A newcomer’s recent purchase of more than $3 million in southern Vermont properties, combined with his high-profile acquisition of three local newspapers, has raised questions about who he is, where his money comes from and what his motives are.
In response, Paul Belogour is unapologetic. “I made my money. I’m spending my money. Simple as that,” he told VTDigger.
Belogour, 50, has bought at least 3,100 acres and 10 buildings and businesses in Windham, Windsor and Rutland counties over the past two years, and, as he announced last week, the media operations of the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and weekly Manchester Journal.
Belogour, as he tells his life story, went from his native Belarus to college and career success in Boston through a 1990s rowing scholarship to Northeastern University. That, in turn, led him to found Boston Merchant Financial Ltd. (BMFN), a self-described “market leading online trading broker,” and later Boston UniSoft Technologies, a software development company.
Belogour says he sold the financial firm about five years ago. But during his tenure, the company faced at least three federal lawsuits for its conduct in the $6 trillion-a-day foreign exchange market, a review of U.S. court records shows.
A 2015 civil action in New York, MBC Financial Services Ltd. (MBCFX) v. Boston Merchant Financial Ltd., alleged Belogour and BMFN knowingly and willfully refused to allow MBCFX to withdraw funds as well as “retaliatory and retroactive charging of fees and other expenses to its Muslim clients,” according to the complaint.
MBCFX had asked Belogour to waive certain fees for its Muslim customers so as not to violate their religious beliefs.
“It is standard custom and practice in the industry for Muslim clients to waive interest charges,” the complaint said.
Belogour reportedly agreed in an email, only to freeze nearly $5.8 million in MBCFX accounts later and demand almost $1.3 million in retroactive fees.
The case was dropped in 2017 only because judges ruled it wasn’t in this country’s jurisdiction but instead that of Switzerland. VTDigger could not determine whether the complaint was refiled there.
A second case two years prior, Halawi Investment Trust SAL, v. Boston Merchant Financial Ltd., claimed Belogour’s firm refused to return more than $1 million in deposited funds to a client. BMFN asked a Massachusetts court to dismiss the case because none of the specific parties involved were U.S. citizens before ultimately agreeing to an undisclosed settlement.
A third civil action in 2012, ActForex Inc. v. Boston Merchant Financial Ltd., sought nearly $20 million from BMFN for alleged copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation. In that complaint, ActForex claimed Belogour had asked one of its top software developers to create BMFN’s UniTrader foreign currency trading platform so his company wouldn’t have to pay license fees.
“Belogour instructed (the developer) to keep their discussions confidential,” the complaint said, “to ensure that ActForex was kept in the dark about Belogour’s nefarious plans.”
A New York judge dismissed the case a year later after ActForex acquired an interest in UniTrader.
Belogour, also known as Pavel Belogour, says he’s no longer associated with BMFN. But his personal email address ends in @bmfn.com and his software business uses the financial firm’s website as an example of its work.
(Log onto BMFN’s address and a disclaimer appears on the homepage: “BMFN Limited would like to inform you that the services and products described on this website are not offered to citizens of E.U. member states, the United States, Canada, Japan, Turkey, UAE and Australia.”)
For its part, a Facebook group with the moniker “BMFN’s victims” has complained in English and Arabic about losing money with the firm, which the United Arab Emirates’ Securities and Commodities Authority now lists on a “warning” web page. Members say Belogour deactivated his Facebook account and stopped tweeting after they posted a reply claiming “BMFN is a scam” on his social media pages.
Belogour dismissed all the allegations in an interview at his new Brattleboro headquarters — a white-columned showpiece that looks like the fictional Tara plantation from “Gone With the Wind” and features a room of furry beanbag chairs and an office fireplace with a flat screen projecting flames.
“Let them complain — I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t print money; I make money. Some don’t like the way you make it and complain, but that is the money I made. If you’re in business for 20 years and have millions and millions of customers coming through, you’re obviously going to have somebody who’s unhappy. If it’s a real claim, you settle. Otherwise, I just ignore it because there’s some crazy people out there.”
‘Why is this person buying everything in our area?’
Local leaders publicly say they don’t know much about Belogour. But privately, they’re voicing the same concerns as those expressed by a growing chorus on social media: “Why is this person,” a typical comment reads, “buying everything in our area?”
Belogour’s newspaper purchase comes a week after Seth Andrew, a former White House adviser who purchased Windham County’s Marlboro College campus, was charged with wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements to a financial institution in an alleged scheme to steal $218,005.
It also comes a decade after Connecticut businessman Jim Barnes bought nearby Wilmington’s Haystack ski area in 2011, only to face a bankruptcy sale last year after defaulting on more than $17 million in loans and missing state tax payments of more than $1 million.
Belogour, in response, said his recent purchases have been fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s the first thing about investment,” he said. “When there’s blood in the streets, that’s the time to invest.”
Belogour first came to the region following the 2008 stock market crash, when he and his wife, Christina, bought a farm just south of the Vermont border in Bernardston, Mass. He later purchased about 1,500 acres in Guilford — he’s turning a former dairy farm into a “luxury hideaway” set to open this summer as “Viking Village” — and another 1,600 acres in neighboring Halifax.
In Brattleboro, Belogour’s Vermont RE Development LLC has bought, according to town property records:
the $990,000 old Outlet Center turned new Vermont Marketplace off Interstate 91’s Exit 1;
a $450,000 Flat Street commercial building;
a $440,000 warehouse on Old Ferry Road;
a $425,000 vacant commercial lot at 817 Putney Road;
a $340,000 business block at 12-14 Elliot St.;
a $250,000 Landmark Hill building he has renamed the Vermont Innovation Box;
an $80,000 former restaurant turned mattress store on Route 9.
In Rutland, he has bought the nearly $200,000 former Knights of Columbus building.
In Proctor, he has purchased the $50,000 former Vermont Marble Co. headquarters.
In Springfield, he has purchased the Trout River Brewing Co. and rebranded it as Vermont Beer Makers.
Across the Connecticut River in Hinsdale, he has bought a marina for $640,000.
And earlier this year, he bid $3.95 million for the former Bennington campus of Southern Vermont College, which was sold for $4.65 million to Southwestern Vermont Health Care.
“If you look at all the property I’ve purchased, it was in a state of dilapidation, pretty much gone,” he said. “I’m buying things dirt cheap. When nobody wants it, I see something.”
Belogour says he’s paying with savings and the profits from his software business, which he says employs 45 people in Ukraine.
“Labor is cheaper there,” he explained before declining to reveal company finances. “Why would I? So some other crazy people get jealous?”
Belogour also runs several businesses in the United Arab Emirates, including Belogour Properties and Emirates Wealth, although the latter for not much longer.
“That one is in the process of being shut down — disagreement with the local people,” he said without elaborating. “But I do have another company in Dubai. It’s called Emirates — write that down — Mutual Funds Exchange and another one, Australian Mutual Funds Exchange.”
Belogour’s business interests are varied. In addition to finance, tech and media companies, he created the website vermontmaplesyrup.com to sell local syrup, sugar and sweets. And in 2019 he presented a Miss UniTrader pageant in Shanghai, which he described as “a great opportunity to demonstrate Western beauty and fashion to the Eastern world, as well as to establish new business contacts,” according to one account.
Asked if he would be a hands-on newspaper publisher, Belogour said he wouldn’t discourage critical coverage about himself.
“I believe in the freedom of speech,” the Belarus native said before noting that wasn’t always allowed in his homeland.
Then again, Belogour offered a tip on how to write this story.
“I would rather you concentrate on my intentions versus ‘I’m buying, buying, buying, there’s jealousy, jealousy, jealousy,’” he said. “I bought because everybody was selling, right? It’s as simple as that.”