MIAMI -- Last year, President Donald Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., hosted a black-tie "Safari Night" fundraiser for a favorite charity of one of his older sisters. The event included Chinese dancers, a silent art auction and one unusual guest: Sergey Danilochkin, a Russian real estate investor who had settled in South Florida after authorities in his home country accused him of taking part in a massive tax fraud linked to the most contentious corruption case of the 21st century.
Partygoers had no idea they were rubbing shoulders with a wanted man. While the guests sipped cocktails and studied photos of African wildlife, Danilochkin, who is also an aspiring journalist, filmed the bustling ballroom on a smartphone and posted the footage on YouTube. Holding a flute of champagne and wearing a dark suit, the Russian emigre addressed the camera in his native tongue, alluding to the uncanny way Russians seem to turn up in the president's orbit.
"The most interesting thing," Danilochkin said, "is that we met a lot of people here who speak Russian."
Making it to Mar-a-Lago shows how far Danilochkin -- who denies the charges against him -- has come. In 2010, he fled Moscow fearing for his life as Russian authorities investigated his alleged role in a $170 million tax fraud. The case became big news, especially once it was linked to the organized-crime group behind the so-called "Magnitsky affair," a Russian corruption scandal that dominated international headlines starting around 2009.
The Magnitsky affair catastrophically damaged relations between Russia and the United States during the Obama administration, turning Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state and later the Democratic nominee for president, into a top Kremlin foe. It ultimately led to a controversial meeting between top Trump campaign officials and a Russian government-linked lawyer during the 2016 presidential election.
Danilochkin's exile in South Florida -- a magnet for rich Russian expatriates -- made no difference to the justice system back home, which has been criticized by international observers for corruption and political subservience. The Russian government put out an international notice for his arrest, and he was eventually tried in absentia before being handed a 10-year prison sentence in 2017. Prosecutors alleged that Danilochkin, an accountant by trade, set up shell companies that claimed five billion rubles in fraudulent tax refunds in 2009 and 2010. That was about $170 million.
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The Magnitsky affair centered on a similar style of tax fraud, and was masterminded by the same organized-crime outfit behind the smaller $170 million theft, according to Russian investigative journalists and Danilochkin himself, who says he was used as a pawn and fall guy.
He and his attorneys declined to comment for this story.
In his new South Florida home, the 47-year-old Danilochkin -- gray-haired but still noticeably straight-backed thanks to his time in a Russian military academy -- has produced a documentary laying out the case for his innocence. The 35-minute film was privately screened at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and features Danilochkin answering questions while sporting a comically fake beard.
In December The Washington Times published an interview with Danilochkin, noting that the piece was "sponsored content," or paid advertising.