California Winery Owner Arrested over Lobbying

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He was friends with Donald Trump, Michael Jackson and Jeffrey Epstein, but now he is talking to the Feds.

By W. Blake Gray | Posted Wednesday, 21-Jul-2021

A Santa Barbara County winery owner who was a great friend of Donald Trump, and chaired his inaugural committee, was arrested Tuesday and charged with violating foreign lobbying laws.

Thomas Barrack, owner of Happy Canyon Vineyard, was indicted on seven counts: two alleging that he acted as an unregistered agent of the United Arab Emirates, and five alleging that he lied to the FBI about it.

Barrack, 74, was arrested in Los Angeles and was expected to appear in court on Tuesday afternoon. His spokesman told the Washington Post that he would plead not guilty.

Barrack has had a colorful career as the chairman of Colony Capital, a real-estate investment company. Colony Capital bought Château Lascombes, a Margaux second growth, in 2001 before selling it to a French insurance company in 2011. It also owned the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club from 2006 to 2011. Normally those would rank among the most interesting investments for anyone, but they are footnotes for Barrack.

In 2008, Barrack and Colony Capital paid a $23.9 million mortgage note on Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, cancelling an auction of the property and preventing the cash-strapped Jackson from being evicted. Colony attempted to sell the ranch for $100 million after Jackson’s death but finally accepted $22 million for it in December 2020.

In 2017, the Weinstein Company, reeling from sexual assault allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, announced that it received a cash infusion from Colony to keep it running, but Colony soon pulled out of talks to buy the company.

But it is his friend Donald Trump who got the attention of federal authorities. It is a long relationship; author Michael Wolff wrote in “Fire and Fury” that Barrack, Trump and convicted child molester Jeffrey Epstein were “a set of nightlife musketeers” in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1988, Trump paid Barrack, then with a different real estate group, $410 million for the Plaza Hotel, which Trump later lost in bankruptcy.

In 2010, Barrack bought $70 million of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s debt on a Manhattan office building with the ominous address of 666 Fifth Avenue (the address has since been changed to 660), allowing Kushner to avoid personal bankruptcy.

Barrack became involved in Trump’s campaign for president early; he and Paul Manafort founded a Super PAC that raised $23 million for Trump, and he recommended that Trump hire Manafort as his campaign manager. Manafort was convicted of tax fraud and witness tampering in 2018, but was pardoned by Trump in 2020 and thus allowed to keep $20 million in New York real estate that he had been ordered to forfeit.

The indictment released Tuesday alleges that Barrack was representing UAE interests, without notifying the Attorney General’s office as required, early in Trump’s 2016 campaign for president. It lists texts and email messages sent between Barrack; Matthew Grimes, a subordinate of Barrack’s at Colony who was also arrested Tuesday; and Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, a UAE citizen who was also indicted Tuesday but had not yet been placed in custody at press time.

The Arabians’ knight

In May 2016, according to the indictment, Barrack was able to successfully edit a speech about energy that Trump delivered, suggesting phrases that UAE wanted Trump to say.

Barrack frequently made TV appearances on behalf of Trump during the presidential campaign, and the indictment alleges that he got talking points for them from UAE officials.

The indictment does not always specify what exactly UAE wanted said. But in 2019, Barrack defended UAE’s close ally Saudi Arabia against allegations regarding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the problem was “the same problem with the West misunderstanding the East”, and that the US had committed “equal or worse” atrocities. Barrack, who worked for Saudi princes in Saudi Arabia early in his career, later apologized.

The indictment also says that shortly after Trump’s election, Barrack’s contacts in the UAE asked him to provide insight on potential Trump appointments to be Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, CIA Director and National Security Advisor. Barrack responded: “We’re working through them in real time and I have our regional interest in high profile.”

In 2019, the House Oversight Committee released a report saying Barrack lobbied the White House to sell 30 nuclear reactors to the country in the world that least needs nuclear power – Saudi Arabia.

In July 2016, the same month he spoke in favor of Trump at the Republican National Convention, Barrack told Bloomberg that he had bought the 1300-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County’s Happy Canyon 30 years earlier without knowing what he would plant there. He eventually brought over experts from France who recommended Bordeaux varieties, which were rare in Santa Barbara County at the time.

Barrack is divorced with six children; his daughter Jodi lives at Happy Canyon Vineyard, according to Bloomberg, and her husband Sean Pitts is executive winemaker and president. The winery’s most expensive wine on its website is called Barrack Family Ten-Goal. An email to Happy Canyon Vineyard seeking comment did not receive a reply.

Barrack stepped down as executive chairman of Colony Capital earlier this year after several years of shareholder dissension. In 2019, the Financial Times published a lengthy article about Barrack, questioning how well Colony investors have fared. In November 2019, Jason Aintabi, investment chief for institutional investor Blackwells Capital, published a letter calling for Barrack to step down. “Barrack appears to be a magnet for famous people involved in scandals; he has had widely reported personal relationships with Michael Jackson, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, for example,” Aintabi wrote.

In January, the Washington Post reported that Barrack tried to convince Trump to leave office peacefully, saying an “elegant” transition would help salvage Trump’s struggling businesses, but Barrack was ignored.

In 2010, French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave Barrack the country’s highest award for civilians, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

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