The Mad, Sad World of Leon Black
The financial press has been full of the quite literal Shakespearean drama unfolding between two business titans who co-founded the private equity house Apollo Global.
For those who don’t know, Leon Black, 70, the former CEO and chairman of the private equity giant Apollo has accused his co-founder Josh Harris, 57, of a remarkable reaction to having been overlooked as his successor when Black stepped down earlier this year after it emerged he’d paid Jeffrey Epstein $158 million for tax advice.
“Like Shakespeare’s Iago, enraged by being passed over for promotion, he turned his wrath on his mentor and leader,” reads a line in Black’s amended federal RICO complaint in which he accuses Harris of recruiting “confederates” and a “war council” to fund and organize a media campaign and civil lawsuit against him by Russian model Guzel Ganieva, Black’s former mistress. Last year, Ganieva accused Black of rape and defamation, which Black asserts is the result of Harris’s effort to “destroy” and “assassinate” Black’s character as well as extort him.
Put differently, Black believes, according to his original complaint, that Harris spent up to half a billion dollars to decimate Black’s reputation via Ganieva and her lawyers and publicists—purely, according to Black’s lawyers, because Harris, who is reportedly worth over $6 billion, was pissed off.
Even in the bubble-wrapped world of multi-billionaires, it’s very unusual for someone to chuck out half a billion dollars just because their feelings have been hurt.
(Harris has called Black’s claims “desperate and absurd,” “baseless, untrue and totally unsupported,” and “unhinged at best,” via a spokesperson.)
Leon Black onstage at a Museum Of Modern Art Film Benefit on November 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Museum of Modern Art)
Ok. So here’s my take.
Full disclosure: I know Black, although not well. I also know Marc Rowan who became Black’s successor. I also know Steven Rubenstein, the publicist Black has accused of conspiring with Harris (his lawyer has refuted Black’s claims), and Doug Wigdor, the head of the law firm representing Ganieva. I do not know Ganieva or Harris, though I know plenty of Harris’s friends.
Black is a complicated character. Carl Icahn once did a stand-up routine at Caroline’s in which he said jokingly to the audience (which included Black), “Leon suffers from one malady that I really don’t think I suffer from….which is greed. Greed is a terrible thing.” Like all good jokes, it was funny because it was partially true.
From what I’ve seen, Black is used to being revered in powerful crowds because he’s usually not just the richest guy in the room but also the cleverest, the one with the best art collection, and so on. Guys like that tend to think that rules don’t apply to them. Leon’s extra-curricular romantic life has never been a secret on the Upper East Side of New York and, I suspect, even from his wife. (Black calls the six-year affair with Ganieva consensual but “regrettable.”)
So it’s worth thinking about what Icahn said about Black as you read Black’s complaint and as you talk to his friends (which I have) who agree with his theories about Harris. It makes no sense in Black’s view and in that of his friends that Ganieva—who Black admits he had been paying $100,000 a month as hush money from 2015 until last March and with whom, according to Black, he had a written agreement to continue to pay for another nine years as long as she stayed silent about their affair—would suddenly walk away from that and make public allegations unless she had financial support from another source.
But this thought may overlook something that Black and his rich supporters may not have taken into consideration: the fact that victims of sexual abuse can be triggered. When it emerged earlier this year as the result of an investigation that Black had paid Epstein $158 million, Black put out a statement: “There has never been an allegation by anyone that I engaged in any wrongdoing, because I did not.”
According to Ganieva’s Wigdor laywer Jeanne Christensen, the word “never” along with Black’s remarks along similar lines on both an earnings call and in the Dechert report (compiled at the request of Apollo’s board of directors) was a trigger that caused her to tweet that she had been sexually harassed and abused by Black. On March 21, 2021, Ganieva wrote three tweets:
According to Ganieva’s later complaint, she had made prior claims of abuse in texts to Black that had gone unanswered. Black has denied all the claims—and gone further with his RICO suit by alleging she’s part of a grander plan to ruin him.
According to Christensen, Ganieva did not trust that Black would continue to pay her and she has never had a copy of their agreement. By the time of her tweets, Ganieva had made more than $9 million from Black since 2015.
Now, according to Christensen, what happened after the tweets is really curious—and you are reading the details of this here first.
On March 24, 2021, Ganieva’s doorman called her apartment to tell her that the police had arrived and were on their way upstairs. Ganieva immediately went down to the lobby so she could meet them there.
There was a woman in her 40s with long dark hair and a man in his late 50s with a receding hairline. They were in plain clothes but they had NYPD badges (out-of-date, as it would turn out). But, initially, Ganieva was terrified, fearing that these people had been sent over to her by Black. Apparently not. “We’re not going to arrest you,” they told her.
They showed her a piece of paper which had her former address and asked her: “Did you post those tweets?” They said they were private investigators who worked for a lawyer who they said wanted to represent her. They said the lawyer’s name was Alex Spiro, and they gave her his office number. The woman wanted to leave Ganieva her business card but Ganieva declined. The next morning, according to records in my possession, Ganieva phoned 911. She also texted a friend what had happened.
What’s weird about all this is that Alex Spiro works for Quinn Emanuel, the same law firm that represents Leon Black in his New York state defense against Ganieva—and who represented Black in his civil RICO suit until quite suddenly John Quinn, the very well-known lawyer, stepped down this week, citing a conflict.
I asked Quinn if the conflict had been to do with Spiro and the alleged effort by Spiro to get Ganieva as a client. Quinn said via email, “Our firm never tried to get her as a client and no one claims that we did. A conflict did develop but I am not in a position to expand on it.”
According to Black’s complaint, Spiro has denied sending the investigators and that Quinn Emanuel “declined representation” of Ganieva. But Black charges that Spiro was contacted by an emissary of Harris—“at the behest of an Apollo faction…adverse to Leon Black.”
Spiro said he could not comment.
Black claims that after Quinn Emanuel turned away from Ganieva, Wigdor LLP, which was working “closely with one the members of Mr. Harris’s war council on another high profile case, ultimately agreed to take the case.”
Christensen says she would sign an affidavit saying that that is not true. Wigdor LLP was not working with anyone close to Harris, whom she doesn’t know and had never heard of prior to working with Ganieva, and even then, only vaguely.
Ironically, just weeks after Ganieva filed her complaint against Black in June, Josh Harris was one of the first people to be subpoenaed by Wigdor. Harris was asked to hand over all documentation relating to Black, Epstein, Ganieva, the Black family office, Apollo director A.B. Krongard, Apollo’s longtime law-firm Paul Weiss, and more. According to a spokesperson, Harris had no responsive information to the subpoena.
Either you could construe that this was a brilliant cover-up move by Wigdor, if they are actually being paid somehow by Harris to represent Ganieva, or, as Christensen puts it, “a haphazard effort to reach out to anyone and everyone we heard had a connection to Black. I wouldn’t know Josh Harris if I tripped over him on the street.”
Wigdor’s subpoena net was so wide that subpoenas were also sent to Paul Fribourg (one of Black’s oldest friends), Scott Kleinman (co-president at Apollo), Brad Karp (the head of Paul Weiss), and Andy Levander, the well-respected former AUSA who was responsible for producing the Dechert report, which claimed that Black had paid Epstein $158 million for tax advice but not found any evidence that Black was involved in or had any knowledge of Epstein’s criminal sexual activity.
Ganieva disputes claims of Black’s ignorance. In her amended complaint link, she has said that Black flew her to Palm Beach without her consent specifically to meet Epstein for sexual purposes. Black has denied this.
Around November 2, when Black filed his RICO complaint, which targeted the law firm Wigdor as a conspirator with Harris and the publicist Steven Rubenstein, Wigdor attorneys wrote to Quinn Emanuel and asked them to talk to Alex Spiro. They heard nothing back.
So, what to make of all this? You have allegations being thrown around that are so extreme it beggars belief. The sums of money involved are crazy. And now it seems that the lawyers who are suing other lawyers are suddenly no longer lawyers in the case because they might have, at one time, been on the wrong side!
Whether you think Leon Black is so desperate he’s actually lost his mind (which seems to be Harris’s point of view) or you think Josh Harris is so Machiavellian he is indeed the modern-day Iago, the point that gets lost is the story of the modern Desdemona—as played by Guzel Ganieva.
That the idea of a woman speaking up about alleged sexual abuse while knowing that doing so might cost her millions of dollars is a concept that Leon Black and company thinks is just absurd tells you a great deal. It tells you that what Carl Icahn once joked about is true. It tells you that greed blinds people and that, even though Jeffrey Epstein is dead, there is much about his world that lives on.