to access or assist President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. And Senate Democrats released a report last fall in which they alleged the gun lobby had become a “foreign asset.”
The NRA has dismissed these as politically motivated attacks. But the evidence of Russian efforts to engage and influence the organization is overwhelming. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a probe in 2018 into whether Torshin, the Russian bank official, had funneled money into the group to finance its 2016 efforts in support of Trump’s election. In 2018, the Justice Department arrested his protege Butina on spy charges. It subsequently emerged that the wife of then-NRA President David Keene dangled $1 million to Butina in exchange for her assistance in obtaining Russian jet fuel. The dalliances with a hostile foreign regime reportedly alarmed even the NRA’s own attorney, Cleta Mitchell, who feared the group might have become a conduit for Russian money.
The Senate Democrats’ report additionally found that, even before the group’s 2015 mission to Moscow, the NRA hosted Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak—famed for his 2016 overtures to ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House adviser Jared Kushner, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn—at its headquarters and on a hunting trip. A year later, Torshin attended the organization’s annual convention in Kentucky.
But the lawsuit in which Stanton features does not reference any group or individual’s Russia ties. Rather, it focuses on what it characterizes as improperly reported gifts LaPierre and Phillips received from Stanton and another NRA vendor, “inappropriate spending” by the nonprofit on creature comforts and personal expenses, and a failure to follow protocols for approving payments and reimbursements. But the suit poses a unique threat—in citing these alleged violations, it seeks to dissolve the NRA as an organization altogether.
The NRA has called the suit a “power grab by a political opportunist,” a “political vendetta,” and “transparent attempt to score political points and attack the leading voice in opposition to the leftist agenda.”
Meanwhile, the most recent Sarkisov-Stanton project, a documentary on global anti-Semitism starring Williams and Cain titled Hate Among Us, won an award at the 2020 Daytime Emmys. ATI served as the event’s producer.
A spokesman for Williams insisted his client never had any interaction with Sarkisov on any ATI project. Like Stanton, he asserted the former talk show host’s only interest in participating in the film festival and other Blitz-backed productions was the advancement of human rights. Attorneys and agents previously associated with Cain did not respond to requests for comment.
Originally published: 2020-08-23 09:04:54