He's one of the most powerful, and most notorious, tycoons in Moldova's three decades of independence, a man linked to the "theft of the century" -- the disappearance of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014.
A longtime behind-the-scenes power broker, Vladimir Plahotniuc fled Moldova in June 2019 after being pushed out of parliament as part of a government shakeup brokered by Russia, the United States, and other European partners. He has dropped out of the public view since then, reportedly traveling under one or more assumed names and alternate passports.
In January, the United States hit the ousted oligarch and his family with visa restrictions "due to his involvement in significant corruption...that undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova."
Moldovan officials and U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation, however, told RFE/RL that Plahotniuc had been in the United States on several occasions in recent months, including at least once since the State Department imposed the visa restrictions. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
The development has worried anti-corruption experts, activists in Moldova, and observers abroad who fear the U.S. administration is sending a bad signal to countries trying to root out corruption and improve governance.
"If Vladimir Plahotniuc is really somewhere in the United States, this would be unsurprising but disappointing," said William Hill, a U.S. diplomat who headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Moldova in the late 1990s and 2000s.
"The U.S. lost a great deal of credibility and support in Moldovan civil society over the past few years due to Washington's continued, seemingly uncritical willingness to work with Plahotniuc almost up to the end of his days in power," he said. "Backing for Plahotniuc, tacit or explicit, caused many in Moldova increasingly to perceive American rhetoric in support of democracy and reform as largely self-interested anti-Russian geopolitics."
Moldovan officials, including the current president, Igor Dodon, have complained publicly for months that the United States wasn't doing enough to help bring Plahotniuc to justice. "We see that the Americans are not in a hurry," Dodon said in an interview last month, when asked specifically about where Plahotniuc was. "I think that this will affect the image of the United States, if, on the one hand, they make such statements, on the other hand, they still grant political coverage," he told RFE/RL.
Asked for further details about how Dodon knew Plahotniuc was in the United States, spokeswoman Carmena Sterpu told RFE/RL that it had been "personally confirmed...for President Dodon" by U.S. Ambassador Dereck Hogan.
Contacted by phone and by e-mail, the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau declined to comment to RFE/RL.
Plahotniuc could not be immediately reached for comment.
'Theft Of The Century'
Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is among Europe's poorest countries, racked by rampant corruption, political turmoil, and destabilized by Transdniester, a breakaway region that has been beyond Chisinau's control since a war broke out after pro-Russian separatists declared independence in 1990.
Between 2012 and 2014, more than $1 billion -- totaling nearly one-eighth of the country's GDP – disappeared from Moldova's biggest banks.
A confidential report commissioned by the central bank and conducted by international investigative firm Kroll documented how companies and individuals tied to a 28-year-old businessman took control of three major banks in that period. The businessman, Ilan Shor, then allegedly issued massive loans to his companies during a three-day period in November 2014, according to the report, which was later leaked and published by an opposition lawmaker.
Shor, who is currently believed to be in Israel, was charged in 2016 and later convicted of money laundering and embezzlement in connection with theft. Former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was found guilty of corruption in 2016, accused of taking bribes related to the theft. He was released in early December after serving three years in prison.
But the brazenness of the crime, and the perception that those behind it have not been held to account, has outraged and disillusioned many Moldovans.
Plahotniuc, meanwhile, was the head of the Democratic Party of Moldova, and served as the first deputy speaker of parliament in the early 2010s.
In June 2019, amid a political realignment that resulted in a coalition between pro-European and pro-Russian parties, including Dodon's Socialist Party, Plahotniuc fled Moldova. Days later, Russia filed criminal charges against him, alleging he was part of a drug-trafficking network.
In December, Dodon publicly stated that Plahotniuc was traveling on a different passport, under the name Vladimir Novak.
The National Anti-Corruption Center (CNA), meanwhile, sent two formal requests to the U.S. Embassy, requesting assistance in locating Plahotniuc.
The first, dated December 4, requests the assistance of "competent U.S. authorities (Department of Justice, FBI, Police)" in locating an individual whose name is blacked out. It also states that the person "might have been" at two locations in the Miami area, including the Setai Miami Beach Hotel, and the Portofino Tower between July 5-7, 2019.
The second, dated December 10, makes a similar request, and adds a second name, apparently an assumed name that Plahotniuc is known to travel under.
Angela Starinschi, a spokeswoman for the CNA, said the blacked-out names in the letters were Plahotniuc. "The CNA is waiting for an official response from the U.S. authorities. On unofficial channels, however, we already have the information that the [individual] is on the territory of the United States," Starinschi told RFE/RL on March 3.
On January 13, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the imposition of visa bans on Plahotniuc and his family.
U.S. government agencies declined to answer RFE/RL's questions about whether Plahotniuc was in the United States. The State Department referred question to the Department of Homeland Security, which refused to answer, citing privacy concerns.
The FBI also declined to answer questions from RFE/RL.
However, one U.S. government official confirmed that Plahotniuc had been in the United States in recent weeks, though it was unclear whether he was there when the official spoke, on March 4. Another person reported seeing Plahotniuc attending a lavish dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Miami, Florida, in late January.
Both individuals spoke on condition of anonymity.
"As far as I know, Plahotniuc is in the United States," Andrian Candu, a former speaker of parliament and Plahotniuc's godson, told RFE/RL on March 4. "This should be no surprise to anyone."
Kyle Parker, a top staffer for the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors human rights, said the U.S. government had several policy tools to target criminals and corrupt officials around the world: the State Department visa designation; the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law aimed at targeting Russian officials deemed to be corrupt or human rights abusers; and a broader Global Magnitsky Act, which was passed in 2016 and targets such people worldwide.
Allowing Plahotniuc to be in the United States is problematic, he said. "This story has wider implications," said Parker, a former congressional staffer who was involved in drafting the Magnitsky legislation. "Something like this is demoralizing to people in places like Moldova where there's a struggle against massive official corruption."
"Preventing a situation like this is what we had in mind when passing the Magnitsky laws, we don't want to be a haven for kleptocrats," he told RFE/RL.
The law that Plahotniuc was designated under, known by its shorthand, Section 7031, is designed to bar entry to the United States for individuals found to be complicit in "significant corruption" or "gross violation of human rights." It does not appear to affect foreigners already in the United States.
While Plahotniuc's name is familiar among corruption researchers and experts on former Soviet republics, it is not widely known in broader circles.
Last month, however, his name gained wider currency, when U.S. news media revealed that Richard Grenell, the current acting director of national intelligence, had written a series of article published in U.S. newspapers defending Plahotniuc in 2016.
ProPublica, a U.S. investigative news organization, reported that Grenell did not disclose that he was paid by Plahotniuc for the work, and did not register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
A representative for Grenell, who later became ambassador to Germany and special envoy for negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, did not disclose to ProPublica what Grenell's paid consulting work involved at the time, but he argued that Grenell did not need to register under FARA.
Valeriu Pasa, who leads a Moldovan civil society group called WatchDog.MD, said Plahotniuc's presence in the United States could be part of an effort by U.S. agencies to glean insights into the larger money laundering that has been documented in Moldova for more than a decade.
"He could be extremely useful and a really good source of information to the U.S.," Pasa said. "He could be a precious source of information, in the schemes of money laundering that he was directly involved in."
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in 2014 published evidence pointing to a massive, years-long scheme that involved criminal and corrupt politicians in Russia using banks in Moldova.
Sergiu Tofilat, a Moldovan corruption whistle-blower who was elected to the Chisinau city council last year, said the bigger problem for Moldova is that its judicial system had been wholly compromised by corrupt business and government officials. "We don't know the exact reasons why he is in the United States," Tofilat told RFE/RL. It would be a good thing "to get Plahotniuc back in Moldova and hold him accountable for the criminal activities that he committed in Moldova over the past 15 years, while in power or very close to power."
"But for that, we need a truly independent justice system," he said. "There is no truly independent justice system in Moldova, so there's no reason to extradite Plahotniuc because he could escape justice."