There is no single global repository listing every company and its owners, though it’s usually not hard to find out where a company is based and legally registered. But that wasn’t the case with the Silk Road Group, a mysterious holding company that set out, several years ago, to build a Trump Tower in the Republic of Georgia. I stopped thinking of it as a single firm but, rather, as a diffuse container holding at least several dozen corporate entities who, legally, at least, were registered in different countries around the world and had uncertain relationships to each other.
Manuela Andreoni and Inti Pacheco, two remarkable fellows at Columbia University’s Journalism Investigations team, spent months meticulously following tiny hints to figure out where the Silk Road Group’s various entities were registered. It wasn’t easy. One favorite chain of ownership was to have a firm in Georgia owned by a firm in the Netherlands, which, in turn, was owned by a firm in Malta, which was owned by a firm in Germany. Each time a company is registered, dozens, even thousands, of pages of legal documents are generated. We had countless pages in Georgian, Maltese, Dutch, and German and knew that, somewhere in all of that information, would be hints of who the real owners of these companies might be. But any given page was likely to be nothing more than unhelpful legal boilerplate. We had no way of knowing which of the words were crucial, so we had to hire translators to look through all of them and pick out and translate the crucial sections. This allowed us to begin to build a model of how the Silk Road Group worked. Then, it took sources, most of them confidential, who were willing to explain to us how these various entities fit together. Some knew a lot, many knew only a bit. The deal in Georgia was not a particularly unusual one for the Trump Organization and it raises some of the same questions as many other deals Trump did from that time period around the world, as I discuss in this video. Clearly, there are a lot of questions about his deals globally that remain to be answered.
Investigative journalism can sound awfully dull and frustrating: endless hours spent trying to understand legal documents, calling people who refuse to talk, getting exciting breakthroughs that turn out to be incorrect. But it doesn’t feel dull to seek the answers to vital questions. It feels exciting. It’s a hunt for the truth, which does, eventually, reveal itself. And the harder the search is, the more thrilling it is when it is complete.