MANHATTAN (CN) – A law firm and a man accused of being a former Soviet spy hacked into a mining company’s computers to get an upper hand in overseas litigation, the company claims.
International Mineral Resources, or IMR, claims business rival and fertilizer maker EuroChem Volga-Kaliy hired New York City law firm Salisbury & Ryan to dig up information on a business rival when a mining deal went bad.
The law firm then hired alleged former Soviet military counterintelligence officer Renit Akhmetshin to conduct an illegal hacking campaign, according to a lawsuit filed by the mining company on Nov. 12 in New York County Supreme Court.
The lawsuit does not list any direct documentation of Salisbury & Ryan or EuroChem asking the alleged former spy to hack IMR, but it claims that the law firm “reached out to Akhmetshin specifically because they understood that Akhmetshin could gain access to private sources of information.”
The alleged espionage stems from a mining deal that went sour after unexpected delays held up construction of a mine in Russia, according to the complaint.
In 2007, EuroChem entered into a contract with South African mining company Shaft Sinkers to design and dig a mine shaft in a small Russian town. Five years later, the mine flooded, the project was delayed, and EuroChem began examining potential legal action against Shaft Sinkers, court records show.
EuroChem hired boutique law firm Salisbury & Ryan to help prepare for the potential lawsuit and to dig up information on Shaft Sinkers’ affiliates, the complaint states. The three-attorney firm, known for handling international arbitration, then allegedly asked longtime collaborator Akhmetshin for help.
Akhmetshin, once a Russian government official, has for at least the last decade worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., running a little-known think tank called the International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research, according to IMR’s lawsuit.
The suit claims Akhmetshin has made a name for himself by developing relationships with reporters at Harper’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post. He disseminated inside information to journalists in an effort to tarnish certain companies’ reputations, IMR alleges.
Akhmetshin’s name was mentioned in an article in The New York Times earlier this year detailing a Russian business feud, in which Akhmetshin was quoted as being paid $70,000 by one Russian oligarch to discredit another.
In last week’s lawsuit, IMR claims EuroChem asked Akhmetshin in July 2012 to break into its company servers, then paid him $45,000 for the information he stole. A month and a half later, Akhmetshin allegedly met with his employers in London to drop off a thumb drive with 50 gigabytes of stolen Shaft Sinkers memos, emails and financial information on it.
In late 2012, after Akhmetshin allegedly delivered the stolen data, EuroChem filed arbitration proceedings against Shaft Sinkers, claiming misconduct in the mining project the two companies had once shared.
EuroChem also brought claims against IMR in the Netherlands in 2013. EuroChem sought about $1.2 billion in the Dutch case, according to court records.
But Akhmetshin’s work wasn’t done yet, the lawsuit states, as he then allegedly spent the early months of 2013 contacting journalists to put out negative stories on Shaft Sinkers and its parent company IMR.
Akhmetshin was paid $100,000 for the smear campaign and bragged about it, saying he was paid that much to do “certain things that the law firm could not do,” the mining company says.
The stolen data was still being shopped to others last year, according to IMR. Akhmetshin met a businessman in a London coffee shop in January 2014 and offered to sell the thumb drive, saying “there’s a lot of the stuff, so … but that’s why you are paying money,” IMR’s complaint states.
The lawsuit also claims the potential ringleader of the conspiracy is Andrey Melnichenko, a Russian billionaire who chairs EuroChem. Melnichenko, who boasts the world’s biggest yacht, has a longstanding relationship with Salisbury & Ryan, which helped the Russian oligarch in a legal dispute over a defective paint job on his yacht, IMR alleges.
“It should come as no surprise that Melnichenko turned to Salisbury,” the complaint states. “It should also come as no surprise that this group engaged in the wrongful hacking of IMR’s computer systems to gain an unfair advantage in those legal proceedings and cause IMR harm.”
Melnichenko, the lawsuit continues, “has personally, and through companies he owns, been associated with a number of allegedly improper and illegal activities throughout the world,” including bribery allegations against executives at a chemical company where Melnichenko sat on the board of directors, and money laundering charges against a bank he founded.
As a result of the stolen data, Shaft Sinkers and IMR have taken sizeable hits financially, the mining company’s lawsuit alleges. Shaft Sinkers, which was 48 percent owned by IMR at the time of the 2013 arbitration, has been in financial trouble ever since it was sued by EuroChem, IMR says.
A Dutch court dismissed the foreign action against IMR last year, saying the company had no operational control over Shaft Sinker and could not be held liable.
IMR has maintained that Shaft Sinkers has been run as a separate entity with distinct corporate governance. The parent company seeks punitive damages against EuroChem, Akhmetshin and Salisbury & Ryan.
Akhmetshin could not be reached for comment. Emailed requests for comment from EuroChem and Salisbury & Ryan were not immediately returned.
Jonathan Cogan, the attorney representing IMR in the lawsuit, did not return calls for comment.
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