Officials investigating the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election are scrutinizing newly uncovered financial transactions between the Russian government and people or businesses inside the United States.
Records exclusively reviewed by BuzzFeed News also show years of Russian financial activity within the US that bankers and federal law enforcement officials deemed suspicious, raising concerns about how the Kremlin’s diplomats operated here long before the 2016 election.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, charged with investigating Russian election interference and possible collusion by the Trump campaign, is examining these transactions and others by Russian diplomatic personnel, according to a US official with knowledge of the inquiry. The special counsel has broad authority to investigate “any matters” that “may arise” from his investigation, and the official said Mueller’s probe is following leads on suspicious Russian financial activity that may range far beyond the election.
The transactions reveal:
One of the people at the center of the investigation, the former Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, received $120,000 ten days after the election of Donald Trump. Bankers flagged it to the US government as suspicious in part because the transaction, marked payroll, didn’t fit prior pay patterns.
Five days after Trump’s inauguration, someone attempted to withdraw $150,000 cash from the embassy’s account — but the embassy’s bank blocked it. Bank employees reported the attempted transaction to the US government because it was abnormal activity for that account.
From March 8 to April 7, 2014, bankers flagged nearly 30 checks for a total of about $370,000 to embassy employees, who cashed the checks as soon as they received them, making it virtually impossible to trace where the money went. Bank officials noted that the employees had not received similar payments in the past, and that the transactions surrounded the date of a critical referendum on whether parts of Crimea should secede from Ukraine and join Russia — one of Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy concerns and a flash point with the West.
Over five years, the Russian Cultural Centre — an arm of the government that sponsors classes and performances and is based in Washington, DC — sent $325,000 in checks that banking officials flagged as suspicious. The amounts were not consistent with normal payroll checks and some of the transactions fell below the $10,000 threshold that triggers a notice to the US government.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, sent more than $2.4 million to small home-improvement companies controlled by a Russian immigrant living not far from there. Between 2013 and March 2017, that contractor’s various companies received about 600 such payments, earmarked for construction jobs at Russian diplomatic compounds. Bankers told the Treasury they did not think those transactions were related to the election but red-flagged them because the businesses seemed too small to have carried out major work on the embassy and because the money was cashed quickly or wired to other accounts.
Each of these transactions sparked a “suspicious activity report” sent to the US Treasury’s financial crimes unit by Citibank, which handles accounts of the Russian Embassy. By law, bankers must alert the government to transactions that bear hallmarks of money laundering or other financial misconduct. Such reports can support investigations and intelligence gathering — but by themselves they are not evidence of a crime, and many suspicious activity reports are filed on transactions that are perfectly legal. Intelligence and diplomatic sources who reviewed the transactions for BuzzFeed News said there could be justifiable uses for the money, such as travel, bonuses, or pension payouts.
The Treasury Department turned over the suspicious activity reports to the FBI after the bureau asked for records that might relate to the investigation into the election, according to three federal law enforcement officials with knowledge of the matter. The bureau did not respond to requests for comment on what, if anything, it has done to investigate the transactions.
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The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation into the election, requested suspicious activity reports on former ambassador Kislyak as far back as August. It is unclear whether senators have received those documents yet. The top Republican and Democrat on the committee each declined to comment.
“All the transactions which have been carried out through the American financial system fully comply with the legislation of the United States,” said Nikolay Lakhonin, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy. “We are not going to comment on any concrete names and figures mentioned in BuzzFeed articles.” He added, “We see such leaks by US authorities as another attempt to discredit Russian official missions.”
Kislyak, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. The home improvement contractor said all the payments he received were aboveboard for legitimate work.
A Citibank spokesperson said the bank would not comment or confirm any particular report because they are confidential. “Consistent with our commitment to protect the integrity of the financial system,” wrote Jennifer Lowney, the spokesperson, “Citi is diligent in filing Suspicious Activity Reports with the US Treasury Department when appropriate.”
An ambassador at the center of Washington
Former ambassador Kislyak left the US in 2017 and now serves in the legislature of the Republic of Mordovia, which is part of Russia. But his contacts with people in Trump’s inner circle have shaken the administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation largely because he failed to mention a Kislyak meeting when he was confirmed.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, drew criticism after he discussed setting up a secure communications channel at the Russian Embassy with Kislyak during the transition.
And Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI about multiple calls with Kislyak during the transition, one of which Kushner apparently asked him to make.
Now, according to the US official with knowledge of Mueller’s inquiry, the special counsel’s team is examining two financial transactions from Kislyak’s final weeks in the US.
The first occurred on Nov. 18, 10 days after Americans went to the polls. The Russian embassy sent $120,000 to Kislyak’s personal bank account, marked for “payroll.” Employees at Citibank raised an alarm about the transaction because it didn’t fit with prior payroll patterns and because he immediately split the money in half, sending it by two wire transfers to a separate account he maintained in Russia.
Then on Jan. 25, five days after Trump was inaugurated, someone attempted to withdraw $150,000 in cash from an embassy account. Citibank officials blocked that transaction. It is not clear why bankers stopped the withdrawal, but they flagged the attempt to the government as suspicious. Treasury officials then sent it on to the FBI, according to the three law enforcement sources with knowledge of the matter.
Kislyak, a nuclear scientist who became ambassador in 2008, was an affable figure in Washington who was known to throw lavish parties, including a 2010 bash with edible Fabergé eggs, baton twirlers, and a guest list that included a US Supreme Court justice and at least two senators.
As Russia annexes Crimea, checks get cashed
Now authorities appear to be digging into the entire Russian diplomatic corps operating in the US, with bank records dating back 10 years that show financial conduct flagged as suspicious. The official with knowledge of Mueller’s probe said it is examining a wide range of financial behavior by Russian diplomats.
One of Putin’s main strategic goals was the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, key to controlling the Black Sea and home to a large Russian naval base. He accomplished the takeover on March 18, 2014, two days after a widely disputed Crimean referendum in favor of joining Russia.
Around that critical period, from March 8 to April 7, 2014, Citibank officials flagged nearly 30 checks totaling about $370,000 to Russian Embassy employees, including military attachés, living in Washington. The checks, which were for nearly identical amounts, were all cashed as soon as they were received.
Bank officials noted that the employees had not received similar payments in the past, and that the timing of the transactions matched that of the Crimean referendum.
The embassy would not say what the money was used for. Capt. Vyacheslav Khlestov, in charge of the Russian Office of the Defense, Military, Air, and Naval Attachés, did not return an email seeking comment. Even though the transfers were first noted by American officials in 2014, it is not clear whether the Treasury Department or the FBI took further action to investigate.