Who is Paolo Zampolli and what does he want from the United Nations? A friend of Donald Trump’s for decades, Zampolli is an ambassador of Dominica to the UN. He has a busy Twitter page, Facebook page and Instagram account, where he posts photos of himself and his wife, Amanda Ungaro, a model from Brazil who is a diplomat with the Grenada mission to the UN.
Besides recently photos of Zampolli and Ungaro at the UN Security Council chamber, the couple showed up at the Trump White House in April for the Easter egg roll. One of Zampolli’s many claims to fame is that he introduced Melania Knauss, a former model in New York, to Trump. As the world knows, a wedding quickly followed.
Zampolli has been cultivating friends in high places for a long time: as a wheeler-dealer in the modeling and real estate worlds of Manhattan, socializing is one of his biggest assets. One of his latest ventures is helping to develop a resort in Dominica, a Caribbean nation of 72,000 people and only 30 miles wide, vulnerable to climate-change effects and the vicissitudes of globalization. Part of the venture involves economic passports, an industry that has proved profitable but controversial for some Caribbean countries. (The United States has a somewhat similar investment scheme, the EB-5 visa.)
There Zampolli is, lingering in the Security Council chamber on April 28, after a somber ministerial-level meeting on North Korea’s nuclear threats. The session was held by the United States, which presided in the rotating seat of the Council presidency last month. Rex Tillerson led the session, his first appearance at the UN as secretary of state, excoriating UN member states that are not abiding by the sanctions regime imposed against North Korea.
“For too long, the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea,” Tillerson said. “Those days must come to an end.”
After the session, Zampolli lingered in the crowd to shake Tillerson’s hand, posting the image on Instagram.
Zampolli is a diplomat by appointment and not nationality, like his wife. He has also been Dominica’s ambassador for oceans and seas, as his website states, since 2013. He has been associated with environmental causes but links to foundations that he names on his site turn up nothing. We Are the Oceans, for example, features a big picture of water and says it is “arriving in 2017.”
Green Inc., another environmental effort that Zampolli says he leads, has nothing on its site but animated graphics and a phrase, “Building a Greener World Through Alternative Energy & Solutions.” In the corner of the home page, it says the organization is a “strategic partner” of the United Nations Association in Brazil.
Zampolli says he has worked with several UN environmental projects, including holding functions at the UN like the United Nations Diamond Awards Gala for Renewable Energy and The Friends of Climate Change, in 2008.
The event was personally hosted by Zampolli and Ivanka Trump, among others. It honored such businesspeople as Steve Weisz, chief executive of In Ticketing at the time. Zampolli says Weisz was an adviser to the International Renewable Energy Organization, or IREO, “in association with” the UN Economic and Social Council, one of the world body’s five main organs. The IREO site says it is an intergovernmental agency “supporting nations’ transitions to renewable energy.”
But the organization doesn’t mention Weisz. Moreover, Zampolli says he was the director and special adviser on climate change issues for the organization from 2007-2008, but he is not mentioned on the site, either. (The only person who is listed is a staff member, Jonathan Hill, secretary-general.)
Since the UN is about to present a worldwide conference on oceans in June in New York, it seemed relevant to ask Zampolli if he had Trump’s ear on US participation in the conference. But repeated phone calls to Zampolli’s many offices, listed on his website, and to the Dominica mission went unanswered. He also did not respond to an email sent to him.
After the Council session on North Korea, Zampolli posted more photos, including with Boris Johnson, the British foreign minister, who attended the meeting. A misspelling by Zampolli calls Johnson the “UK Secretary of State for Foreing and Commonwealth Affairs.” (It got 145 likes on Instagram.)
On April 30, Zampolli posted a photo of himself posing with Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman. The image got 257 likes and a comment: “Wow! With Spicy!” (one chili pepper).
Earlier in the month, Zampolli and Ungaro took part in the Easter egg roll at the White House, where he and his wife were photographed with their son, Giovanni, Trump and his wife, Melania (577 likes).
Much of Zampolli’s business and personal life can be traced online. Zampolli, 47, is an Italian-born New York City entrepreneur, diplomat and conservationist, according to Wikipedia and his website. He owned an agency, ID Models, in New York before he “went on to form a partnership with real estate mogul Donald Trump and the Trump Organization as Director of International Development.”
That job apparently lasted from 2004 to 2006.
On his site, Zampolli quotes Trump complimenting him: “I know Paolo. . . . He’s got a great imagination. And in real estate, if you don’t have an imagination, it’s not going to work.”
It was at ID Models where Zampolli cultivated the career of Melania Knauss, whom he introduced to Trump at the Kit Kat Club in the 1990s. That story has been well told.
Zampolli is also responsible, he says, for bringing the Cabrits Resort Kempinski to Dominica. The resort, to be completed by the end of 2018, will have 160 guest rooms and luxury amenities, marking Dominica’s big climb, if it happens, as a destination for rich travelers and investors. The resort is part of the Kempinski Hotel Group, billed as “Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group,” originating in Berlin in 1897, with headquarters now in Geneva.
The project is being promoted by the government as its first real estate development undertaking in the country and features an economic-passport program bonus. Dominica has long offered citizenship in return for a one-off payment to the government, an article in Caribbean News Now! explained in 2016.
A second option now allows foreigners who invest $200,000 into a government-approved real estate project to buy their passports for $50,000, half the usual price. It appears that the Zampolli-led investment role in the Cabrits resort is part of the deal. The economic passports scheme is a major source of revenue for Dominica, albeit one that is raising serious questions about criminals who could buy them to enter other countries. (The similar program in the US is also being scrutinized.)
A trip by Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica to the Middle East and Southeast Asia in 2016 was meant to sell part of the investment package: visa-free travel to Europe. Foreigners who acquire citizenship of Dominica can get a passport that allows them, if all goes well, to travel unimpeded to more than 100 countries, including Britain and the Schengen zone of Europe.
That perk may be in limbo, however, as negotiations for Britain’s exit from the European Union begin.
Skerrit is a controversial figure. A 2009 US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks noted that the prime minister bought many land holdings in Dominica on paper worth more than $400,000 with much higher market value, and that he is building a palatial residence in Vielle Casse, his hometown. The cable observed the contrast between Skerrit’s assets and his official salary of $2,000 a month.
The passport plan started with a Dominica ambassador to China, David King Hsiu, according to Wikileaks. The plan was ostensibly devised to bring investments into tourism for Dominica. But the dealings, in which Chinese families could buy a passport for $100,000 each, reportedly benefited only top players in the arrangements.
Later, another non-native ambassador for Dominica, a Russian sent to represent the country at the UN in Geneva, Roman Lackschin, was denied accreditation by Switzerland. The Wikileaks documents suggest he was going to promote the passport deals.
In 2015, in a much-publicized case that is still reverberating, a Chinese billionaire, Ng Lap Seng, was arrested by the FBI in relation to a UN bribery investigation involving payoffs to John Ashe, who was a former president of the UN General Assembly as well as the UN ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda. Ashe was accused of using his Assembly post to buy influence in the UN to enable a real estate development in Macau by Ng Lap Seng. Skerrit of Dominica was photographed with Ng shortly before his arrest.
Ashe died a pauper in 2016 in a freak accident at home, after being indicted by the US government and living under house arrest in Westchester County, New York. Ng Lap Seng is to face trial this month, as will an adviser to him, who is in plea talks. Francis Lorenzo, a Dominican Republic ambassador to the UN accused in the fraud case, pleaded guilty last year.
Back in the US, Zampolli’s relationship with Trump began in 1998, his Wiki page said, when Zampolli “famously introduced his model and friend, Melania Trump (Nee Melania Knauss) to his friend and current President of the United States, Donald Trump.”
Zampolli’s name surfaced most recently in the media last summer, when he got involved in helping Melania Trump, now America’s first lady, extricate herself from the gossip mill suggesting she and Zampolli were part of an escort service in the 1990s. A New York Times article said that Zampolli had discovered Melania as a model in 1995. Zampolli was already a member of the high-flying social circuit in New York then.
In the Times account, Zampolli said that he obtained Melania’s entry to the US and that he secured an H-1B visa for her, calling the process “very very easy to do.”
(In April 2017, Melania Trump settled a lawsuit with the Daily Mail over the escort service allegation, with the paper agreeing to pay damages and costs to the first lady as well as apologizing.)
At the UN, diplomats may not know what to make of Zampolli, though some find his online photos curious, while others have not shied away from posing for an instant picture with him.
After all, Zampolli and Ungaro were photographed on New Year’s Eve in 2106, enjoying the night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s retreat in Florida and his presidential escape hatch. The scene is candlelit, with one comment on Zampolli’s Instagram account, cheering, “Keep spreading the word about clean water!!!!”
In February, Zampolli posted an image of himself, Ungaro and Rep. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives. You’ll also find Zampolli with Ben Carson, the US secretary of housing; Kellyanne Conway, a media adviser to Trump; and Gen. Michael Flynn, briefly the US national security adviser under Trump.
The list goes on, with some images taken over the years at UN-related events: Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, who died in February 2017; Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel; Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN from 2013 to 2017; António Guterres, the UN secretary-general.
Zampolli’s affection for the UN is clear in an undated photo of him but posted after the US election in November. He is standing not far from the nose of a Trump plane on the tarmac and writes that as a “proud American citizen,” he envisions Trump “will change the future of the World as the newly elected United Nations Secretary General will Change the Future of Humanity. I have the utmost confidence that the POTUS will work well with Mr. SG Secretary António Guterres.”
In 2016, Zampolli donated a large metal shark sculpture, on behalf of Dominica, for “permanent display” in the UN lobby, his Wiki page declares. It was given to the UN to raise awareness about the country and the “sustainable use of our Oceans and Seas.”
Until recently, the artwork was displayed near the Delegates’ Entrance, an exclusive zone for diplomats arriving at the UN, often by limousine. Like Zampolli, the shark path follows a strange and winding trail.
A UN security official said the sculpture had been exhibited for about a year but was now gone and he didn’t know its whereabouts. The Department of Management referred questions to the UN Arts Committee, and the shark mystery was more or less solved.
In an email, the secretary of the committee informed me that he managed all UN official gifts. Answering my question about the status of the shark, he wrote:
“Not certain on what status you are referring to regarding the shark, as I’ve been informing Mr Zampolli on a number of occasions during the past year or more that this is not an official gift, rather it was part of a temporay [sic] exhibit and needs to be removed. It’s currently in our storage and needs to be taken away by the owner soonest. I’ve advised Mr Zampolli numerous times, to no avail.
Kindly let me know if removal arrangements are being made. We can not keep it in our storage forever.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.