Who is Michael Caputo?
The man whose name popped up Monday when the House Intelligence Committee quizzed FBI Director James Comey should be familiar to Western New Yorkers. In recent years, the conservative public relations professional who lives in East Aurora has been all over the place, making all sorts of statements. Now, members of Congress are attempting to link Caputo to Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Caputo is known here locally as a fill-in radio host and commentator for WBEN, as well as the campaign manager for Carl Paladino when he ran for governor. But much of Caputo's understanding about the world and international politics is framed by the six years he spent working in Russia, leveraging personal and political connections under the auspices of the State Department and then as the head of his own Russian public relations firm.
In an odd twist, the same man who helped bring to a version of the U.S. "Rock the Vote" to Moscow during former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign is now being mentioned in national committee hearings on election tampering here stateside.
"When the Yeltsin team later kicked off his re-election, they adopted the young voter outreach program and launched it as 'Golosuee ele prigraish' – Choose or Lose – and I assisted this rollout," Caputo stated in a bio he gave The News in 2016. "The program was credited with helping Yeltsin win handily."
He has personal recollections of working and partying with Yeltsin and current President Vladimir Putin since the days when Putin was still a mid-level bureaucrat. But Caputo says there's no connection between his work in Russia and the current allegations of Russian interference in the election.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., directed several lengthy questions about Caputo on Monday to FBI Director Comey and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, both of whom said they had no knowledge of any relationship between Caputo, Trump and Russian interference.
Caputo did not return requests for comments by The News, but sent a tweet Monday afternoon denying any connection.
— That Michael Caputo (@MichaelRCaputo) March 20, 2017
Uneasy about Putin
Caputo still maintains a PR presence in Russia, where he lived and worked from 1994 to 2000.
As his relationships with senior Kremlin officials grew tighter, he said he became increasingly dissatisfied with how the Clinton administration was handling relations with Russia and fumed that many of his recommendations to the U.S. Embassy were ignored. Suspicions about his tight relationships with some Russian officials also didn't win him friends in the State Department.
He was eventually forced to leave U.S. government service in 1995, but then opened his own PR firm in Russia and stayed for another five years.
He previously told a radio audience on WBEN that Putin even came to his home during one of the stretches when Caputo lived and worked in Russia.
“We sat on a panel together in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1994, I guess it was," Caputo said during a WBEN program in 2014.
He had asked listeners to call in on the question: Who do you trust more, Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?
Caputo explained he met Putin, who at the time was an administrative deputy for the City of St. Petersburg, when Caputo was helping draft an election law for the State of St. Petersburg. Caputo said he and Putin sat on a panel together.
"And I’ve gotta tell ya, I interacted with him a little bit,” Caputo told the audience.
He said he learned later that Putin had been a guest during a party in his home.
"I didn’t know he was there until I saw the photographs a year later, and he was there leaning against the wall in my living room sipping from ice water, which I think runs in his veins,” Caputo said during the show.
Putin gave him an uneasy feeling.
"He just does not like Americans," Caputo said during the show. "I got the distinct impression that I was more of a problem for him. I was in the way. Every time I opened my mouth, there was nothing he would ever learn from or would gain from. But it’s an interesting thing.”
The audio of the program was shared by Robert Graber, who is active in Democratic Party politics in Erie County and holds a job with the Erie County Legislature.
"He is an adventurer," Graber said.
But he doubts that Caputo would be so free to mention his history with Putin today.
It wasn't Caputo's only brush with Putin. Years later, Caputo's Washington, D.C.-based PR firm for budding telecom and Internet companies helped Putin weather U.S. government criticism for taking over an independent TV station.
“I’m not proud of the work today,” Caputo told The News for an extensive profile in 2016. “But at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”
Caputo, an Army veteran, has been in many situations in his decades as a political operative and pot-stirrer since his early days as a member of the College Republicans at the University at Buffalo.
He eventually signed on as a writer for Congressman Jack Kemp in his White House bid. After that campaign failed, he moved on to Central and South America – where he rubbed elbows with Iran-Contra figure Oliver North – doing his part to spread President Reagan’s anti-communist doctrine through PR and propaganda.
He later worked to connect politicians, journalists and other people of influence with rebels and other political allies in Latin America, according to J. Michael Waller, who oversaw Caputo’s work for the now-defunct Council for Inter-American Security.
“We believed in the cause,” Waller told The News. "And we were willing to work for next to nothing.”
Caputo returned to wield his media skills with the House of Representatives and the failed George Bush/Dan Quayle re-election campaign.
In 2007, he assisted in campaign strategy in the Ukraine, a neighboring country that has been in conflict with Russia.
More recently, Caputo served as the campaign strategist for Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino's run for New York governor in 2010. His PR firm works for the Republican-controlled Erie County Water Authority under a contract that provides up to $5,000 a month.
He's a protege of the Republican stalwart Roger Stone, a functionary for President Trump.
"I’ve hired Caputo so many times it’s ridiculous," Stone told The News for its Caputo profile in 2016. "Caputo is a wordsmith. He’s a rare thing because he can talk to politicians and write a press release."
Asking about Caputo
Congresswoman Speier seemed to know a lot about Caputo on Monday. She asked FBI Director Comey and NSA Director Rogers about American CEOs who develop relationships with Russia, and then asked questions about the conservative who lives in East Aurora.
Here's the back-and-forth, as transcribed from a livestream from PBS News Hour of the hearing:
Speier: Let's move on to someone else in that web. His name is Michael Caputo. He's a PR professional who served (as a) radio talk show host. In 1994 he moved to Russia, and there he was working for the Agency for International Development. He was fired from that job because he refused to follow a State Department position. He then opened a PR firm in Moscow and married a Russian woman. He subsequently divorced her, and in 1999 his business failed. Roger Stone, a mentor to him, urged him to move to Florida and open his PR firm in Miami, which is exactly what Mr. Caputo did. And then in 2000, he worked with Gazprom-Media to improve Putin's image in the United States. Now, do we know who Gazprom-Media is? Do we know anything about Gazprom, Director?
Comey: I don't.
Speier: It's an oil company. In 2007, he began consulting the Ukrainian Parliamentary campaign. There he met his second wife. So I guess my question is, what possible reason is there for the Trump campaign to hire Putin's image consultant? Any thoughts on that, Director Comey?
Comey: No thoughts.
Speir: Admiral Rogers?
Rogers: Likewise, ma'am.
Speier: All right. Do either of you know what Caputo is doing for (the) Trump effort today?
Rogers: I have no idea.
Comey (difficult to make out): I'm not going to talk about a U.S. persons.