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International intrigue. Mysterious deaths. Good vodka. Every once in a while � and only then if they’re lucky — lawyers get a case that sounds like a Hollywood script. After winning an awkward beauty contest, attorneys at Los Angeles’ Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges may have just that, trying to reclaim what partners say are stolen trademarks for Russia’s beloved Stolichnaya vodka. According to the lawyers, the trail of theft is complex, originating with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. That’s when a pair of Russians stole the Stoli trademarks and, using forged documents and shell companies, began shielding them from their rightful owners, according to a complaint filed in New York federal court in November. During the Cold War, the Soviet state entity that regulated food and alcohol imports and exports owned trademarks to Stoli. During the turmoil over the collapse of the Soviet Union, employees at the agency duped the Russian patent and trademark office into assigning them the rights to the trademarks, according to Quinn Emanuel lawyers. “We all know that when the Soviet Union fell, people rushed in to claim state assets,” says David Quinto, a partner in Quinn Emanuel’s Los Angeles office. “It never struck me that intellectual property would be among the assets stolen.” Eventually, the trademarks — which Quinto says are worth $300-$400 million — passed into the hands of Yuri Shefler, head of Spirits International N.V., a Russian company that claims ownership. Shefler, an entrepreneur and one-time political candidate, is now a wanted man in Russia. Two years ago, a Russian court ruled that the reassignment of the vodka trademarks from the government had been improper. Now an arm of the Russan government, known as the Federal Treasury Enterprise Sojuzplodoimport, is seeking to regain the U.S. rights to the marks. To do that, the Russians turned to Quinn Emanuel. But first, the firm had to participate in a Moscow beauty contest that would have given most lawyers nightmares. Quinto and Steven Madison, another Quinn Emanuel partner, competed with several other firms, including Perkins Coie, Coudert Brothers and Hogan & Hartson. They found themselves at a disadvantage, though, when Air France lost their luggage. That resulted in Madison having to wear an Adidas track suit and Quinto donning casual business attire as the two made their pitch to officials for the Russan government and Ost Alco, the distillery that manufacturers Stoli vodka in Russia. The pair had also packed some samples of trademarks they’d successfully defended, including Barbie dolls, Adidas shoes and Oscar and Grammy statuettes. Quinto says they had planned to take photos of their would-be clients holding the coveted Hollywood statuettes. They’d also brought along some gifts — Los Angeles Kings hockey jerseys embossed with the names of the potential clients. But after the luggage went missing, all they could do was describe everything they had hoped to present. “By the end of the first day I was dying,” says Quinto. “I thought it was the most unprofessional presentation.” The Russians were sympathetic, however, and apparently impressed with what they heard. The complaint, Federal Treasury Enterprise Sojuzplodoimport v. Spirits International N.V., names Shefler, a cohort and several companies they control. It also names the U.S. supplier of Stoli vodka, Allied Domecq International Holdings B.V. and its U.S. subsidiary, Allied Domecq Spirits & Wines USA. Moving from a Moscow beauty contest to a New York courtroom involved another story, this one requiring Quinto, Madison and other lawyers at the firm to trace a trademark path brought on by the demise of the Cold War. “Russia’s privatization process is perhaps the best modern example of Balzac’s statement that ‘behind every great wealth, there is a crime,’ ” the suit contends. “ Billion-dollar enterprises were hijacked by their managers and/or directors for virtually nothing.” The Stoli trademarks were apparently valuable enough to die for — or perhaps kill for. According to the complaint, Russian prosecutors charged Shefler with threatening to murder the director of the Federal Treasury Enterprise, the company that sought to reclaim the trademarks. The complaint also suggests that Shefler may have eliminated other adversaries. It cites the suspicious deaths of two businessmen who collapsed hours after meeting with Shefler and the murder of another vodka entrepreneur who had filed suit contesting Shefler’s transfer of the trademarks from one company to another. “Trademark disputes,” says Quinto, “do not ordinarily involve murder.” After the rights passed through several Shefler-controlled entities, U.S. companies got involved. For decades, Pepsico Inc. had exclusive rights to import Stoli vodka into the United States under a licensing deal with the Soviet government. The complaint says Shefler persuaded Pepsico that his company had successor rights to the marks, and when Pepsico’s license expired in 2001, the U.S. rights went to the British company Allied Domecq, the world’s second-largest distiller. Allied Domecq contends that the Russian suit is unfounded. “We have a binding agreement with Spirits International that is uncontestable, and we will continue to vigorously defend our contract,” says David Karraker, Allied Domecq’s vice president of corporate communications. The Quinn Emanuel team has asked U.S. District Judge George Daniels to cancel the trademarks assigned to Allied Domecq and award unspecified damages. They are also hoping the case gets resolved before it takes any more strange twists. “We’d like to talk to the defendants to see if there is any creative solution,” says Quinto. But there’s a problem. Nobody seems to know where Shefler and his cohort are living these days. The best that Quinto can say is that the two are believed to be “somewhere in Europe.”

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