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Fraud Probe Launched Against Leading Russian Journalist

Aleksei Venediktov
Russian journalist Aleksei Venediktov, the eminent editor of the opposition-minded Ekho Moskvy radio station, is under investigation on suspicion of embezzlement in a multimillion-dollar media deal.

Police in Moscow have announced they will look into the 2011 contract under which Sberbank invested $20 million to bankroll the creation of a new web portal called PublicPost.

The now-defunct venture was a partnership between Venediktov, Sberbank, and the state-owned Interfax news agency.

According to Oleg Mitvol, the leader of the Green Alliance-People's Party and the man who requested the probe earlier this year, the money was paid to a firm owned by Venediktov.

Mitvol, a Sberbank shareholder, claims the deal was shady and caused financial damage to the bank. He also accuses the journalist of pocketing about half the sum disbursed by Sberbank.

"I would like to stress the effectiveness with which he squandered about $10 million on banquets and exorbitant salaries for his employees," Mitvol told the "Izvestia" daily on May 27. "I think a criminal case will soon follow."

Aleksandr Sidyakin, a combative lawmaker who heads the ruling United Russia party's faction in parliament, has thrown his weight behind Mitvol's initial calls for a probe.

He says he formally asked prosecutors to investigate the deal between Sberbank and Venediktov's firm.

PublicPost, which offered a mix of original reporting and user-submitted posts, abruptly shut down in July 2013.

Accusations Of Foul Play

At the time, its editor Natalya Konradova had posted a statement on her Facebook account describing the closure as politically motivated retaliation for an item posted on the website. She did not elaborate.

Both Venediktov and Sberbank have remained tight-lipped on the accusations surrounding PublicPost's finances. On Twitter, Venediktov issued a brief, laconic statement. "The green leader is hoping for something. Ha Ha Ha," he tweeted on May 27.

Some of the journalist's supporters, however, have sprung to his defense and cried foul play.

Leading rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, for one, denounces the probe as part of a deepening Kremlin crackdown on free media.

"A brazen and vile persecution of the hugely popular 'Ekho Moskvy' radio station has begun," he wrote back in February, when Mitvol first requested the criminal probe. "I urge all those who values freedom of speech and human dignity to openly voice solidarity with 'Ekho Moskvy.'"

There's also speculation that Mitvol may be settling personal scores against Venediktov and his radio.

His fraud accusations against Venediktov came just two days after "Ekho Moskvy" published a report detailing what it said was evidence of gross plagiarism in the lawmaker's doctoral theses.