The Department of Homeland Security has begun a search for planes, yachts, mansions and other U.S. belongings of Russians facing Ukraine-related sanctions.
Agents are looking for “shiny toys” that wealthy Russians on the sanctions list likely have hidden behind layers of shell companies, as well as their bank accounts and investments, said John Tobon, who heads the agency’s financial investigations division in Miami. The U.S. government has blacklisted 19 companies and 45 political and business leaders, including four it designated as members of Putin’s inner circle.
Any assets traced to blacklisted Russians will be frozen by the Treasury Department, which enforces sanctions, Tobon said. Agents from Homeland Security’s Foreign Corruption Investigations Group, including forensic accountants and intelligence analysts, are working on the case, along with other branches of the federal government, he said.
“This is the equivalent of the U.S. Treasury throwing up a bat signal -- it’s all hands on deck and here is your mission,” Tobon said. “The challenge comes to trying to find an asset that somebody is deliberately trying to hide.”
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“Russian oligarchs made money in Russia and enjoyed the fruits of that money in the West,” he said. “If you squeeze that, then it will create some kind of pain.”
Asked about the U.S. investigation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Nobody informed us, but I don’t find these efforts surprising at all.”
A Russian law adopted last year prohibits government officials and executives of state-owned companies from holding bank accounts or financial instruments abroad. They are allowed to own property outside Russia, provided they declare it and explain where the money for the purchase came from.
Russian oligarchs for years have shielded assets abroad in case they fall out of favor with Putin’s regime. While Putin has been urging businessmen to bring their money back home, a net $51 billion of Russian capital was removed from the country in the first quarter, the biggest quarterly outflow since 2008, according to data from the central bank.
Now those foreign assets may be vulnerable to sanctions. Persons under sanctions are barred from traveling to the U.S., and their assets are blocked. U.S. companies and individuals are prohibited from doing business with them.
The European Union has sanctioned 83 people in connection with the Ukraine crisis. It added two companies, including oil and natural gas producer Chernomorneftegaz, to its blacklist on May 12. The EU leaves enforcement of sanctions to its 28 member countries. Latvian authorities said in March that they froze assets of a sanctioned Ukrainian citizen whom they declined to identify.
Switzerland’s federal prosecutor has frozen 170 million Swiss francs ($193.7 million) in bank accounts belonging to ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and people close to him, according to a Swiss government spokesman. Switzerland is not part of the EU. Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after massive street protests against him.
Tobon declined to say whether any blacklisted Russians own property in the U.S., citing the ongoing investigation. There’s a “good possibility” that the sanctions list includes owners of U.S. assets, though the links may be difficult to prove and could be challenged in court, said Jack Blum, a former U.S. Senate investigator and expert on money laundering and offshore havens.
Russian billionaires have acquired real estate in world-class destinations such as London, Miami, northern California and Manhattan. In some recent transactions, the buyers aren’t publicly known. In 2012, for example, an unidentified Russian purchased a bayfront Miami mansion with $47 million in cash, according to the Miami Herald.
The sanctions over the Ukraine crisis differ from recent programs targeting Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya because Russia has close ties to U.S. and European economies, Serena Moe, consulting counsel for Wiley Rein LLP and former deputy chief counsel for the Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury.
“The targets here are incredibly wealthy, it’s a big economy and there’s a lot of interplay,” Moe said.
Edward Mermelstein, a New York attorney who represents international business clients, said investigators are unlikely to find anything because Russian magnates tend to be prepared in advance for potential risks to their investments.
The sanctions “were not necessarily a surprise for them,” Mermelstein said. “Most of the individuals on the list have not had investments in the U.S. for a long time.”
Andrei Fursenko, Putin’s adviser on education and science, who is on the sanctions list, said in an interview that he doesn’t have any U.S. assets. Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin mocked the sanctions targeting him on March 17, saying on Twitter, “Comrade Obama, what are people who have no accounts or property abroad supposed to do? Or didn’t you think about that?”
Homeland Security set up the Miami-based Foreign Corruption Investigations Group in 2003 to track holdings of foreigners who launder money through the U.S. financial system. Among its finds: $70.8 million of U.S. property that the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea allegedly purchased through intermediaries, including a Gulfstream Jet, a $30 million Malibu, California, house and $1.8 million of Michael Jackson memorabilia. The U.S. is seeking federal court approval to seize Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue’s assets. Attorneys for Nguema have said in court filings that his spending was legal and did not violate money laundering statutes.
As they hunt for belongings ranging from helicopters to paintings, federal investigators are hoping for help from U.S. banks and insurance companies. Such businesses are scrutinizing their customers to avoid violating the prohibition on transactions with any company in which a sanctions target owns a majority stake, said Thaddeus McBride, an international lawyer at Sheppard Mullin in Washington. McBride is holding online compliance seminars for financial institutions, he said.
The search for hidden assets won’t be completed “overnight,” Tobon said.
“These cases generally take many years because the individuals are deliberately trying to hide assets,” he said. “They are powerful and smart and will use every conceivable tool to delay and buy time and muddy the water.”
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