Com­pound In­ter­est

Dacha shut­tered in De­cem­ber sub­ject to diplo­matic de­bate

Sunday Star - - FRONT PAGE - By J.F. MEILS

CENTREVILLE — The soccer field is still trimmed to per­fec­tion, but no Rus­sians will be grac­ing the pitch any­time soon. Nor will they be stay­ing in ei­ther of the two Ge­or­gian-style man­sions or in any of the 10 bun­ga­lows clus­tered on the 45-acre water­front prop­erty.

Rus­sia’s lux­u­ri­ous “dacha” in Queen Anne’s County sits eerily empty and wait­ing, a ca­su­alty of the diplo­matic row with the United States that flared af­ter it be­came clear the Rus­sians med­dled ex­ten­sively with the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial election.

Shut­tered by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion last De­cem­ber, the spread is perched at the in­ter­sec­tion of the Cor­sica and Chester rivers in Centreville, a town with a pop­u­la­tion of less than 5,000. In ad­di­tion to the two large es­tate houses, it contains 10 guest bun­ga­lows, a small apart­ment build­ing, four ten­nis courts, two pools, a boathouse and a pri­vate beach.

Known lo­cally as “Pioneer Point,” the Rus­sian diplo­matic com­pound orig­i­nally was part of a 1,600-acre prop­erty owned by John Jakob Raskob, a wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ist best known for build­ing the Em­pire State Build­ing in New York.

Raskob, who once worked as a per­sonal sec­re­tar y for busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist Pierre S. du Pont, made his for­tune in the auto in­dus­try, help­ing to man­age Gen­eral Mo­tors from its in­fancy to one of the world’s most pow­er­ful car mak­ers. It was Raskob’s idea to launch a fi­nanc­ing arm for the com­pany, a ven­ture that be­came Gen­eral Mo­tors Ac­cep­tance Corp., or GMAC.

Raskob’s house at Pioneer Point, the 19-room man­sion once called “Harte­feld Hall,” is the cen­ter­piece of the cur­rent Rus­sian com­pound, built at some point af­ter the land was ac­quired in 1925. Raskob con­structed a sec­ond es­tate house shortly there­after for his 13 chil­dren, who named it “Most­ley Hall,” be­cause it was mostly a long hall of a build­ing.

Raskob passed away in 1950, and the prop­erty changed hands a few times un­til 1972, when what was then the Soviet Union ac­quired it.

Shortly af­ter the Rus­sians ar­rived in Centreville, the FBI did, too.

“In the early days, they were the sub­ject of enor­mous cu­rios­ity by the FBI,” Stephen Wil­son, pres­i­dent of Queen Anne County’s Board of Com­mis­sion­ers, told Cap­i­tal News Ser vice. He lives across the river from Pioneer Point.

“The FBI used to send peo­ple down here with binoc­u­lars, who would stare across the river, as if there was some­thing to be learned about Rus­sians sit­ting on a beach,” Wil­son said.

Wil­son said one idea floated by the feds was to watch the Rus­sians via sub­ma­rine, a plan Wil­son de­scribed as “comic” be­cause the Cor­sica River is only about 10 feet deep.

How­ever, the U.S. gov­ern­ment even­tu­ally found a way to keep a closer eye on the com­pound. A prop­erty that bor­ders it still is reg­is­tered to the State Depart­ment, ac­cord­ing to tax records, which put the value of the Rus­sian spread at close to $9 mil­lion.

Judg­ing from how lit­tle the Rus­sians in­ter­acted with the lo­cals over the years, they likely had a sense they were be­ing watched.

“I would say for the most part they stayed to them­selves,” said Joseph Con­nor, whose fam­ily has owned the prop­erty a few doors down from the com­pound for longer than the Rus­sians have oc­cu­pied it. “You didn’t see them un­less they walked out.”

How­ever, lo­cals oc­ca­sion­ally were in­vited over for par­ties. Con­nor said he went a few times and the food was good, the com­pany was like­wise and the vodka flowed freely.

Now that the Rus­sians are gone, lo­cal feel­ings are mixed.

“You had two dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions from the com­mu­nity when it was closed down,” said Queen Anne’s County Sher­iff Gary Hof­mann, who vis­ited the com­pound once as part of an of­fi­cial in­vite to a group of elected of­fi­cials. “You had a lot of peo­ple say­ing, ‘Wow, I never knew that (com­pound) was there.’ And then you had peo­ple who were sorry to see some of the folks who they met in the past leave the com­pound.”

As for the prop­erty it­self, Hof­mann said: “It wasn’t what I thought it would be. There were no se­cret op­er­a­tives walk­ing around. It wasn’t like (there were) these covert tun­nels we could find.”

Whether the Rus­sians were us­ing the prop­erty for work, play or both, it doesn’t ap­pear Pioneer Point will wel­come back its own­ers any­time soon.

In Au­gust, un­der threat of a veto over­ride from Con­gress, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed a new for­eign sanc­tions bill that was au­thored par­tially by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. In it, the pres­i­dent’s abil­ity to re­turn diplo­matic prop­erty in Mary­land and else­where was made sub­ject to con­gres­sional re­view.

Af­ter sign­ing the bill, which in­cluded mea­sures against North Korea and Iran, as well as Rus­sia, Trump called the leg­is­la­tion “sig­nif­i­cantly flawed.”

“We hope there will be co­op­er­a­tion be­tween our two coun­tries (U.S. and Rus­sia) on ma­jor global is­sues so that these sanc­tions will no longer be nec­es­sary,” Trump added.

Ear­lier this month, Cardin ac­cused the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of not en­forc­ing the sanc­tions out­lined in the bill, which he tied to the fate of the Centreville prop­erty.

“At this time, the se­na­tor (Cardin) be­lieves there is no sce­nario in which the com­pounds should be re­turned to the Rus­sians,” Sean Bartlett, the Demo­cratic spokesman for the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, told Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice. “He does not be­lieve they have been held ac­count­able for their at­tack on our election. De­spite Con­gress’ strong sanc­tions bill, the pres­i­dent has yet to be­gin en­forc­ing it.”

Main­tain­ing the 45-acre spread now falls to the State Depart­ment, which seized the com­pound un­der au­thor­ity of the For­eign Mis­sions Act. The leg­is­la­tion gives the sec­re­tary of state wide lat­i­tude over diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties in or­der “to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of the United States.”

“We seek bet­ter re­la­tions with Rus­sia, as the pres­i­dent and Sec­re­tary (Rex Tiller­son) have said time and again,” said a State Depart­ment of­fi­cial au­tho­rized only to speak on back­ground. “But we will also be clear-eyed in our en­gage­ment with Rus­sia.”

In re­sponse to the clos­ing of the Mary­land com­pound and one in Long Is­land, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or­dered the United States in July to re­duce its diplo­matic foot­print in Rus­sia by 755 peo­ple.

When asked on state-run Rus­sian TV why he did it, Putin said, “Be­cause the Amer­i­can side un­der­took the un­pro­voked, which is a very im­por­tant, step in the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of Rus­sian-Amer­i­can re­la­tions ...”

The U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity had a de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent as­sess­ment.

A re­port from the di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence in Jan­uary stated, “Rus­sian ef­forts to in­flu­ence the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial election rep­re­sent the most re­cent ex­pres­sion of Moscow’s long­stand­ing de­sire to un­der­mine the U.S.-led lib­eral demo­cratic or­der, but these ac­tiv­i­ties demon­strated a sig­nif­i­cant es­ca­la­tion in di­rect­ness, level of ac­tiv­ity, and scope of ef­fort com­pared to pre­vi­ous op­er­a­tions.”

The Obama ex­ec­u­tive or­der that di­rected the State Depart­ment to shut­ter the Mary­land and Long Is­land com­pounds in De­cem­ber 2016 said they were “used by Rus­sian per­son­nel for in­tel­li­gence-re­lated pur­poses ...”

Since then, three more Rus­sian diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties have been or­dered shut by the State Depart­ment, in­clud­ing a con­sulate in San Fran­cisco and an­nexes in New York and Wash­ing­ton.

How long Pioneer Point re­mains closed is any­one’s guess, but there’s a chance it won’t re­main aban­doned for long. The For­eign Mis­sions Act al­lows for a diplo­matic prop­erty to be sold by the State Depart­ment af­ter it has been va­cated for a year.

The catch is the Rus­sians would get the money.

Main­tain­ing the 45-acre spread now falls to the State Depart­ment, which seized the com­pound un­der au­thor­ity of the For­eign Mis­sions Act. The leg­is­la­tion gives the sec­re­tary of state wide lat­i­tude over diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties in or­der “to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of the United States.”

PHOTO FROM DRONE FOOTAGE BY JOSH DAVIDSBURG AND JA­MAL FRAN­CIS/CAP­I­TAL NEWS SER­VICE

A drone view of the Mary­land Rus­sian com­pound, closed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in De­cem­ber 2016 over Rus­sia’s med­dling in the pres­i­den­tial election.

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