WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday announced the creation of a task force to pursue the billionaire oligarchs who aided President Vladimir V. Putin in his invasion of Ukraine, as part of a United States’ effort to seize the assets. take and freeze those who have violated sanctions.
The task force will pool resources from several federal agencies to enforce sweeping economic measures imposed by the United States as Russia continues its unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
“We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate, arrest and prosecute those whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue this unjust war,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement.
The task force is overseen by Lisa O. Monaco, the Deputy Attorney General. Andrew C. Adams, a senior corruption prosecutor at the US law firm in Manhattan, will lead day-to-day operations, according to multiple people who were briefed about his new role and who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal his name.
The task force’s announcement came as the Biden administration prepares a new package of sanctions against more Russian oligarchs, according to a person familiar with the plans. And it followed a warning to oligarchs by President Biden in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, in which he stated that the government was “working with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments and their private jets.” take.”
It’s unclear how successful the Justice Department will be in pursuing wealthy Russians, but the Department typically sets up task forces to underline its priorities and encourage prosecutors to bring cases.
“Catastrophic events, such as 9/11 or the invasion of Ukraine, often prompt the government to take stock of the full menu of its enforcement tools to address a unique threat to international security,” said David H. Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana who oversaw enforcement of US sanctions laws as a Justice Department official during the Obama and Trump administrations. “That’s what the Biden administration is doing here.”
The creation of the team, called Task Force KleptoCapture, adds to the series of actions Western leaders have taken in recent days in an effort to destroy Mr Putin and Russia’s politically connected elite, who are believed to have close ties to to undermine him. By lifting potentially crippling sanctions against Russian financial institutions and beginning to freeze trillions of dollars in assets controlled by Moscow and by oligarchs, the United States and its allies hope to push Putin to withdraw from Ukraine .
The Biden administration has sanctioned several Russian entities, including the country’s main development and military banks, one of its sovereign wealth funds and a subsidiary of state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. It has tried to freeze Putin’s assets, as well as those of his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and other Russian national security officials. And it has restricted purchases of Russian government bonds, banned some Russian banks from accessing Western financial markets and cut off Russia’s access to certain foreign technology products.
The European Union and Britain have taken similar punitive measures and have also banned some military-related exports to Russia. But Russia has continued its attack on Ukraine.
The creation of the task force reflects harsh criticism of Russian oligarchs, many of whom have built their fortunes through their ties to Mr Putin. While they may not be directly involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they empower Mr Putin by helping him hide his own assets and stay in power.
The Russian oligarchs have invested their fortunes in assets around the world, and their ties to Mr. Putin have helped them gain influence and connections in the worlds of fine arts, real estate, Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Some of the Russian elite are reportedly rushing to sell their assets to protect them from seizure, presumably pending sanctions. One of the country’s most prominent oligarchs, Roman Abramovich, said on Wednesday that he would sell Chelsea, the Premier League football team.
Other oligarchs with ties to Moscow have hired US lobbyists and law firms to try to weaken US sanctions laws, such as the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 measure that initially imposed sanctions on some Russian government officials in response to human rights violations.
War Between Russia and Ukraine: Important Things to Know
A city is conquered. Russian troops captured Kherson, the first Ukrainian city to be conquered during the war. Overtaking Kherson is important because it will allow the Russians to seize more of Ukraine’s southern coastline and move west to the city of Odessa.
While many US law and lobby firms have stopped representing Russian entities, not all of them have. For example, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of the country’s largest law firms, appears to be continuing to work on lawsuits related to the 2016 election with Alfa Bank, which placed the United States under sanctions last week. The penalties for Alfa Bank were more lenient than those imposed on some other Russian financial firms and did not require Skadden Arps to sever his ties; the law firm did not respond to requests for comment.
Alfa Bank was founded by Ukrainian-Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman, who was sanctioned separately this week by the European Union, noting that he “has been referred to as a top Russian financier and enabler of Putin’s inner circle.”
Mr. Adams, who will lead the day-to-day operations of the task force, has a track record of investigating Russian organized crime and recovering illicit assets. He joined the US law firm in Manhattan in 2013 and worked in the violent and organized crime unit before overseeing money laundering investigations.
He has headed the agency’s money laundering and transnational criminal enterprises unit since 2018. Under his leadership, the unit successfully prosecuted cases involving an Armenian criminal organization, a bribery and money laundering scheme involving Brazilian government officials, and a racehorse doping ring. among other things.
The task force will include prosecutors and investigators from the Department of Justice who have expertise in enforcing laws related to sanctions, export controls, corruption, asset forfeiture, money laundering and taxes. And it will work with investigators from the IRS, the FBI, the Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security and the Postal Inspection Service.
The task force will target people and companies trying to evade anti-money laundering laws, hide their identities from financial institutions and use cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions and launder money. The Justice Department said it would use civil and criminal confiscation orders to seize property belonging to individuals subject to sanctions.
The department said its work would complement that of a transatlantic task force announced last weekend to identify and seize the assets of imprisoned Russian individuals and companies around the world.
Reporting contributed by Charlie Savage and Alan Rappeport from Washington, and Rebecca Davis O’Brien and William K. Rashbaum From New York.