A Russian pop star honored by President Vladimir Putin works as a money courier for the international crime syndicate known as the Brothers’ Circle, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Grigory Lepsveridze, who goes by the stage name Grigory Leps, is one of six people and four entities the U.S. blacklisted yesterday for acting on behalf of the Brothers’ Circle, the Treasury said in a statement on its website. It prohibits U.S. citizens from conducting transactions with those identified and freezes any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
“If Treasury executives think I’m a criminal, they should dig up Frank Sinatra and send him to jail,” Leps, 51, said on his website. “That’s as absurd as the charges against me.”
The Brothers’ Circle, operating in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, is one of four organized crime groups targeted in executive order 13581, which President Barack Obama signed in 2011. The others are Mexico’s Los Zetas drug cartel, Italy’s Camorra mafia and Japan’s Yakuza syndicate.
“The key to targeting transnational criminal organizations, such as the Brothers’ Circle, is exposing the network behind the group’s leaders,” Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen said in the statement. “We remain determined to continue our systematic effort to disrupt these networks in order to protect the U.S. financial system.”
Leps performed at a Putin campaign rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium last February that drew more than 100,000 people. Putin sent a telegram to the crooner five months later to congratulate him on his 50th birthday and to thank him for his “special energy.” In 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev awarded Leps the Russian Artist of Merit title.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin is monitoring the situation and seeking more detailed information from the U.S. about Leps, Life News reported.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said a citizen’s guilt should be established by the Russian legal system, according to a statement on its website.
“Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples where our countrymen were subjected to blatant discrimination, including unwarranted visa and financial sanctions,” the ministry said.
Leps is the highest paid entertainer in Russia after Mariinsky Theater chief Valery Gergiev, earning $15 million last year in performances and royalties, according to Forbes Russia. A native of Sochi, the Black Sea resort that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Leps now lives in Moscow, though the Treasury listed his main residence as Phuket, Thailand.
On his website, the ethnic Georgian says he has a “powerful voice, rich in overtones,” and sings to the point of “aortic rupture.” One of his most popular hits is a ballad called “Glass of Vodka on the Table.”