FBI tapes detail ring's alleged Russia plot
Federal agents picked through garbage, spied on phone calls and captured reams of email as they went after a Houston businessman now accused of leading a scheme to ship sensitive U.S. technology to Russia's military.
The 11-person ring, allegedly led by Alexander Fishenko, is not accused of espionage, as classified documents were not given to Russia, but of breaking U.S. law by sending loads of protected microelectronics that can be used for guiding anti-ship missiles or radars as well as have civilian-world uses.
One of the most damning yet simplest bits of evidence made public so far came from the mouths of one of the company's managers while being interviewed over the phone by an employee working on a college paper and seeking to understand how Fishenko's company, ARC Electronics, got around strict export laws and avoided suspicion.
The answer: "We're lying."
In another conversation, the manager, Alexander Posobilov, is asked by an employee in Russia, who is among three fugitives in the case, what would happen if word gets out about what is going on: "We will be f-----."
Those words were among thousands recorded by the FBI. The conversations leave little doubt at least some of the persons charged likely knew they were doing something dubious.
Three people charged, including Fishenko, appealed Wednesday to U.S. Magistrate Judge George C. Hanks Jr. to free them on bond pending trial. All appeared in court wearing green prisoner uniforms and shackled at the waists and ankles as about two dozen family members and friends looked on.
The hearing is to continue Thursday.
The eight defendants who have been arrested are Slavic country immigrants, several from Russia, who now live in Houston. Most if not all have no known criminal records. Several are U.S. citizens with extended family here, although they have been issued passports by both countries.
No aid from consulate
The Russian consulate in Houston submitted a letter that stated should any of the defendants be released, it would not help them escape, an apparent attempt to belay concerns it could issue them travel documents or take diplomatic actions to assist them.
Prosecutor Daniel Silver argued none should be released pending an outcome of charges in the case, as they would most certainly flee the United States to countries abroad where they have relatives and the ability to rebuild their lives aboard.
In testimony Wednesday, FBI agent Crosby Houpt said that ARC disguised itself as a traffic-light manufacturer, then lied about what the microelectronics were to be used for in order to avoid drawing any suspicion from suppliers.
The equipment would be shipped from Houston through an airport in New York and then ultimately on to Russia.
"ARC would receive shopping lists from Russian entities, and they would go about acquiring the parts on the shopping lists," Houpt testified.
He also said Fishenko and other company managers took steps to try and hide what was going on from some of their employees, especially any word that parts would be sent to the military.
Among the evidence are documents in Russian that the FBI seized that show that a company tied to Fishenko was authorized to procure parts for the military, and another in which an intelligence arm of the government complains that it had been sent defective parts.
Defense attorneys have sought to portray most of the accused as Houstonians with productive lives here who immigrated to the U.S. years ago.
Fishenko's attorney, Eric Reed, said his client is a family man who moved to Houston in 1994 with his wife, who is Jewish and came as what she described as a refugee fleeing discrimination based on her religion.
He noted how important Fishenko was in the life of his young son, whom he dropped off at elementary school before being arrested last week.
Another person charged, Lyudmila Bagdikian, is a grandmother who had survived cancer, had no criminal record anywhere, and had only worked for Fishenko's Houston company, ARC Electronics, for a short time before it was raided last week, said her attorney Kent Schaffer
Yet another, Sevinj Taghiyeva, came to Houston on a student visa to study at the University of Houston and went on to get a work visa through ARC.
Charles Flood, an attorney for ARC saleswoman Viktoria Klebanova, said his client didn't know what the higher-ups were doing.
He portrayed the charges as a nonviolent export violation and mocked the idea she was any kind of James Bond as he questioned the FBI agent.
"She doesn't have machine guns behind the headlights of her 2003 Savannah (car), does she?" Flood asked the agent. "She doesn't have a secret phone in her shoes, does she?"
©2012 the Houston Chronicle
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