Billionaire financier Leon Black gave his ex-mistress £2mn for a UK golden visa and introduced her to a lawyer to discuss her application, hoping to facilitate a transatlantic move that would enable the former fashion model to start a new life far from his home in New York.
Black, the former Apollo chief executive, agreed to transfer millions of pounds to Guzel Ganieva in 2015 in the face of what he has characterised in court as extortion demands. She was to use the money “toward obtaining legal status in the United Kingdom”, according to legal filings and people familiar with the situation.
The money was intended to help her qualify for a Tier 1 “investor visa”, some of the people said, allowing her to take advantage of a route to citizenship for wealthy foreigners who wished to settle in Britain.
Ganieva’s affair with Black spilled into public view last March, when she wrote on Twitter that she had been “bullied, manipulated, threatened, and coerced . . .[and] forced to sign an NDA”. She later sued the billionaire in New York state court, accusing him of abusing her during their relationship and later damaging her reputation by accusing her of extortion.
It is unclear whether Ganieva, who currently lives in Manhattan, was granted a UK visa. Jeanne Christensen, a partner at the Wigdor firm who is representing Ganieva, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The UK Home Office said it “[does] not routinely comment on the immigration status of individuals”.
Susan Estrich, an attorney who represents Black, said: “What is not clear is what Ms Ganieva did with the money to obtain her visa in the UK and her immigration status.”
The British government abolished Tier 1 visas in February after concluding that in some instances the scheme “gives opportunities for corrupt elites to access the UK”. Until then, residency was available to foreigners who had at least £2mn in cash and were willing to park the money in government bonds or other British assets.
Ganieva, a Russian national, moved to New York hoping to earn a living as a fashion model. Soon afterwards, in 2008, she began what Black’s lawyers have described as a “casual, episodic, and completely consensual” relationship with the married billionaire. During that time, he says he paid for her to live in an upscale Manhattan apartment and lent her nearly $1mn.
Black claims that in 2015 Ganieva began to extort him, threatening to “go public, and ruin his family, his business, and his life” unless he complied with her demands, court papers show. He responded by offering an $18mn financial settlement, his lawyers have told a court in New York.
To help her apply for a UK visa, the billionaire brokered an introduction to a partner at a top New York law firm. David Lakhdhir, a London-based mergers and acquisitions specialist at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, met Ganieva to discuss her visa, according to several people with knowledge of the encounter. The law firm declined to comment.
The billionaire also made a large sterling-denominated payment to help Ganieva qualify for a UK visa. The former model “apparently has not been gainfully employed for at least a decade”, his lawyers told a court this year.
Black has countered Ganieva’s claims with a federal lawsuit alleging that she conspired with several lawyers and wealthy New York businessmen to publicise false allegations of rape in an attempt to oust him from Apollo Global Management, the private equity firm he founded three decades ago.
Ganieva and her lawyers deny the allegations.
Paul Weiss is one of New York’s top law firms, handling mergers and corporate litigation on behalf of Fortune 500 companies and asset managers including Apollo, a long-term client.
Black quit as Apollo chief last year following the disclosure that he had paid $158mn to the late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein for tax advice and other professional services. Epstein was convicted in 2008 of soliciting sex from a minor. A former federal prosecutor hired by Apollo to look into the matter found no evidence that Black knew of any other criminal activity by Epstein.
As the scandal surrounding Black’s personal life has grown, Paul Weiss has intensified its efforts to alleviate the personal difficulties of its billionaire client.
The month after Ganieva’s Twitter post appeared, Paul Weiss chair Brad Karp called Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance to ask him to open an investigation into Ganieva’s alleged extortion scheme.
Vance instructed his prosecutors to look into the matter, the Financial Times has previously reported. No criminal charges have been filed against either Black or Ganieva.