In the third week of January, an Israeli named Yoni Ariel flew from Tel Aviv to Rome carrying $9,000 in cash on a secret mission to bring down Donald Trump.
There, he met with an Italian businessman. Seated at a table toward the rear of a café, away from the street where they might attract unwanted attention, Ariel recalled, he handed over the cash. In exchange he was given a copy of a potentially explosive set of documents.
Its 35 pages told the story of a $1.6 billion wire transfer from petroleum giant ExxonMobil to a European office of a Chinese mining company, which a day later transferred 1.4 billion euros to the Trump Organization, the privately held conglomerate founded by President Trump.
The transfers appeared to have taken place in mid-June, at the exact same time that Exxon's then chief executive, Rex Tillerson, was in St. Petersburg at an economic forum, which Russian President Vladimir Putin also attended. Less than six months later, President-elect Trump — victor in an election that the US intelligence community said the Russian government had interfered with — nominated Tillerson to be his secretary of state.
To Ariel, who is married to an American and calls Russia's tampering in the elections "an act of war," the implications of these billion-dollar transfers were clear: Exxon had secretly bribed Trump to name Tillerson to the powerful cabinet post.
Alarmed, Ariel passed the documents to a network of Democratic and anti-Trump activists who in turn shared them with prominent news organizations including BuzzFeed News.
The only problem: The documents were phony. The wire transfers never occurred, and the entire set of documents appear to have been forged as part of an elaborate scam. The fake documents were created, sold, and circulated by a cast of characters that includes a flamboyant Italian who claims to be a baron and a knight, an Israeli who says that during apartheid he engaged in "political subversion" on behalf of the African National Congress, and an American felon who digs up dirt to hurt Trump and other Republicans.
In the slightly more than four months since the presidential election, a burgeoning market for potentially damaging information about President Trump and his associates has emerged. Opportunists have begun dangling such would-be smoking guns — sometimes for a price — to journalists, amateur sleuths, and deep-pocketed political activists so eager to damage the Trump presidency that they can be blind to potential red flags.
Opportunists have begun dangling would-be smoking guns — sometimes for a price — to journalists, amateur sleuths, and deep-pocketed political activists so eager to damage the Trump presidency that they can be blind to red flags.
Such forgeries escalate the phenomenon of "fake news," the Facebook- and Twitter-friendly lies that tell readers what they want to believe and that are packaged to look like authentic journalism. In this case, evidence was deliberately fabricated that could make fictional allegations seem authentic. Such forged documents also feed the hunger of a growing audience on the left that seems willing to believe virtually any claim about Trump's supposed bad deeds.
Forgeries that have duped the public and influenced American politics aren't new, of course. Fake documents (also with roots in Italy) led the George W. Bush administration to suggest that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger, for example, and questionable records of Bush's National Guard service ended Dan Rather's career at CBS News.
Since Trump's election, a spate of people, often with financial motives, have been peddling dirt on the president. One anonymous tipster, for example, asked $15,000 for "credible" videos of women telling "erotic" tales of Trump at nightclubs in various countries. A high-profile private investigator in Los Angeles wanted $2 million in "funding" for what he described as "game-changing information" about Trump and his wife, Melania. In both cases, BuzzFeed News rejected the offers. An Israeli startup, meanwhile, tried to convince reporters that portions of Trump's inauguration speech had been plagiarized using its software, a claim that appears to be untrue.
Although Ariel acknowledges paying for the alleged Exxon documents, neither he nor others who helped circulate them asked for compensation from journalists; instead, they argued passionately that the documents appeared authentic and demanded attention for what they saw as the good of democracy. But however noble their intentions may have been, had they succeeded in persuading journalists of the documents' authenticity, they could have further muddled the waters in an era increasingly defined by the spread of disinformation.
The documents allege that on June 16, 2016, Exxon entered into a "joint participation agreement" with MCC Holding, a state-owned Chinese company. The terms in the contract are vague, stipulating only that Exxon will send $1.6 billion to MCC for "Foreign investment, Fiduciary Management and Profit Sharing." It is signed by two officials of MCC and an American employee of Exxon.
Supplementing the contract is an email, written in Italian and lacking headers or signatures, that summarizes the transaction. The file also includes a wire transfer receipt from Chase Bank, showing the movement of $1.6 billion from Exxon's account to MCC's account at HSBC in France on June 16, and an HSBC wire slip dated June 17 showing a "donation" of 1.4 billion euros, equivalent to $1.575 billion at the time, to the Trump Organization.
"We have no record of the transaction, and after reviewing the document, there are a number of details that indicate it isn't genuine," JPMorgan Chase spokesperson Brian Marchiony said. HSBC disavowed the other wire. "We don't recognize the document or any of the transaction data on it," said spokesman Robert Sherman.
"We have no record of the transaction, and after reviewing the document, there are a number of details that indicate it isn't genuine."
Exxon spokesman William Holbrook declined to comment on the documents, saying that to do so "would dignify" false information, but noted that the Exxon employee whose signature is on the contract, Sandra C. Collier, had not worked for the company for "years and years." Reached by telephone, a Texas woman named Sandra Cheryl Collier denied any involvement and hung up.
MCC Holding, based in Beijing, did not return emails and repeated phone calls.
The Trump Organization referred a request for comment to the White House, which did not immediately respond.
Ariel is 60 years old and also goes by the name Jonathan Schwartz. He said he is involved in a startup company that he declined to describe in detail, as well as a "cyber media consultancy" that he recently founded. He was born and raised in South Africa and his voice betrays a distinct trace of that country's accent.
In vouching for the documents' authenticity, he referred repeatedly to what he said was his experience in international espionage. He emigrated to Israel in 1969, Ariel said, but starting in the late 1970s he worked for the African National Congress, helping the party fight apartheid and engaging in what he called "political subversion." Since then, he said, he has worked as a journalist and political consultant, and claims credit for unearthing a number of political scandals in the country.
Because of his training, Ariel said, he became convinced as far back as July that Russia was interfering with the US elections, and he began speaking up about it even before Trump won. He said he first heard about the Exxon documents late last year from Sheldon Schorer, an attorney who until recently was legal counsel and spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, a chapter of an international group that describes itself as "the official Democratic Party arm for the millions of Americans living outside the United States."
Schorer, in turn, said a former Israeli ambassador to Italy contacted him in the fall and asked if he might be interested in the documents. Both Schorer and Ariel declined to name the retired Israeli diplomat, but two sources confirm it was Gideon Meir, who from 2006 to 2011 held the Rome posting.
Meir, who could not be reached for comment, apparently learned about the documents from an Italian in Rome named Corrado Pasetti, who describes himself as a consultant who helps construction firms establish business operations in foreign countries, particularly in Africa.
Pasetti said he told Meir about the documents and that he eventually sold them to Ariel. At first, Pasetti said, he asked 150,000 to 200,000 euros for the originals. But after negotiation, the two settled on $9,000 for copies because, Ariel said, that amount fell just below the threshold most countries require be declared at international border crossings and thus would leave no paper trail.
According to Ariel, Pasetti is a retired member of Italy's intelligence service, and the documents were intercepted by active Italian intelligence officers monitoring whether Exxon was properly complying with the sanctions placed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Schorer, for his part, said he was told the documents were gathered by the Italian federal police, the Carabinieri.
Pasetti denies all of those details.
"I am a businessman. I don't care about political things," he said. "If somebody wants these documents, I am ready to given them to him for compensation."
Forino appears to be a handsome, muscled man who often appears behind the wheel of an Aston Martin sports car and who frequently goes by the formal title Baron Luigi Louis Forino of Little Staughton.
The truth, Pasetti said, is that he was given the documents by an associate whom he would not name, and to whom he eventually passed the $9,000. That person, Pasetti said, got them in turn from a person named Luigi Forino, who happens to be one of three signatories to the alleged Exxon contract, where he is listed as a "general manager director" of the Chinese firm MCC Holding. Accompanying Forino's signature is what appears to be a color copy of the photo page of his Italian passport, which gives his age as 40.
In his Facebook profile, Forino appears to be a handsome, muscled man who often appears behind the wheel of an Aston Martin sports car. He frequently goes by the formal title Baron Luigi Louis Forino of Little Staughton. Materials posted online describe Forino as a Knight of Malta and Templar of England, as well as executing deals with David Rockefeller, not to mention the 190th-richest person in the world, a ranking allegedly bestowed by Forbes magazine. In an annual report available on one of his many websites, the allegedly Paris-based Forino claims to be the "Group CEO" of MCC, the Chinese conglomerate.
A flashy YouTube video for Forino's company, MCC Petroli, features images of exotic luxury cars, jets, helicopters, yachts, bustling stock exchanges, and attractive women playing stringed instruments. It says MCC Petroli trades in gold, bank instruments, rough diamonds, and "Arabian Emirates Crude Oil."
However, there appear to be no listings for European offices on MCC's main website, and mentions of Forino could not be found in any official documents or news reports about the Chinese company. BuzzFeed News found no evidence of any connection between the Chinese MCC and the many companies Forino has promoted that use the same acronym. As for his claims about Forbes-list wealth and Rockefeller connections, they come from crude photoshops of Wall Street Journal and Forbes articles that appear on two of Forino's websites.
The internet almost runs over with information about Forino, most of it from people alleging that he scammed, or attempted to scam, them in schemes that often involve promises of loans that never materialize.
John Raciti is an executive of Fox Petroleum, an Indian company that's building a large liquefied natural gas terminal on India's west coast. He said Forino met several times with the chairman of Fox, who agreed to list Forino on the management page of the company's website. But then Raciti did a bit of digging and concluded that Forino wasn't who he said he was: "when you look at this guy, he says he's a knight but it's all bloody bullshit." Raciti removed Forino's name from the website, and warned the chairman to stay away from him.
The internet is also littered with images of Swiss, Italian, and UK passports that supposedly belong to Forino. A London businessman who described how Forino tried to scam him said the UK passport Forino sent to prove his identity bore the same number as the real passport of a deceased British author. As for Forino's title, "Barony of Little Staughton" is currently listed as available for purchase on the internet for £15,000.
BuzzFeed News initially reached out to Forino by contacting him on Skype at a username listed online. The person running the account replied, "I am glad to introduce you a Swiss Lender called MCC they sells Private Bank Loans at 2.45% annual debit interest!"
The person identified himself as Rory O'Driscoll, a name listed as an executive on the website for a company calling itself MCC Investment and Leasing Co. The site said O'Driscoll is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. But the real Rory O'Driscoll, a partner with Scale Venture Partners, told BuzzFeed News that "I am not the CEO of MCC Finance and this person is not me and is impersonating me." (O'Driscoll's name was removed from the MCC Investment website after BuzzFeed News spoke with Forino.)
Stephan Eberle, the general counsel of Scale Venture Partners, told BuzzFeed News they have been trying to get O'Driscoll's name removed from Forino's website since last fall. "We've been in contact with the FBI, the US Secret Service, and we filed claims with the UK's financial oversight fraud unit and also with the Swiss cybercrime unit," he said.
In a phone conversation, Forino claimed his company operates a refinery and has 72 oil tankers. He also said he was involved in the billion-dollar transaction with Exxon last summer.
"There was an agreement but I can not speak deeply" about the contract without lawyers being involved, he said. For more information, he referred the reporter to his office in Geneva, located in a business center where individuals and companies can rent workspaces. His address in Paris is a similar shared workspace.
Forino told BuzzFeed News that he knows Pasetti, the man who sold the Exxon documents in Italy. But he refused to discuss the allegations in the documents related to the Trump Organization.
"You're talking about Mister President," Forino said. "If the company gave some financing, I'm not able to disclose any information. It's very private."
When asked about allegations of his involvement in financial scams, Forino abruptly ended the call. He has not responded to detailed questions sent by BuzzFeed News.
Not long after Trump won the election, Schorer, the former spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, told Ariel about the alleged Exxon payments and the documents that supposedly provide proof.
Ariel, intrigued, decided he would need help paying for trips to Rome to acquire the documents and also with authenticating them. A string of contacts, including the chairman of Democrats Abroad France, and a former Democratic National Committee operative in Washington, DC, eventually led Ariel to Brett Kimberlin, a left-wing political activist who is also notorious as a felon convicted of setting off bombs in the American heartland.
A string of contacts eventually led Ariel to Brett Kimberlin, a left-wing political activist who is also notorious as a felon convicted of setting off bombs in the American heartland.
In September 1978 a series of homemade explosive devices blew up in Speedway, Indiana, including one that maimed a Vietnam veteran who later fell into a deep depression and killed himself. Kimberlin was convicted of planting all of them and spent a total of 17 years in federal prison for that and other crimes, including drug conspiracy and impersonating a federal officer.
In 1988, while still behind bars, he famously claimed that he sold marijuana to a young Dan Quayle when the vice presidential candidate was a law student in Kimberlin's hometown.
Kimberlin's story and his claims that powerful people in Washington, DC, were silencing him won over New Yorker writer Mark Singer, who penned a sympathetic profile. But four years later, when Singer turned that article into the book Citizen K: The Deeply Weird American Journey of Brett Kimberlin, the author concluded that Kimberlin's story about Quayle was a lie.
His political activities have rankled conservative bloggers, such as Michelle Malkin, former RedState editor-in-chief Erick Erickson, and the late Andrew Breitbart. In 2012 conservative bloggers launched their own crusade against Kimberlin — "Everybody Blog About Brett Kimberlin Day" — that resulted in dozens of posts about Kimberlin's criminal history.
Today, Kimberlin co-runs two registered nonprofits, Justice Through Music and Velvet Revolution, which describe their mission as education and together raised $1.875 million between 2011 and 2015, according to the organizations' most recent available tax filings. He has built working relationships with a number of left-wing activists and researchers who seek out what amounts to opposition research: information that can hurt Republicans.
Ariel recalled that he contacted Kimberlin, who then arranged for him to travel to Washington. Ariel had been sounding alarm bells about Russia's meddling in the presidential campaign so, he said, Kimberlin wanted him to meet people on Capitol Hill. Kimberlin covered the cost of the trip, according to Ariel.
Ariel had not yet seen the documents at that time, but what he did know about them seemed like exactly the sort of thing Kimberlin was interested in digging up. When told about them, Kimberlin quickly agreed to finance Ariel's efforts to acquire them, according to Ariel and two people with knowledge of the arrangement.
Kimberlin ultimately covered the costs for Ariel to travel to Rome three times, Ariel said. On the first trip, just before Christmas, Pasetti showed him portions of the documents; on the second trip, a price was negotiated; and on the last one Ariel actually purchased the documents. The $9,000 payment was also covered by Kimberlin, according to Ariel and the two people familiar with the arrangement.
Reached Sunday evening at his home in Maryland, Kimberlin declined to discuss the documents or his relationship with Ariel.
"I don't want to be part of this story. It has nothing to do with me. I have nothing to say," Kimberlin said.
On January 22, a political activist who works closely with Kimberlin reached out to a BuzzFeed News reporter, offering up what seemed like a lead on an important scoop.
"This isn't some internet rumor, person has been to Rome to examine bank documents, copies of passports, etc," an encrypted email read. "Let me know if you want to take a closer look."
A subsequent email said that the Department of Justice and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had been informed about the alleged wire transfers earlier in the month.
Sean Bartlett, a Democratic spokesman for the Senate committee, told BuzzFeed News, "That would have been some set of documents, but does not sound familiar at all to me or anyone on the Democratic staff."
A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
When the actual documents were forwarded to BuzzFeed News, warning signs quickly emerged. The 30-page contract was rife with spelling and grammatical errors, which seemed jarringly out of place for a roughly $340 billion company such as Exxon, known to employ legions of lawyers for even the most routine of transactions. It describes He Ting Shen as CEO of MCC, when the company website identifies him as Shen Heting and calls him the company's president.
There were also numerous problems with the bank documents, including an incorrect postal code for the recipient branch, an account number that would seem to correspond to a different location, and a phone number listed for Collier that appears to belong to a defunct grocery wholesaler called TG & Scrap LLC registered in Houston. A message left at that number seeking comment was not returned.
In addition, the document describes a $443.91 fee for the wire, which does not conform to Chase's policy of flat dollar fees on corporate wire transfers, and the request is described as a "walk-in" — meaning the person literally walked into a branch to make a more than billion-and-a-half-dollar transfer. Such a move, banking experts said, would attract a huge amount of attention in the bank, hardly a discreet way to conduct a secret transaction.
Pressed on the inconsistencies, as well as the numerous red flags surrounding Forino, Ariel dug in his heels.
Forino, he insisted, was no con artist but someone who had been fully vetted and was operating in the "gray areas" of the law, "a freelancer who is hired by people when they need his services to transfer money with no traces."
The numerous errors in the documents, he added, only served to underscore "that we are not dealing with a forgery here," he wrote in an email. "In my opinion as a former intelligence officer, the various misspellings and other inconsistencies are deliberate, to camouflage it and deter media scrutiny."
On February 2, a day after Tillerson was sworn in, a blog called Down With Tyranny!, penned by former music executive and liberal activist Howie Klein, published a summary of the documents, which had been written by Ariel weeks earlier and quietly circulated among a small cadre of progressives. Ariel's writeup, posted under the headline "What Does Big Oil Get For It's [sic] Political Bribery?"
Ariel and a person close to Kimberlin originally said that reporters from Bloomberg News had also been given the documents and allegedly thought they looked good; to date, the news organization has not published anything. Subsequently, they said that the Washington Post had been shown the documents as well, but decided by mid-February that they were forgeries.
Ariel, however, said he had been in touch with a Post reporter who told him that the newspaper was keen on the story but had its hands full other political stories and hoped to return to the documents later.
Bloomberg declined to comment on the matter. A spokesperson for the New York Times said, "We do not comment on unpublished reporting as a general rule." The Washington Post did not reply to a call and email seeking comment.
Presented with mounting evidence that the documents were not real, activists who had played a role in their circulation quickly began backpedaling, conceding they seemed more likely than not forgeries. Ariel, on the other hand, continued to push.
"Would it help to know that they are in the hands of the Justice Department?" he asked in a phone call in mid-February. As recently as a week ago, Ariel argued that the documents were "more likely true than false." He had just shared them with a New York Times reporter, he added, and the two were set to meet in a few days.
This past Saturday, Ariel reached out again, but with a different message.
"At this time we are not proceeding with the documents," he wrote in an email. "Too many question marks, so suggest you not waste any more time working on them." ●
Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing contributed reporting to this story.