As billionaire Leon Black fights a former model’s rape lawsuit in a Manhattan court, he’s roping in other high-profile men and claiming someone secretly “bankrolled” her case in order to stage a “coup” at his former firm, Apollo Global Management.
Last June, Guzel Ganieva filed a defamation suit against Black, the 70-year-old friend and client of wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, claiming he sexually abused her for years and coerced her into signing a non-disclosure agreement to keep her silent about the assaults.
Black, who denies any wrongdoing and says they had a consensual affair, is attempting to subpoena Ganieva’s phone records and those of New York public relations executive Steven Rubenstein, who the embattled mogul claims was enlisted by Apollo co-founder Josh Harris to plant negative stories about him in the press.
In a court filing this week, Black unveiled shocking accusations against Harris, describing him as an “archrival” who backed Ganieva’s litigation behind the scenes after losing “a multi-billion-dollar succession fight” to replace Black as Apollo’s CEO in 2021.
The pleading accuses Harris of enlisting Rubenstein “to help shape his own media profile—and to help seed harmful stories about” Black. It also alleges Harris attempted to “oust” Black in 2020 and 2021 by spotlighting his financial arrangements with Epstein, whose sexual abuse of girls had been widely reported on for years.
Black “seeks to show communication between Ms. Ganieva’s camp and Mr. Rubenstein’s camp—between his accuser and the public relations team that works for his archrival—further demonstrating that Ms. Ganieva’s claims are nothing but fabrications stitched together from whole cloth,” his lawyer Danya Perry said in the pleading.
The private equity titan resigned from Apollo last March, two months after an internal review found that he had paid Epstein $158 million from 2012 to 2017 for tax and estate planning and other financial advice. Black also stepped down as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in wake of protests over his ties to the late sex trafficker.
Black’s filing states that Harris, “enraged” that Apollo passed him over, then “forged ahead with a malicious campaign to take Mr. Black down.”
“Mr. Harris convened a team of media experts—including, prominently, Mr. Rubenstein—not only to manage his own reputation but also to impugn, and indeed attempt to destroy, Mr. Black,” Perry said in the court filing.
Both Harris and Rubenstein have denied Black’s accusations, with Harris’s spokesperson calling them “desperate and absurd.”
“The claims in Mr. Black’s legal memorandum are baseless, untrue and unsupportable,” Jonathan Rosen, a spokesman for Harris, told The Daily Beast.
“Mr. Harris does not know Ms. Ganieva, has never met or spoken with her or anyone representing her, has no financial or any other dealings with her or her representatives, and had no involvement of any kind in the filing of any claims by her.
“Simply put, Mr. Harris has nothing whatsoever to do with the deeply troubling situation Mr. Black finds himself in, and any statement or implication otherwise is unhinged at best.”
Evan Farber, an attorney for Rubenstein, told us: “Mr. Rubenstein and his firm have had absolutely no relationship with Ms. Ganieva, past, present, formal or informal. They have never met or communicated with her or any of her representatives. These, and the rest of the claims filed by Mr. Black’s attorneys, offer a concocted, ever-evolving conspiracy theory, packed with false information and are not based in reality.”
Jeanne Christensen, a lawyer for Ganieva and partner at Wigdor LLP, also denied Black’s accusations. “Rather than responding to our client’s serious allegations of sexual assault and rape as alleged in her complaint, Leon Black is deflecting from his own conduct by infusing his personal strife with former partners at Apollo into her case,” she told The Daily Beast.
“Black’s billionaire power struggles have no place in Ms. Ganieva’s lawsuit that arose after she refused to be silenced any longer about his heinous sexual mistreatment,” Christensen continued. “To suggest that his Apollo related rivals are somehow involved in Ms. Ganieva’s efforts to hold Black accountable is just one more attempt by Black to marginalize her experiences as a sexual assault survivor.”
While Black concedes that he paid Ganieva $100,000 a month from October 2015 through March of last year and forgave $1 million in loans to her as part of their NDA, he argues she “lacks any apparent independent means of supporting herself.”
“It is not hard to infer that she is being bankrolled by someone with deep pockets,” Perry, Black’s lawyer, alleges in Tuesday’s filing. “Meanwhile, her false claims are seeded and amplified by Mr. Rubenstein—the same PR guru who already has done Mr. Harris’ work in spreading rumors about Mr. Black’s alleged sexual misconduct.”
The filing doesn’t refer to any specific evidence or exhibits of the alleged smear campaign but instead points to a circumstantial timeline. “As 2020 turned into 2021, with an independent investigation into Mr. Black’s relationship with Mr. Epstein underway, Mr. Rubenstein—despite being on retainer with Apollo—worked specifically on Mr. Harris’ behalf,” Perry alleged. “This work included being in communication with Mr. Harris on talking points and media statements relating to, among other things, Mr. Black and Mr. Epstein.”
“Mr. Black is entitled to probe the timing and prove that it is no coincidence: just as Mr. Rubenstein prepared and fed allegations to the media to further Mr. Harris’ ambitions, so, too, were the allegations relating to Ms. Ganieva,” his attorneys stated.
Black’s team underscored that Rubenstein previously worked with the New York Post, where Ganieva gave an exclusive interview months before her lawsuit was filed. “And it beggars belief to suggest that Guzel Ganieva herself, without professional public relations help, convinced Ronan Farrow and other prominent reporters to sign on as the first three followers of her new Twitter account,” Black’s legal team continued.
“Mr. Black is entitled to probe and prove up the nexus between Mr. Harris’ public relations team and Ms. Ganieva’s emergence, so that he can show that the false allegations against him are a product of a fabricated scheme aimed at financially benefiting Ms. Ganieva and her sponsor.”
Ganieva first came forward with accusations of abuse in a series of tweets in March 2021. Weeks later, Black denied her claims and said, “I have been extorted by Ms. Ganieva for many years and I made substantial monetary payments to her, based on her threats to go public concerning our relationship, in an attempt to spare my family from public embarrassment.”
It started in 2008 when I met with him to discuss work. While he understood my career aspirations, he could not understand me when I refused his sexual advances. I was bullied, manipulated, threatened, and coerced. Similarly, under duress, I was forced to sign an NDA in 2015.
— Guzel Ganieva (@GuzelGanieva3) March 17, 2021
Ganieva then filed her defamation suit against Black, which said she was a single mother from Russia when she met him in 2008 and that she believed he would help her career “move beyond modeling.” Instead, she says, Black trapped her in a “cycle of intimidation, abuse and humiliation.”
She later updated her lawsuit to add accusations that highlighted an especially close relationship between Black and Epstein.
In an amended complaint, Ganieva claimed Black flew her to Florida in 2008 and encouraged her to have sex with his “best friend” Epstein, who was on work release from jail, but she refused. While visiting Epstein’s Palm Beach lair, Ganieva added, she met his former assistant and alleged co-conspirator Sarah Kellen. According to Ganieva, Kellen said that Black and Epstein were “sex addicts” and warned, “They are very powerful, and if you don’t do what they want you to do, there will be consequences that I do not want for you.”
Ganieva also claimed Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s recently convicted accomplice, approached her in 2013 and offered to help get her a passport.
Since Ganieva came forward, Black filed a short-lived counterclaim, alleging he was the victim of an extortion scheme. He dropped that state court action in September.
In October, Black sued Ganieva and Wigdor LLP, the law firm representing her, for racketeering and defamation in federal court. Aside from Ganieva and her lawyers, Black named three other defendants: John Does 1 and 2, who he described as “public relations and social media professionals” and John Doe 3, a “funder” who is supposedly covering the costs of the litigation and alleged PR campaign against him.
“The Defendants here created an Enterprise to extort and cancel one of the world’s most prominent business leaders,” Black’s racketeering suit claims.
In response, Wigdor LLP asked the court to sanction Black and his legal team for allegedly filing the suit for improper purposes—namely, retaliating against the firm for representing Ganieva and attempting to interfere with their ability to represent her.
“It is no surprise that a billionaire faced with allegations of sexual assault would want to use his fortune to change the subject by retaliating against his accuser and her representatives in a very public manner,” Rivkin Radler LLP, lawyers for Wigdor, stated last week in a memorandum seeking sanctions. “However, zealous representation does not equate to or excuse the filing of frivolous, harassing or retaliatory litigation…”
Wigdor’s lawyers added that “no amount of investigation could possibly have led Black or his counsel to a good faith belief that” the firm was involved with a “funder.” They said Black’s legal team knew Wigdor was representing Ganieva on a contingency agreement in her state court lawsuit. “No one has paid or reimbursed Wigdor for anything in connection with its representation of Ms. Ganieva,” they said.
Lawyers for Wigdor also denied that the firm or Ganieva had enlisted a public relations specialist to publicize her accusations. “It is frivolous for Black to allege—as he does, with the imprimatur of his counsel—that Ms. Ganieva needed the assistance of a ‘Flack’ to use the hashtags ‘#MeToo’ or ‘#LeonBlack’...” they wrote.
“Black—with his billions of dollars—may believe that he can levy baseless and legally defective ‘RICO’ and ‘defamation’ claims against opposing counsel with impunity, in an attempt to interfere with Wigdor’s ability to represent Ms. Ganieva and gain an advantage in her first-filed State Court Action,” Wigdor’s lawyers added. “However, his lawyers should have … refused to go along with that wrongful approach.”
In a letter to the court last week, Black’s lawyer Susan Estrich indicated he will file an amended racketeering complaint by Jan. 28. Estrich added that Wigdor’s motion for sanctions should be denied as moot once that updated lawsuit is filed.
Earlier this month, Ganieva’s lawyers filed a motion to quash Black’s subpoena to AT&T for her phone records, calling it “a clear and unnecessary invasion of privacy” and “a transparent attempt to intimidate and harass Ms. Ganieva.”
“Black is simply fishing for evidence for use in the Federal Lawsuit, despite having received sworn statements from Ms. Ganieva that she has not spoken to any public relations firm or agent,” wrote Wigdor attorney Lindsay M. Goldbrum.
“Black believes (wrongly) that Plaintiff conspired with other people to file this action against Black for the sole purposes of embarrassing him and ruining his reputation,” Goldbrum added. “He is not entitled to continue on a quest that has yielded no information and that unquestionably will continue to do so.”
Rubenstein’s lawyer, Farber, also moved to defeat a subpoena for his phone records, calling it “brazenly overbroad and improperly invasive.” Black not only seeks Rubenstein’s phone records and texts from October 2020 to September 2021, but records for each of his agents, representatives and employees, Farber said.