Former FBI agent's side work puts bureau under new scrutiny
The Washington Post February 13, 2023
Alexandra Fokina had just wrapped up what she considered a dream internship in New York and was excited to tell her friends all about it.
"I was involved in crazy, but insanely interesting and difficult matters," the Russian student wrote on her Facebook page at the end of July 2018. "The work experience in the field of counterterrorism turned out to be something absolutely new and unique. The briefings, the conversations, and of course the endless pages of analysis."
Fokina, who said she aspired to work at the United Nations, might never have secured the job and what investigators in a recent indictment have called "VIP treatment" without help from a high-level connection: Charles McGonigal, the special agent in charge of counterintelligence for the FBI's New York field office.
In January, McGonigal was indicted on federal charges of money laundering, violating U.S. sanctions and making false statements, stemming in part from his alleged interventions on Fokina's behalf. McGonigal has pleaded not guilty to the charges in New York and Washington and is free on bond. He is one of the most senior FBI officials ever charged with criminal offenses, and his case has deeply concerned national security professionals, given the extraordinary access he had to sensitive government secrets.
A 22-year member of the bureau, McGonigal was the top spy hunter in a city crawling with foreign agents and one of the most powerful officials in federal law enforcement. Earlier in 2018, a Russian associate allegedly asked McGonigal to help secure an internship at the New York Police Department for Fokina on behalf of her father, Yevgeny Fokin. Prosecutors noted that Fokin had been "rumored in public media reports to be a Russian intelligence officer." According to the Justice Department, McGonigal called a contact in the police department, telling him, "I have an interest in [Fokina's] father for a number of reasons."
Fokin, who is not named in the indictment but matches the description of a figure referred to as "Agent-1," would allegedly go on to work with McGonigal to assist his boss, Oleg Deripaska, a notorious Russian mogul and ally of President Vladimir Putin. The Justice Department alleges that after he retired from the FBI in 2018 at age 50, McGonigal was paid tens of thousands of dollars to illegally help lift U.S. sanctions that had been imposed on Deripaska in 2018. McGonigal knew Deripaska's business and connections well: He had investigated the Russian while still an FBI agent and while the government was considering imposing the sanctions.
Neither Fokin nor his daughter responded to requests for comment.
Since McGonigal's arrest, partisans at both ends of the political spectrum have seized on his case as evidence of their preexisting views of the FBI. For some, the McGonigal affair confirms that the bureau is the vanguard of a corrupt deep state, a renegade agency that former president Donald Trump for years has said was out to get him. Others see in McGonigal dark suggestions of Russian influence at the highest levels of the U.S. government or even a possible tool used by forces in the FBI to help elect Trump in 2016.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have demanded more information on McGonigal from the FBI. GOP critics ask whether he improperly played a role in the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into Russia's election interference. And Democrats have wondered whether he inappropriately sought to quash the inquiry. McGonigal's precise role in the investigation remains murky.
McGonigal's lawyer, Seth DuCharme, told reporters that McGonigal "had a long, distinguished career with the FBI" and that he looked forward to reviewing the evidence. He did not respond to a request for further comment.
An examination of McGonigal's adventures reveals a wild tale but few clear answers so far. He appears at times to have acted for and against Russian interests. McGonigal's alleged crimes ultimately may reveal more about the conflicts of interest that agents face as they seek to capitalize on their government careers. Other former agents make cameos in McGonigal's story, raising questions about how retired officials use their FBI credentials to make money in the private sector.
This article is based on interviews with current and former officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the criminal charges, as well as reviews of government documents, social media posts and corporate records.
Current and former government officials who have known and worked with McGonigal for years said they were appalled by the charges and by the implications of someone in his position potentially secretly working for foreign parties. He had access to an extraordinary amount of sensitive information, including investigations of foreign spies or U.S. citizens suspected of working on behalf of foreign governments. McGonigal also would have had knowledge of foreigners whom the FBI and the CIA were recruiting to spy for the United States.
A former FBI agent who worked with McGonigal said he had specialized in Russia from early in his career. "He was involved in finding and recruiting assets to provide information on Russia. And New York is a prime spot for that," the former agent said.
McGonigal led major intelligence investigations, including into the 2010 release of classified State Department cables to WikiLeaks and the hunt for a suspected spy for China inside the CIA.
The Justice Department has not accused McGonigal of espionage, nor has he been charged with improperly divulging classified information.
McGonigal's indictment comes at a time of FBI vulnerability. Critics point to the allegations of abuse by a top official as further evidence of serious problems at the bureau. That will put the FBI politically on the defensive, a year before the next general election, and when the bureau is under attack from some lawmakers, who allege that it has abused its powers for political ends.
"When the bureau is struggling with its brand, he just threw it in the toilet," said one former agent who was a colleague of McGonigal's in New York and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly about him.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has noted that it was FBI agents — McGonigal's former colleagues — who put together the case against him.
"What I think the charges in this case demonstrate is the FBI's willingness as an organization to shine a bright light on conduct that is totally unacceptable, including when it happens from one of our own people, and to hold those people accountable," Wray told reporters last month.
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By the time he allegedly started working for a Russian who was under U.S. sanctions, McGonigal was already neck-deep in other secretive dealings with the prime minister of Albania and a former Albanian intelligence operative, according to the indictment. McGonigal's Albanian work allegedly began while he still worked for the FBI, a point of special distress for his former colleagues.
Prosecutors allege that by August 2017, McGonigal had connected with a New Jersey man who was born in Albania and who had worked for Albanian intelligence several decades earlier.
The indictment does not name the man, but the description matches Agron Neza, who Albanian corporate records show went into business with McGonigal in 2019, after McGonigal left the FBI. Neza did not respond to several messages, but the publication Euronews said Neza provided a statement in which he called McGonigal a friend and acknowledged giving him money and joining him at meetings with Albanian officials.
Neza's name, along with others, was included in a November 2021 grand jury subpoena published by Business Insider in September, and was confirmed to The Washington Post by a person familiar with the investigation.
McGonigal asked Neza for money — and Neza agreed, promising to pay him "little by little," according to the indictment.
The two men then traveled together in September 2017 to Albania, where they met with Prime Minister Edi Rama, the indictment goes on to say. McGonigal, who was still working for the FBI at the time, gave the prime minister FBI "paraphernalia" and warned him against awarding lucrative drilling licenses to companies that were fronts for Russian interests. While McGonigal appeared to be acting in his role as a counterintelligence officer against Russian influence, prosecutors allege that, in fact, Neza and another Albanian man working with McGonigal, identified by prosecutors as an informal Rama adviser, had their own financial interests in the oil fields.
A painter and former basketball player, Rama has served as prime minister of Albania since 2013, leading of one of the country's two dominant — and often feuding — political parties. In recent years, he has warned of growing Russian influence over his political opponents, which they have denied. Experts said leaders of both parties try to build and tout ties with leading American figures, making an alliance with a top FBI official a potentially useful tool for Rama to build his popularity at home.
On their return to the United States, prosecutors allege, Neza gave McGonigal $80,000 while the two were seated in a car parked outside a Manhattan restaurant. Soon, Neza gave him two more installments of cash at his New Jersey home, for a total of $225,000 — money that McGonigal indicated to Neza he would repay. Prosecutors say McGonigal failed to include the payments on required FBI financial disclosure forms. He also allegedly failed to disclose that Neza joined him on the trip and that his travel and lodging were provided to him free.
Before retiring from the FBI in 2018, the indictment alleges, McGonigal and Neza met repeatedly with Rama in the United States and Albania, including once for dinner in Washington in March 2018, when they were joined by a former FBI agent who is not identified.
A majority-Muslim country, Albania has been a key strategic partner to the United States since emerging from communism in the 1990s and is seen by Washington as an important player in fighting international terrorism. The country sent troops to back the U.S. effort in Iraq and erected a statue of President George W. Bush, at a time when his popularity elsewhere in Europe was diving. Albania, a NATO member since 2009, has been plagued by endemic corruption and organized crime, and U.S. officials have been encouraging reforms to the judicial system to make the country's criminal law fairer and more evenhanded.
As a result, high-level American diplomats and security officials make frequent trips to Albania, said Jasmin Mujanovic, an expert on Balkan politics, indicating that McGonigal's interactions with the prime minister would have been seen locally as routine and unsurprising.
But, Mujanovic said, the accusation that McGonigal was taking money from a Rama ally while meeting with the prime minister and potentially acting to help advance the business interests of people paying him on the side could seriously hamper the U.S.-led reform effort in Albania.
"What has so often been frustrating to people in the region is that, oftentimes, when these high-ranking Western officials appear, rather than using their positions to elevate the struggle against corruption and organized crime, it seems like they come down to our level and become part of the game," Mujanovic said.
In a statement, Manjola Hasa, a spokeswoman for Rama, said the prime minister met with McGonigal several times but was introduced to Neza by McGonigal and had no knowledge of the two men's relationship. "As for the accusations in Mr. McGonigal's indictment, they have nothing to do with the Albanian Prime Minister or any Albanian official," Hasa said.
The accusations against McGonigal in Albania in some ways complicate a simple narrative of an FBI official-turned-Russia-stooge that some have advanced since the allegations about his work for Deripaska have emerged.
McGonigal is accused of taking money to advance Rama's interests while some Western analysts were raising concerns about Russian interests trying to influence the prime minister's opponents.
According to the indictment, McGonigal encouraged the FBI to open a criminal investigation in 2018 into an American lobbyist acting on behalf of the Democratic Party of Albania, the main opposition to Rama's Socialist Party. Some of the information against the lobbyist, prosecutors say, came from Neza and originated in Rama's office.
The individual is not named in the indictment but appears to match lobbyist and former Republican Capitol Hill staffer Nick Muzin. He came under scrutiny in the same period after a March 2018 article in Mother Jones raised questions about whether his consulting fees might have been paid by a company that was a front for Russian interests, prompting an investigation in Albania. No charges were filed in the case.
In an email, Muzin said, "I have no reason to believe that I was the victim of this false investigation. But if I was, that is unfortunate, and I hope that justice will be served."
Alfred Lela, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Albania, called the allegation that McGonigal encouraged the FBI to open a criminal investigation into a U.S. citizen who was acting as a lobbyist for Lela's party "the most brutal of revelations."
"You have the FBI, an esteemed branch of U.S. law enforcement, used to carry out the dirty deeds of Albanian politics," he said, adding that the party has not been contacted by the FBI about the allegation.
McGonigal's work in Albania brought other former agents into his orbit. Corporate records in Albania show that in February 2019 — five months after McGonigal retired from the FBI — he and Neza each bought 25% stakes in a locally based investigative firm, identified in Albanian corporate records as Law Office & Investigation. Another partner in the firm was Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent whose law enforcement career had ended after he pleaded guilty to illegally accessing FBI files in 2007 on behalf of his actress girlfriend.
Rossini has in recent years reemerged as an international consultant — and an expert on Albania, appearing in interviews with Albanian media to warn of Russian influence over Rama's political opponents.
A person familiar with Rossini's account of the business said the Albanian company performed no work and had no clients.
In August, Rossini was indicted on corruption charges in a case involving payments to the governor of Puerto Rico. He has pleaded not guilty.
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McGonigal's work for Deripaska — the sanctioned Russian mogul — took place after he had retired from the FBI. But while he was still the bureau's special agent in charge of counterintelligence in New York, he helped investigate Deripaska and other wealthy Russians with Kremlin connections. As part of his official duties, McGonigal had access to classified information and was part of the process of placing powerful Russians on the sanctions list.
According to the indictment, in 2018, Sergey Shestakov, a former Russian diplomat who had worked for part of his career in New York, introduced McGonigal over email to Fokin, also a former Russian diplomat and rumored intelligence officer who was then a director at En+. The company, which was itself under sanctions at the time, is a metals and energy behemoth in which Deripaska owned the controlling interest.
Fokin "reported to" Deripaska, the indictment says.
Shestakov asked McGonigal to arrange the internship for Fokin's daughter at the New York Police Department. According to her Facebook page, Alexandra Fokina is a political analyst with a focus on West Africa. She lives in London and has been a student at Tel Aviv University and served as a research associate at two security-related think tanks in Israel. McGonigal informed an FBI supervisor about his efforts, claiming that he wanted to recruit Fokin, whom he described as "a Russian intelligence officer," prosecutors allege.
It was McGonigal's job to recruit people like Fokin. But his help securing the job for Fokin's daughter apparently raised suspicions at the NYPD. A sergeant there who had been assigned to brief Fokina later reported to the police and the FBI that Fokina "claimed to have an unusually close relationship to 'an FBI agent' who had given her access to confidential FBI files," prosecutors allege. "It was unusual for a college student to receive such special treatment from the NYPD and the FBI," the sergeant explained, according to the indictment.
Soon after The Washington Post asked Fokin and his daughter to comment, Fokin's Facebook page was closed and Fokina's post about the New York internship was removed.
In 2019, after McGonigal had retired, the indictment alleges that he, Shestakov and Fokin set about trying to get the sanctions on Deripaska lifted. The billionaire owned property in the United States and was eager to conduct business here. The sanctions made that impossible.
The group negotiated with a law firm that specializes in "delisting" sanctioned individuals. McGonigal met with Deripaska at one of his homes in London and at a location in Vienna, prosecutors allege. The group avoided referring to Deripaska by name in written communications, calling him "the individual," "our friend from Vienna" and "the Vienna client," prosecutors allege in the indictment.
Deripaska personally signed a letter engaging the firm, Kobre & Kim, and agreed to pay $175,000 per month, with $25,000 "currently earmarked" for "certain other professionals," prosecutors allege. The law firm retained McGonigal as an investigator and consultant. He asked the firm to compensate him by transmitting the $25,000 payment to a corporation owned by Shestakov. The law firm complied, according to the indictment.
Kobre & Kim did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Deripaska, Larisa Belyaeva, said that Fokin never worked for Deripaska, nor was he "otherwise engaged in his business or personal matters." She said Deripaska was connected to Kobre & Kim through his Russian lawyers and that Deripaska had "zero knowledge" of McGonigal's interactions with the firm or Shestakov.
According to the indictment, the coronavirus pandemic interrupted McGonigal's work for Deripaska. But in the spring of 2021, Fokin began negotiations with McGonigal and Shestakov to work for Deripaska directly, bypassing the law firm, which, under U.S. law, was allowed to work for the Russian in trying to get him off the sanctions list.
The job in question, which prosecutors allege was illegal under the sanctions, was to investigate one of Deripaska's rivals, with whom Deripaska was contesting control over a large Russian corporation. (The rival and the company are not named in the indictment.) According to the indictment, Deripaska also allegedly wanted to know about assets that person may have hidden outside Russia and a passport possibly issued to him by another country.
In August 2021, McGonigal, Shestakov and Fokin allegedly drafted a contract that set up what prosecutors describe as a network of companies that effectively hid Deripaska as the client. A corporation in Cyprus would pay another in New Jersey more than $40,000 per month for "business intelligence services" and research, prosecutors allege. They further allege that while the payments would be made to McGonigal and Shestakov at Deripaska's behest, neither Fokin nor they were named in or signed the contract.
That New Jersey corporation was owned by an unidentified friend of McGonigal's who had arranged for him to participate in the business when he was still an FBI agent, according to the indictment. The friend allegedly gave McGonigal a corporate email address and a cellphone under a false name to conceal his work while he was still on the FBI's payroll, according to the indictment.
From August to November 2021, McGonigal allegedly sought to gather information about Deripaska's rival and the Russian company. Prosecutors say McGonigal hired a subcontractor to help him but didn't disclose that Deripaska was the client. The investigation allegedly yielded files found on the "dark web" that might reveal the rival had more than half a billion dollars in hidden assets, as well as other information that McGonigal thought Deripaska would find useful.
According to the indictment, McGonigal and Shestakov negotiated with Fokin to get money from Deripaska to buy the files. But that work effectively ceased on Nov. 21, 2021, when FBI special agents, armed with search warrants, seized McGonigal and Shestakov's electronic devices.
Belyaeva called the narrative outlined in the indictment "pulp fiction" and "a sick fantasy."
In September, the Justice Department charged Deripaska, who lives in Moscow, with evading sanctions.
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The charges against McGonigal have rattled the tight circles of federal law enforcement. But they also portend broader security implications and political fallout.
On Feb. 2, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the allegations "extremely disturbing" and wondered whether McGonigal's activities may have compromised sensitive counterintelligence and criminal investigations, including of Deripaska and the FBI's investigation into Trump's potential ties to Russia.
"The Committee remains in the dark on the true extent to which Mr. McGonigal's alleged misconduct may have impacted these highly sensitive matters, including whether he compromised sensitive sources, methods, and analysis," Durbin wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Wray.
The same day, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) sent their own letter to the FBI, asking what role McGonigal played in opening the FBI investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign. McGonigal's alleged "misconduct further erodes public confidence in the FBI's conduct and law-enforcement actions," the lawmakers wrote.
McGonigal's role, if any, in the Trump-related investigations remains unclear. Some of the New York agents he supervised did work on elements of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, particularly when it came to a long-running investigation of former Trump adviser Carter Page, and receiving allegations from British former spy Christopher Steele. But it's not clear what part McGonigal personally may have had in any of that work.
The former FBI agent who knew McGonigal from New York said the charges raised significant concerns about ex-agents using their connections and influence for corrupt purposes.
A senior FBI official said that the bureau "of today is strong, and what's most unfortunate about this case are those who want to offer commentary and speculation with little regard for the facts and information that has been outlined in court documents."
The former FBI agent said he wasn't sure whether McGonigal was illustrative of a broader problem in the bureau. But he said he believes that investigators need to find out now.
"When you see smoke, you have to wonder if there's fire," he said.
Belton reported from London. The Washington Post's Shayna Jacobs in New York, Perry Stein, Joby Warrick and Devlin Barrett in Washington, and Joseph Menn in San Francisco contributed to this report.