Russian official in hot water for Florida condos

February 20, 2013

Russia’s love-hate affair with the United States took a tabloid-like turn Wednesday when a legislator known mostly for his loyalty to the Kremlin resigned because an opposition blogger had accused him of owning $2 million worth of property in Florida.

The legislator, Vladimir Pekhtin, was not only a stalwart member of the United Russia party, he also chaired the ethics committee in the state Duma, the lower house of parliament. The Duma has been a hotbed of passionate anti-American activity recently, passing laws forcing organizations that receive funds from abroad to register as foreign agents, banning adoptions by Americans and flirting with limiting such Western influences as foreign films. In this climate, ownership of Florida condos, with swimming pools and ocean views, takes on an air of betrayal.

Last week, Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, posted compromising photographs and property records showing Pekhtin’s name on the deeds to two condos in Miami Beach and another in Ormond Beach. Pekhtin said the real estate was owned by his son, who lives in the United States, but both names were on the deeds. He soon relinquished the chairmanship of his committee — temporarily, he said.

On Wednesday, he said he was leaving the Duma so he could spend time clearing his name, adding that he did not want to become a distracting presence in parliament.

“I do not want the shadow of ungrounded accusations to fall on our party,” he said.

Pekhtin, 52, officially found himself in trouble not because he owned property in Florida — there’s no law against that — but because he had not listed it on the annual declaration required of government officials, no doubt sensing its political incorrectness.

He had listed an income of $72,000 a year, along with $5,500 for his wife. Together, according to the declaration he filed, the couple owns property that includes two large apartments, two houses, six large parcels of land, a Porsche Cayenne, a Toyota Land Cruiser, three Mercedes, a snowmobile and a jet ski. All of it was in Russia, where people on small salaries often seem to own vast quantities of property.

Navalny has been a major Kremlin irritant for the past two years. He started calling United Russia the Party of Crooks and Thieves, a name that has stuck among the opposition-minded. The authorities have fought back against his anti-corruption campaign and his popularity, most recently bringing three charges of fraud against him. His supporters call the charges politically motivated, but he risks up to 10 years in prison.

President Vladimir Putin has been trying to seize the anti-corruption mantle from the opposition and has proposed a law prohibiting government officials from having foreign stocks or bank accounts, although it leaves property ownership untouched.

Another United Russia deputy, Anatoly Lomakin, also indicated Wednesday that he was about to resign. Lomakin, a billionaire, reportedly had decided he did not want to give up his business activities, as required by Duma rules.

Earlier in the week, a member of the Just Russia party, Vasily Tolstopyatov, vacated his Duma seat after having been criticized by activists for his apparent wealth.

The departures prompted cheerful tweets.

“At this rate the Duma will be empty by the end of the day,” tweeted Nikita Batalov, an opposition activist. “Please, don’t stop, guys!”

Vladimir Ashurkov, who works on Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign, suggested that the legislators had been ordered out by the Kremlin.

“It would be logical to assume that there has been a command,” he wrote. “Let’s see where it goes but nothing like this has ever happened!”

Navalny predicted that Pekhtin would live happily ever after.

“Now he can move to Miami and live there peacefully,” he wrote on his blog.

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