In the summer of 2015, the New York branch of British bank Barclays flagged as suspicious a transfer of $1 million to former Moscow Deputy Mayor Iosif Ordzhonikidze for "consulting services."
The transfer originated with a company called BEM Global Corp., which is controlled by prominent real-estate developer Roman Fuks. One of the main projects realized by Fuks and his brother, Pavel Fuks, was the Moscow-City skyscraper complex, a project that Ordzhonikidze oversaw for the Moscow mayor's office before he left office in 2007.
In 2019, an international arrest warrant was issued for the Fuks brothers, who are wanted in Russia and in Kazakhstan for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars from the Moscow-City project.
The Barclays suspicious-activity report (SAR) was filed to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department that combats money laundering and the financing of terrorism. It was one of more than 2,000 such reports dating from 2011-17 that were leaked in 2017.
Coordinated by the media outlet BuzzFeed and the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), more than 400 journalists from over 80 countries worked through the documents and began publishing their findings on September 21. Although the 2,000 leaked reports constitute just 0.02 percent of all the SARs filed during this period, they document the suspicious transfer of more than $2 trillion.
The FinCEN leak was smaller than the 2016 Panama Papers leak, which revealed much about the use of shell companies by major business and political figures around the world.
"In this case, the amount of information is smaller, but nonetheless it is a very significant amount that merits further work," said Russian journalist Roman Shleinov, who participated in the project and was one of the authors of the initial report on the Russian connections among the leaked SARs for the Important Stories website.
The documents cast further light into the concealed depths of the government of Russia and and influential nongovernment entities under longtime President Vladimir Putin, whose rule some analysts have described as an authoritarian kleptocracy.
The ruling elite under Putin "has managed to integrate quite nicely into the West," British journalist Catherine Belton, author of the recent book Putin's People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West, told RFE/RL earlier this month. "It is estimated that some $800 billion of Russian money is in offshore accounts, more than the amount held in Russian accounts. And despite all Putin’s statements and efforts, that figure is only growing."
A SARs report is not an accusation of illegal activity, Shleinov and other journalists working with the FinCEN leak emphasize. In the case of the transfer to Ordzhonikidze, Shleinov stressed that the SAR does not prove there was a bribe.
"We are only talking about what we can prove," he told RFE/RL. "We see the fact that strange payments were made. The American correspondent bank flagged them. That means these transactions must be explained somehow, since they raise major questions. Why did Roman Fuks, a man who is now under criminal indictment, a developer, suddenly transfer a million dollars to the [former] deputy mayor for 'consulting'?"
One of the starring Russian figures in the Panama Papers leak was cellist and longtime Putin intimate Sergei Rodulgin. Although Rodulgin has long maintained that he is not involved in business, the Panama Papers tied him to several shell companies in various global tax havens that saw cash flows worth billions of dollars. Analysts at the time speculated that Rodulgin, who is the godfather of Putin's elder daughter, may have been controlling money destined for Putin himself, allegations that the musician and the Kremlin have denied.
The FinCEN leak included one SAR flagging an October 2010 transfer of $830,000 to Sandalwood Continental, a shell company that the Panama Papers revealed to be controlled by Roldugin. The payment came from a Cyprus-based firm called Dulston Ventures, a firm connected to Russian billionaire Aleksei Mordashov's consortium, Severgroup. The consortium has refused to comment on the SAR.
Rodulgin was linked to other businesses controlled by Mordashov by the Panama Papers. Rodulgin-connected firms received $30 million for "consulting services" from Mordashov’s firms, as well as a $6 million loan that was subsequently forgiven.
"The sum that was mentioned in the American bank's report is not so big -- less than $1 million," Shleinov explained. "But there are some interesting nuances. For instance, the report mentions some sort of loan agreement. Why would a major Russian businessman suddenly seek a loan from a little-known office connected with a cellist who has said his whole life that he is not involved in business? I honestly have a hard time explaining this."
According to the FinCEN documents, Valentin Yumashev -- who is listed as an unpaid adviser to Putin and who is married to Tatyana Dyachenko, daughter of the late former President Boris Yeltsin -- received $6 million from a firm called Epion Holdings Limited, registered in the British Virgin Islands. Epion is owned by billionaire Alisher Usmanov. The transfers were made under a "services" agreement between 2006 and 2008.
Yumashev was Yeltsin's chief of staff and, according to many reports, played a key role in having Putin named Yeltsin's successor in exchange for protection for Yeltsin and his inner circle. In his role as "unpaid Kremlin adviser," Yumashev is believed to be a powerful lobbyist with access at the highest levels of the Russian government. In a 2011 interview with Moskovsky komsomolets, Yumashev insisted he was not particularly wealthy.
"If I had made millions, there would have to be some evidence of it," he said. "But neither Tanya nor I have any airplanes or villas in France or England."
Yumashev, Usmanov, and the Kremlin refused requests from Important Stories to comment on the documents.
Yumashev "has insisted in interviews that he and his family do not have any significant financial resources," Shleinov told RFE/RL. "Yes, he is an adviser to many business people but he insists in interviews that he is not wealthy. But now we see a rather significant payment of $6 million to Yumashev from Usmanov. It would be interesting to understand why this money was paid. But so far no one is commenting on it -- not Yumashev, not Usmanov's firms."
'Huge Sea Of Information'
Shleinov said that perhaps the main lesson of the FinCEN leak relates to FinCEN itself, which seems to be largely ineffective because of the large volume of information it receives.
"My personal feeling after working with the Treasury Department files is that it receives an enormous quantity of reports, a simply colossal amount," Shleinov said. "I got the impression that the Treasury Department bureaucrats in this agency are simply drowning in a huge sea of information and, unfortunately, can't always investigate suspicious matters."
"The machine is working, but I wouldn't say very effectively," he concluded. "Maybe someday they will adopt some stricter regulations or take some measures to be stricter regarding these bank transfers. But I don't think even that will really limit the mechanisms for moving money that are used by, among others, our officials and our business people.”