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The Old 'I'm a Secret Spy, Pay Me' Con

The Old 'I'm a Secret Spy, Pay Me' Con
Gaurav Srivastava says he's a "NOC" with the CIA ... but that seems very unlikely.
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An alleged serial con man pretended to be part of a little-known CIA program to swindle an oil trader. His elaborate web of lies is now rapidly unraveling.

By Soobin Kim and Bradley Hope

A parade of illustrious guests, including country ambassadors and c-suite executives, strolled into a conference on global food security, three days ahead of the annual G20 summit.

Picture the scene: rich, powerful and self-important people thronging the ballroom of a luxury resort for two days to exchange canned questions and non-answers, under the delusion that they were solving world hunger – and getting serenaded by John Legend at the end of it. This particular event in November 2022 was affiliated with the Atlantic Council. Its president, Frederick Kempe, profusely thanked the 32-year-old sponsor of the conference: Gaurav Srivastava, whose foundation donated more than $1 million to the DC-based think tank that year.

Kempe possibly thought of Srivastava as another social climber with an obscure, well-funded foundation that he could bountifully milk, but Srivastava is something else entirely – an alleged serial con man orchestrating international scams by pretending to have deep ties in Washington and even masquerading as a government operative.

Now, Srivastava’s web of (alleged) deceit is rapidly unraveling, after a failed attempt to defraud another attendee of the conference, the Geneva- and Dubai-based Dutch oil trader Niels Troost.

Srivastava and Troost discussing food security in a 5-star hotel in November 2022

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It all began in the summer of 2022, when Troost was in a state of growing panic. Someone purporting to be a U.S. government informant had led him to believe that the FBI was investigating him and his commodities-trading company headquartered in Switzerland, Paramount Energy & Commodities SA. Months into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Paramount was continuing to trade Russian oil, mainly crude, shipped from a port near Vladivostok. At the time, the G-7 was actively considering a price cap on Russian oil, with the U.S. as its biggest supporter.

Through a mutual contact, Troost was introduced to Srivastava, who presented himself as a well-connected government operative. Srivastava put forth a dubious proposition: if Troost could make Srivastava a partner in the business, by moving 50% of the shares of Paramount to a Delaware-incorporated company controlled by Srivastava, and domicile Paramount into the U.S., Troost would quietly be excused from sanctions on Russia, because he would then be part of a state-approved network to collect intelligence on behalf of the U.S.

I Can't Say, but Ask My Friend, I'm a Spy

The deal came with an elaborate back story. Over time, Srivastava had led Troost to believe that he was a "non-official cover" for the Central Intelligence Agency, or NOC (pronounced “knock”). Most people know of NOCs from the Mission Impossible film series. NOCs are spies for the CIA, but they are under deep cover working for or running genuine businesses around the world. Most CIA case officers, on the other hand, operate under diplomatic cover. If you know any "cultural attachés" who seem a little wily and not all that interested in the local culture, you might be onto something...

To appear more convincing, Srivastava regaled Troost with chest-puffing stories about top-secret counter-terrorism missions he had conducted, including several in Afghanistan. During one harrowing mission in 2008, according to Srivastava, he was held hostage by ISIS in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was during a time when ISIS was not active in the DRC.

Another man who introduced himself as Srivastava's chief of staff, Jim Reese, explained that Srivastava was recruited out of college for his ethnic background, being well-traveled and having a slight British accent (all the best spies have British accents, everyone knows that). Srivastava, who had a habit of name-dropping to make himself appear more plugged in, scaled up the illusion by claiming that he was one of some 30 NOCs in total. “Warren Buffett was one of them,” Srivastava said, according to a transcript of their conversations reviewed by Whale Hunting. “Elon Musk was involved but he went off the deep end.” Reese declined to comment.

And from his work as an alleged NOC, Srivastava supposedly emerged with high-level contacts in Congress and the State Department that would allow Troost to continue doing business in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine with a special license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

This all sounds fairly ludicrous, but Srivastava had surrounded Troost with ostensibly credible people who shored up his false narratives. One of the first suggestions that Srivastava had made to Troost was to hire the law firm Baker & Hostetler, calling it "the primary firm that the Justice Department uses to arrest people" and "part of the government." That was why the firm had been tapped to handle the liquidation of Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, Srivastava posited. Troost was puzzled, but did as he was told, engaging Baker & Hostetler as Paramount's counsel in November 2022.

Jeffrey Berg, a partner at Baker & Hostetler, allegedly bolstered Srivastava's narrative, saying Srivastava had "friends in very high places," according to a transcript of their discussions. Troost understood that Srivastava was also a client of Berg's but didn't know about Berg and Srivastava's deeper ties: they were business partners in a South African company called Himmelhoch Petroleum and Gas. Berg declined to comment.

Nearly a year after they were first introduced, Troost had transferred 50% of the shares to Srivastava but had yet to complete the U.S. domiciling of Paramount due to creeping doubts about Srivastava's bona fides.

Growing impatient at the delay, Srivastava turned hostile, prodding Troost to hurry up with the U.S. domiciling, or else he can forget about any favors. In an aggressively worded text message to Troost, he wrote: Stop with games & tell you staff too or as a shareholder I want to block the funds of the company. I told you not BS me. I am really done Niels.

Srivastava dialed up his name-dropping as well, claiming that he had weathered a profane outburst from the Director of the CIA, William J. Burns, because Troost was dragging his feet over this particular transaction.

Finally, in April 2023, Troost hired investigators to perform due diligence on Srivastava and discovered a chilling history of (alleged) corporate fraud suits and unpaid bills. In 2017, a Colombian businessman sued Srivastava for sales of unlicensed medical devices. In 2019, a hospital sued Srivastava for stopping payments on checks paid for medical bills. In the same year, a woman in Los Angeles sued Srivastava and his wife for failing to repay a loan of $100,000. Srivastava counter-sued her for slander when she sent a message to Srivastava's potential business partner calling him "a thief and a con artist," according to court transcripts, whereupon the potential business partner withdrew from a multi-million-dollar business deal.

The Unlikely Tycoon

Apart from the flurry of courtroom action, Srivastava seemed to keep a low profile. Born in Lucknow, a city in Northern India, he appears to reside in Los Angeles with his wife Sharon Srivastava (née Johnson). The two are co-founders of the foundation that sponsored the Atlantic Council's conference on food security. An internet search of the foundation's name yields banal, sloppily written articles on their philanthropic efforts by made-up authors on content mills posing as news websites. Sharon even has a subreddit dedicated to her, perhaps to improve the articles' rankings on search engines.

A fawning article in... New York Weekly (?) about the Srivastavas

Excavating Srivastava's record of (alleged) fraud and delinquency, Troost came to see him as a huckster who cobbled together what little knowledge he had of the CIA to feign an air of importance, exclusivity and impunity. His true intention, Troost believed, was to make off with Paramount once it was domiciled into the U.S., adding to a portfolio of pilfered oil companies.

The deception was enhanced by the spy-speak he had learned from John Maguire, a retired CIA officer who was looking for financial backers to set up a "private intelligence platform" that could win major government contracts. Maguire's former business partner was Matthew Marshall, another spy imitator who had used a similar narrative to defraud the billionaire Michael Goguen and is currently serving time in an Illinois prison. In his search for startup capital, Maguire had found yet another grifter.

Daydreaming about refashioning Paramount into the next trading giant like Trafigura or Glencore, Srivastava had already picked out a name for the new venture – Unicom Worldwide – and rented an office with a view of the Santa Monica Mountains, near the ritzy Brentwood neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Enter the Samurai Swords

To burnish his own myth, Srivastava purchased approximately 18 decorative swords in a variety of designs from retailers and antique dealers to deck out the office, according to a person familiar with the matter. Before putting them on display, he sent the swords to an engraver with an order for each one to bear his name, so that he could dazzle his visitors by presenting the engraved swords as personalized gifts from world leaders.

The scheme broke down on May 10, 2023, when Troost terminated Paramount's relationship with Baker & Hostetler and rescinded Srivastava's shares on the grounds of error and deceit, restoring Paramount to his full control. By the time Srivastava realized his shares had vanished and fired off an angry text message to Troost, Troost had already cut off all contact.

Throughout the next few days, Troost and his family were terrorized with a series of threatening calls and texts from unknown numbers. One unknown Iranian number threatened to release an "un-blurred confession video" of Troost, if he didn't wire $10 million in 48 hours. Troost's daughter received another text from someone with a California area code, claiming to be a Wall Street Journal reporter writing a story about her father's ties to a prominent Russian individual. Three days after cutting off contact, Troost received another text from Srivastava, this time with a hint of desperation: "We need to talk. Really."

When Troost refused to respond, Srivastava and his attorney Berg (allegedly) met with the ambassador of Turkey to the U.S. to derail Troost's business arrangements to buy a terminal in the country. Berg wrote a letter to the Swiss ambassador to the U.S. and the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, tattling on how Troost and Paramount had sidestepped a price cap imposed in December 2022 by rerouting business through a Dubai-based subsidiary. (Troost says the subsidiary was a separate legal entity governed by Emirati law and ceased all Russian-related trading activity in August 2023). Reese, who eventually realized that he got suckered into a scam, stopped working with Srivastava not long after Troost did.

Exhibit A of Berg's missives

Srivastava declined to comment.

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