After POLITICO inquired Tuesday about Mermelstein’s work and his claim that he was Russian American, his website was changed to describe him as “Ukrainian born.”
While the dual identity is not uncommon among people born in the former Soviet Union, Mermelstein chose to highlight one background on a professional website catering to wealthy Russians.
Adams appointed Mermelstein, who donated $2,000 to his mayoral campaign and $5,100 to his transition, as commissioner of international affairs in January. He serves as the “primary liaison between the City of New York and the diplomatic community, consular corp., and the United Nations,” according to the mayor’s office.
Mermelstein did not return messages seeking comment, but a mayoral spokesperson provided a lengthy response on his behalf.
“In the face of Russian aggression, Commissioner Mermelstein has worked nonstop, hand in hand with New York’s huge Ukrainian community – which include himself and his parents, who fled the former Soviet Union – making sure they are getting the support they need,” spokesperson Max Young said.
“At the same time, he and the mayor have been clear that we will not tolerate discrimination or abuse against New York’s Russian community, and have focused their efforts on the Russian government.”
Mermelstein served as a director for a foundation run by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg from 2004 through 2009, CNBC reported after his appointment. The Treasury Department froze $1.5 billion of Vekselberg’s assets in 2018, with then-Secretary Steven Mnuchin explaining, “Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”
Adams has denounced Putin as a “stain on humanity” and promised to help local Ukrainian immigrants, but he has also been quick to defend Russians living in New York City, repeatedly saying on recent television appearances that they should not be maligned for Putin’s actions.
The international elite from countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have long used New York City real estate as a safe haven to protect their wealth from both volatility in their home countries and potential government sanctions, as Mermelstein explained in a 2015 article. “Many of our clients who were making substantial money in the oil sector had to sell, went bankrupt,” Mermelstein told The Epoch Times about Russian and Ukrainian clients. “They have to diversify into other means of getting income, and real estate has become a very popular alternative to their investments in their own country.”
Manhattan properties can also be protected from seizure by the U.S. and other governments by hiding the homes behind shell companies or transferring the properties to relatives. In 2017, for example, Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire banker with close ties to Putin, transferred three Upper East Side townhouses worth $74 million to his former wife — a year before he was hit with sanctions.
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine on Tuesday called on the federal government to sanction a wider circle of Russian oligarchs who’ve parked their money in New York City real estate. Adams has not echoed those calls.
“New York City needs to stand up now and do our part to fight back against this immoral and reprehensible war against the people of Ukraine,” Levine said in a text message Wednesday. “It is the federal government’s job to expand the circle of Putin associates who are on the U.S. sanctions list. But there must be united support for this action in New York City both because it sends a strong message to the world, and because it could fall to local law enforcement to carry out the property seizures once the sanctions are in place.”
Young, the mayoral spokesperson, said Mermelstein has had a long career in “global business and philanthropy,” has worked with clients from all over the world and has “already proven himself to be a dedicated and talented public servant.”
The city doesn’t have the authority to seize real estate from Russian oligarchs, Young added, but Mermelstein would back federal efforts to do so “where appropriate.”
“He has had no business dealings with Russians or anyone else since becoming commissioner and obviously condemns the Russian invasion in the strongest possible terms,” Young said.