US charges Russian oligarch, dismantles cybercrime operation

Apr 6, 2022, 7:18 AM | Updated: Apr 11, 2022, 9:07 am
Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, left,...

Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, left, and FBI Director Christopher Wray, right, speaks at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Wednesday, April 6, 2022, to discuss new and recent enforcement actions to disrupt and prosecute criminal Russian activity. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has charged a Russian oligarch linked to the Kremlin with violating U.S. government sanctions, and disrupted a cybercrime operation that was launched by a Russian military intelligence agency, officials said Wednesday.

The actions came as the Justice Department said it was accelerating efforts to track down illicit Russian assets and as U.S. prosecutors helped European counterparts gather evidence on potential war crimes committed by Russia during its war on Ukraine.

FBI and Justice Department officials announced the moves on the same day that the U.S. separately revealed sanctions against the two adult daughters of Russian President Vladimir Putin and sanctions that blocked two key Russian banks.

“We have our eyes on every yacht and jet. We have our eyes on every piece of art and real estate purchased with dirty money and on every bitcoin wallet filled with proceeds of theft and other crimes,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said, adding that “our goal is to ensure that sanctioned Russian oligarchs and cyber criminals will not find safe haven.”

The indictment against Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian media baron and founder of Russian Orthodox news channel Tsargrad TV, is the first of an oligarch since Russia’s war with Ukraine began in February. Malofeyev has trumpeted the invasion as a “holy war” and has supported Russia-aligned separatist groups in Ukraine.

He was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2014 for financing Russians promoting separatism in Crimea. Though those sanctions barred him from doing business with U.S. citizens, prosecutors say Malofeyev evaded those restrictions by hiring an American television producer to work for him in television networks in Russia and Greece and enlisted his help in trying to acquire a TV network in Bulgaria. It was all part of an effort to spread pro-Russia propaganda throughout Europe, the Justice Department said.

Jack Hanick, a former CNBC and Fox News employee, was arrested last month for his work as a television producer for Malofeyev. That case is pending.

Malofeyev is not in custody and is believed to be in Russia. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer to speak on his behalf. The two sanctions charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

The Justice Department said it is seeking the seizure of a $10 million investment that Malofeyev had illegally transferred to a business associate in Greece.

Federal authorities also announced that they had taken down a botnet — a network of hijacked computers typically used for malicious activity — that was controlled by the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU. The botnet, which in this case involved thousands of infected network hardware devices, was dismantled before it could do harm, said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Wednesday’s announcements came two days after U.S. officials seized a huge yacht in Spain belonging to a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, with close ties to Russian President Putin.

After the war began, the Justice Department set up a task force to enforce sanctions against Russian oligarchs and target ill-gotten proceeds.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that Justice Department prosecutors were also helping international efforts to uncover potential war crimes committed by Russia. U.S. officials have met with European prosecutors to develop a plan for gathering evidence, he said.

“We have seen the dead bodies of civilians, some with bound hands, scattered in the streets. We have seen the mass graves. We have seen the bombed hospital, theater, and residential apartment buildings,” Garland said. “The world sees what is happening in Ukraine. The Justice Department sees what is happening in Ukraine.

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US charges Russian oligarch, dismantles cybercrime operation