Robert Mueller's investigation of US President Donald Trump has taken all sorts of strange turns over the past year and a half, but this might be one of the strangest: It turns out that Trump's lawyer has a circuitous connection to the video game company behind games like H1Z1 and Everquest.
Viktor Vekselberg at the G20 Summit on 6 September 2013 in St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: Alexey Filippov (Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)
Yesterday, word came out that Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, had received $US500,000 ($672,481) in payments from a US investment firm connected to a Russian oligarch named Viktor Vekselberg. That firm, Columbus Nova, has its fingers in a lot of pots.
In January 2016, months before a wrestler's lawsuit led to Kotaku US' former parent company Gawker Media getting purchased by Univision, Columbus Nova put a minority investment into Gawker. And in 2015, it was reported that Columbus Nova purchased Sony Online Entertainment, the San Diego, CA-based studio behind dozens of well-received video games.
We knew that because both companies announced it together, with a press release declaring, "Columbus Nova acquires Sony Online Entertainment." Alongside the move, the company said it would be changing its name to Daybreak.
Now, Daybreak is rewriting history. Over the past few weeks, as the studio laid off staff amidst a declining audience for H1Z1, Daybreak has distanced itself from Columbus Nova, deleting said press release from its website and telling reporters that it had not actually been purchased by the investment firm, but in fact by businessman Jason Epstein.
"Daybreak Game Company has no affiliation with Columbus Nova," the company told Kotaku in an emailed statement on April 25. "Jason Epstein purchased Daybreak (then SOE) from Sony in February 2015. Mr Epstein was a senior partner at Columbus Nova at the time he acquired the company. He left Columbus Nova in 2017 and remains the primary shareholder of Daybreak."
A spokesperson for Daybreak Games would not comment on how the press release could have been so misleading and why no subsequent statements that Columbus Nova owned the company were never corrected before now.
Instead, Daybreak elaborated on its initial statement in a forum post, saying it was well aware of past statements made about the company's ownership but that Epstein had been the majority owner since the acquisition. Daybreak's spokespeople added that recent changes to the company's website and third-party communications were simply part of a new effort to set the record straight.
All mentions of Columbus Nova were recently purged from Daybreak's website. Screenshot: Kotaku (Daybreakgames.com)
Questions over Daybreak's relationship to Columbus Nova began to bubble up in April, when the website MassivelyOP pointed out that the US government had frozen some of Viktor Vekselberg's assets, which it believed raised questions about the future of games such as Everquest 2.
Vekselberg, a Russian businessman whose net worth in 2015 was reportedly $US13.5 billion ($18 billion), is the owner of a company called Renova Group. Until this week, it was widely reported and believed that Columbus Nova was a subsidiary of Renova Group - something that Columbus Nova now denies.
Vekselberg's cousin, Andrew Intrater, has been the CEO of Columbus Nova since 2000 according to his bio on the investment firm's website, a page which was removed sometime in the last 24 hours.
And yesterday, Columbus Nova put out a statement denying that it was owned by Renova Group. "Throughout its existence, Columbus Nova has managed assets on behalf of Renova Group companies and other clients," the statement reads. "Columbus Nova itself is not now, and has never been, owned by any foreign entity or person including Viktor Vekselberg or the Renova Group."
Both Vekselberg and Intrater have donated to Trump and both attended his inauguration, according to The New York Times, which also reports that both men have since been interviewed by special prosecutor Bob Mueller's office, the team in charge of investigating Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 US election.
So here we are. Until April, everyone had believed that Columbus Nova owned Daybreak, which Daybreak now denies. Until this week, everyone had believed that Renova Group owned Columbus Nova - SEC filings even showed as much - which Columbus Nova now denies. And yesterday, news broke that Trump's lawyer had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Columbus Nova.
In late April, as Daybreak was telling press that it was not actually owned by Columbus Nova, the game studio was also laying off staff. Laura Naviaux Sturr, chief publishing officer at Daybreak following the acquisition, left the company on April 25. A day later, many designers and programmers at Daybreak announced on Twitter that they had been let go.
One of the people laid off, an employee who had been at the company for over six years and asked not to be named, told Kotaku in an email that rumours of the layoffs had been circulating around the office for months and that some people had already cleared out their desks ahead of the official announcement. The employee, who was in a management role, said Epstein owning the company came as a surprise.
"Most of us were just as confused by the statement as everyone else was," they said. "I guess a select few people knew we weren't actually owned by Columbus Nova, but they were definitely in the minority."
H1Z1 is Daybreak's biggest game, currently headed to PS4. The company has tried to create an esport around the game as well despite its declining audience. Screenshot: Daybreak Games (H1Z1)
A former creative lead on Planetside 2, who also wished to remain anonymous, shared a similar story.
"My understanding at the time was that we were being added to a holding company for Russian investments in tech which was run by Jason," they told Kotaku. "There was an all-hands meeting shortly before I left where Jason introduced himself, explained who Columbus Nova and Renova were."
While their understanding was that Jason ran Columbus Nova, but was not acquiring the studio himself, they say the distinction was never really made explicit one way or the other.
That person left the company shortly after it was sold and after a large round of layoffs. Months later, studio president John Smedley, who had founded the company, left as well. (In the original press release about the sale, Smedley was attributed to the quote: "We are excited to join Columbus Nova's impressive roster of companies." Smedley did not respond to a request for comment.) He was replaced by Ji Ham, a vice president at Columbus Nova.
And what of Columbus Nova's ties to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg and his company, Renova? Despite Columbus Nova's denials, the web is full of bread crumbs linking the two companies.
For example, while Jason Epstein's profile on the Columbus Nova MB website no longer exists, an archived version of what appeared in September of 2016 lists him as a managing partner of Renova US Management, the US investment vehicle for the Renova Group.
Kotaku US' own connections to Columbus Nova are also tied to Renova. For a period of time between January of 2016 and when Univision bought Gawker the following August, Jason Epstein was given a seat on Gawker's board of directors.
"My understanding at the time of the Columbus Nova investment in Gawker Media in January 2016 was that Columbus Nova was ultimately controlled by Viktor Vekselberg," John Cook, who was then executive editor of Gawker Media, told me today.
Columbus Nova was commonly understood to be the US operating arm of the Russian conglomerate and ultimately owned by Vekselberg, something reiterated in multiple news reports at the time. At the same time, Cook said neither Vekselberg nor anyone at Columbus Nova attempted to exercise any influence over editorial matters during that time.
Morale at Daybreak remains low, according to the source who was laid off from the studio two weeks ago. They told me that, based on conversations with people still at Daybreak, the atmosphere is grim, despite ongoing company-wide meetings to try and allay people's concerns about the future of the company.
As Daybreak prepares for the PS4 release of H1Z1, whose open beta will launch on May 22, its murky ties to Trump and the Russian investigation cannot be of much comfort.