By Alex Distefano
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Meanwhile, U.S investigators learned through Interpol of Yegmenov's 1984 Russian convictions and jail term. The Justice Department's Office of International Affairs passed the information to the Russians, and in 1995, Russian prosecutors began looking into the disappearance of $1.87 million from Channel 5.
On November 13, 1995, the FBI arrested Yegmenov in Brooklyn. Agents seized Syroejine at his Santa Monica condominium. The two men were indicted in November 1995 for money laundering. Yegmenov was also charged with visa fraud. The U.S. calculated the total theft of the Channel 5 case at $1,949,460.66. Authorities would not say whether any money was recovered.
O'Connell had the INS run a computer search to pull all the visa applications Yegmenov had filed. It found about a thousand. "They were for the Brighton Beach crowd," he said. "Ninety-eight percent of the companies were out of Brooklyn." Brighton Beach in Brooklyn is a center for Russian criminals.
Then U.S. agents used the applications to lead them to the bank accounts of the phony companies. O'Connell explained, "Each company that petitions for an alien has a file, a lot of supporting documents. I had at one time a thousand of those files, each for different companies, all sent to our service center in St. Albans, Vermont. We had the center start asking the petitioners for additional documents, including bank statements. Most were out of the Chemical Bank in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York City. Some were from the Bank of New York, a couple from Citibank." He said the Russian Mafiya was using many of the bank accounts to bring in large sums by pretending that they were paying for contracts in the U.S.
When investigators sought to locate other shell companies Yegmenov had incorporated, they were stymied by state corporation department practices. There was no way to run a computer search to locate corporations by filer. New York State Police agents had to search by hand the papers of every corporation filed with the state over a period of time and pull folders with recognizable names such as Yegmenov or someone from his office. Sensing the surveillance, he started using other petitioners' names. Limited to tagging files that bore names they knew, investigators still discovered roughly 4000 New York State shell companies Yegmenov set up.
But investigators could get banking information only from corporations sponsoring people to get visas, not from those set up just to launder money. O'Connell explained, "The only reason we know about the bank accounts is because of the supporting documents. If Alex incorporated 3000 companies that didn't apply for visas, where do you start looking? Do you search every bank to see if it has accounts from those corporations? It's an impossible task."
Examining each company would have been useful. Yegmenov's enterprises dealt in more than visas and money laundering. Officials said some Delaware companies he set up appear to have been used for exportation of stolen cars, weapons trafficking, and motor oil excise tax fraud, in which crooks import diesel and call it home heating oil to avoid paying taxes. Other Yegmenov firms specialized in bilking medicare and medicaid with phony invoices, say for fictitious wheelchairs. Yet others provided fake documents for manicurists' licenses. Authorities suspected that certain auto body shops he incorporated in New York were used by car-theft rings that changed plates and shipped cars to Russia.
Yegmenov pleaded guilty in 1995 to money laundering and visa fraud. He served about a year in prison or in INS detention, and was deported. In Russia, he was jailed for a year on the St. Petersburg TV station charge, then released. A source said that Syroejine had been freed on bond, but from January 18, 1996, most court records in his case were sealed, including any indicating its disposition. None of the other station officials in Russia were charged with crimes.
The Justice Department and U.S. attorneys who handled the case declined to provide information on grounds that aspects of it are still being investigated. There are thousands of Yegmenov companies suspected of being used for illegal purposes.
"I get calls all the time on the companies he opened," O'Connell said. "It created a lot of awareness in the U.S. State Department. Every once in a while, I'll get a call from the Office of International Affairs. The legate to Moscow or St. Petersburg has one of Yegmenov's companies on his desk and what should he do about that. I tell them, 'Don't give the guy the visa.' " He added, "I'm sure somebody by now has taken Yegmenov's place."
The money-laundering scandals reported here and in recent months are probably the tip of the iceberg. Putting together Russian government estimates, about $50 billion leaves that country illegally each year. Nobody knows how much is capital flight, or how much is the proceeds of embezzlement or other crimes. But U.S. government officials say that Russian organized crime is developing importance on a par with the Italian Mafiosi, Colombian drug traffickers, Japanese gangsters, and Chinese triads. Internationally, estimates are that $500 billion to $1 trillion in criminal money from all sources ends up in U.S. and European banks each year.