Former FBI agent's side work puts bureau under new scrutiny
Alexandra Fokina had just wrapped up what she considered a dream internship in New York...
Alexandra Fokina was just finished with what she considered her dream internship in New York, and was eager to share it with her friends.
The Russian student posted on her Facebook page in July 2018 that she was involved with "crazy, but insanely fascinating and difficult matters." "The experience gained in counterterrorism was unique and completely new. The briefings, conversations, and the endless pages of analysis.
Fokina claimed she wanted to work for the United Nations. However, Fokina might not have been able to get the job. Investigators also called the "VIP treatment" by Charles McGonigal (special agent in charge counterintelligence at the FBI's New York branch office).
McGonigal was arrested in January on federal charges of money laundering and violating U.S. sanction. McGonigal has pleaded guilty to the New York and Washington charges and is now free on bond. McGonigal is the FBI's most senior official ever charged with criminal offenses. His case has deep concern for national security professionals due to the extraordinary access he enjoyed to sensitive government secrets.
McGonigal, a 22-year veteran of the bureau was the most prominent federal law enforcement official and the top spy hunter in the city. In 2018, a Russian associate asked McGonigal for help in securing an internship at New York Police Department to Fokina's father, Yevgeny Fokin. Prosecutors pointed out that Fokin was "rumored" to have been a Russian intelligence officer, according to public media reports. According to the Justice Department McGonigal called the contact at the police department and said that he had an interest in Fokina's father for several reasons.
Fokin is not mentioned in the indictment, but matches the description for a figure called "Agent-1". Fokin allegedly continued to work alongside McGonigal in order to help Oleg Deripaska (a well-known Russian mogul and ally to President Vladimir Putin). According to the Justice Department, McGonigal received tens of thousand dollars illegally for helping lift sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Deripaska after he retired in 2018 at 50. McGonigal was familiar with Deripaska's connections and business: He had been an FBI agent while he was investigating the Russian and as the government considered imposing sanctions.
Fokin and his daughter did not respond to requests for comment.
Partisans from both sides of the political spectrum took McGonigal's case as proof of their preexisting views about the FBI after his arrest. Some believe that McGonigal's case confirms that the FBI is part of a corrupt deep-state, an agency that the former president Donald Trump has long claimed was out to get him. Others see dark hints of Russian influence at high levels of the U.S. Government or even as a tool by the FBI to elect Trump in 2016.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have asked for more information about McGonigal's background from the FBI. Critics of McGonigal ask whether he played an improper role in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into Russia’s election interference. Democrats also wonder if he sought to halt the investigation in an inappropriate manner. McGonigal's exact role in the investigation is still unknown.
Seth DuCharme was McGonigal's attorney and stated to reporters that McGonigal had "had a long, distinguished careers with the FBI" as well as that he was looking forward to reviewing the evidence. McGonigal did not respond to a request to comment further.
McGonigal's stories are full of interesting tales, but there aren't many clear answers. McGonigal appears to have at times acted against Russian interests. McGonigal's alleged crimes may shed more light on the conflicts of interests agents face when they try to maximize their government careers. McGonigal's story also features other ex-agents, which raises questions about how retired FBI officials make their money in the private sector.
This article was based on interviews of current and former officials. Some spoke under the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the criminal charges. Also, reviews of corporate records and government documents were done.
Former and current government officials, who worked with McGonigal over many years, said that they were shocked by the allegations and the implications of someone in his role potentially working for foreign governments. He had extraordinary access to sensitive information. This included investigations into foreign spies and U.S citizens suspected of working for foreign governments. McGonigal would also have known about foreigners that the FBI or the CIA were trying to spy on the United States.
McGonigal was a former FBI agent. He said that he had been specialized in Russia since early in his career. He was responsible for recruiting and finding assets that could provide information about Russia. The former agent stated that New York is a prime location for such activities.
McGonigal was the leader of major intelligence investigations. These included the 2010 WikiLeaks release of classified State Department cables.
McGonigal has not been accused by the Justice Department of espionage or improperly disclosing classified information.
McGonigal's arrest comes at a critical time for the FBI. Critics see the accusations of abuse by a top FBI official as more evidence that there are serious problems at the agency. This will place the FBI on the defensive politically, one year before the next general elections and when some lawmakers are claiming that the FBI has misused its power for political ends.
"When the bureau struggles with its brand, he just put it in the toilet," stated a former agent who was a colleague at McGonigal’s in New York. He spoke under anonymity to speak candidly about McGonigal.
Christopher A. Wray, FBI Director, has pointed out that McGonigal's former FBI colleagues were the ones who put together this case against McGonigal.
Wray stated that the FBI was willing to bring attention to conduct that is completely unacceptable to the organization, even if it is from one of its own personnel, and hold those responsible.
According to the indictment, McGonigal had already been involved in secretive dealings and deals with the prime minister of Albania, as well as an ex-intelligence operative from Albania, by the time he began working for a Russian under U.S. sanction. McGonigal's work in Albania allegedly began while still working for the FBI. This was a significant distress point for his former colleagues.
Prosecutors claim that McGonigal was connected to a New Jersey man, who was born in Albania, and had previously worked for intelligence services in Albania several decades before.
Although the indictment doesn't name the man, the description matches Agron Naza. This is the same person who, according to Albanian corporate records, entered into business with McGonigal after McGonigal retired from the FBI. Although Neza didn't respond to multiple messages, Euronews reported that Neza gave a statement in the which he called McGonigal friend and admitted giving money to him.
Neza's name was listed in a subpoena to the November 2021 grand jury published by Business Insider in Sept. and confirmed by someone familiar with the investigation to The Washington Post.
McGonigal approached Neza to ask for money. Neza agreed and promised to pay McGonigal "little by little," according the indictment.
According to the indictment, the two men traveled together to Albania in September 2017, where they met Prime Minister Edi Rama. McGonigal was working as a counterintelligence officer for the FBI. He gave "paraphernalia," which included FBI information, to the prime minister and warned him not to give lucrative drilling licenses companies that were fronts for Russian interests. McGonigal seemed to be acting as a counterintelligence officer for Russian influence. However, McGonigal and Neza, an Albanian man who worked with McGonigal, were prosecutors' informal Rama advisors. They had their financial interests in the oil field.
Rama, a painter and former basketball player has been prime minister of Albania since 2013. He leads one of two dominant, but often conflicting, political parties in the country. He has been warning about Russian influence on his political opponents in recent years. They have not denied this. Experts say leaders of both parties seek to establish and promote ties with top American figures. This could make Rama's popularity in America a useful tool.
Prosecutors allege that Neza gave McGonigal $80,000 on their return to the United States. The pair were sitting in a car outside a Manhattan restaurant while McGonigal was paying for the bill. McGonigal told Neza that he would repay the cash Neza had given him at his New Jersey residence. McGonigal received two additional installments of cash from Neza soon after they returned to the United States. Prosecutors claim McGonigal did not include the payments in required FBI financial disclosure forms. McGonigal also failed to disclose that Neza was with him on the trip, and that he received free travel and lodging.
The indictment claims that McGonigal, Neza, and Rama met several times in America and Albania before they retired from the FBI in 2018.
Albania, a majority-Muslim nation, has been an important strategic partner for the United States ever since it emerged from communism in 1990s. Washington considers Albania an important player in international terrorism combat. At a time when President George W. Bush's popularity was falling elsewhere in Europe, the country deployed troops to support the U.S. efforts in Iraq. Albania, a NATO member, has been plagued with corruption and organized crime since 2009. U.S. officials encouraged reforms to the judiciary system to improve the country's criminal justice.
According to Jasmin Mujanovic (an expert on Balkan politics), high-ranking American diplomats and security officers make frequent trips in Albania. This means that McGonigal's interactions and conversations with the prime minister are routine and not surprising.
Mujanovic stated that the accusations that McGonigal took money from Rama allies while meeting with the prime Minister and possibly acting to advance the business interests for those who pay him could seriously hinder the U.S.-led Reform effort in Albania.
Mujanovic stated that "what has often been frustrating for people in the region, is that when these high-ranking Western officers appear, instead of using their positions to raise the fight against corruption, it seems like, they come down to us and become part the game."
Manjola Haska, a spokesperson for Rama, stated that the prime minister met McGonigal many times, but was introduced by McGonigal to Neza and did not know about their relationship. Hasa stated that the allegations in Mr. McGonigal’s indictment have nothing to do the Albanian Prime Minister and any other official.
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 was accused of accepting money in Rama's favor, while Western analysts raised concerns about Russian influence on the prime minister.
The indictment states that McGonigal encouraged FBI to open a criminal probe in 2018 into an American lobbyist who acted on behalf of the Democratic Party of Albania. This is the main opposition to Rama’s Socialist Party. Prosecutors claim that some of the information against McGonigal was obtained from Neza, and originated in Rama’s office.
Although the individual was not identified in the indictment, it appears that he matches former Republican Capitol Hill staffer Nick Muzin. After a Mother Jones article in March 2018, raising questions about whether consulting fees were paid by Russian front companies, he was also under investigation. The case was not investigated.
Muzin wrote in an email that he believed he was not the victim of the false investigation. However, if I was, it is regrettable and I hope justice will be done.
Alfred Lela, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Albania, described the allegation McGonigal encouraged FBI agents to open criminal investigations into a U.S citizen who was lobbying for Lela's party as "the most brutal of revelations."
He said that "You have the FBI," which is an honored branch of U.S. Law Enforcement, and used to do the dirty work of Albanian politics. The FBI has not yet reached out to the party about the allegation.
McGonigal's work with Albanian agents brought in other ex-agents. According to Albanian corporate records, McGonigal and Neza bought 25% stakes in a local investigative firm in February 2019, five months after McGonigal had retired from the FBI. Mark Rossini was another partner in the firm. He was a former FBI agent who pleaded guilty in 2007 to illegally accessing FBI records on behalf of his girlfriend, an actress.
Rossini, an international consultant and expert on Albania, has resurfaced in recent years. He appeared in interviews with Albanian media in warning of Russian influence on Rama's political opponents.
Rossini said that the Albanian company did not perform any work or had clients.
Rossini was arrested in August on corruption charges. The case involved payments to Puerto Rico's governor. Rossini has pleaded not guilty.
McGonigal worked for Deripaska, the sanctioned Russian mogul, after he retired from the FBI. McGonigal was the special agent in New York for counterintelligence and helped to investigate Deripaska as well as other wealthy Russians who had Kremlin connections. McGonigal was part of the process to place powerful Russians on the sanction list as part of his official duties.
Indictment states that Sergey Shestakov was a former Russian diplomat, who spent part of his career in New York. He introduced McGonigal to Fokin via email in 2018. Fokin is also a former Russian diplomat, intelligence officer, and director at En+. Deripaska was the controlling shareholder in the company, which at the time was under sanctions.
According to the indictment, Fokin "reported" Deripaska.
McGonigal was asked by Shestakov to arrange an internship for Fokina's daughter at New York Police Department. According to Alexandra Fokina's Facebook page, she is a political analyst who focuses on West Africa. She currently lives in London, and was a student at Tel Aviv University. In Israel, she also worked as a research associate for two security-related think tank. McGonigal told an FBI supervisor about his efforts to recruit Fokin. He claimed that Fokin was a Russian intelligence officer, according to prosecutors.
McGonigal was responsible for recruiting people like Fokin. However, McGonigal's assistance in securing Fokina's job apparently raised suspicions at NYPD. According to prosecutors, a sergeant from the NYPD who was assigned to brief Fokina reported to police and FBI that Fokina claimed to have a close relationship with an FBI agent who gave her access to confidential FBI files. According to the indictment, the sergeant said that it was not common for college students to be given such special treatment by the FBI and NYPD.
Fokina's post regarding the New York internship was deleted shortly after Fokina and his daughter were asked by The Washington Post to comment.
After McGonigal had retired in 2019, the indictment claims that Fokin, Shestakov, and McGonigal set out to lift the sanctions against Deripaska. The billionaire was a US citizen and wanted to do business in America. That was made impossible by the sanctions.
The group met with a law firm that specialises in "delisting" sanctioned people. According to prosecutors, McGonigal met Deripaska in London at his home and in Vienna. According to the indictment, the group did not mention Deripaska's name in written communications. Instead, they called him "the individual", "our friend from Vienna" or "the Vienna client".
Deripaska signed a contract with Kobre & Kim and agreed to pay $175,000 a month. $25,000 was "currently earmarked for certain other professionals," prosecutors claim. McGonigal was retained by the law firm as an investigator and consultant. McGonigal asked the law firm to pay him $25,000 to compensate him. This payment was sent to Shestakov's corporation. According to the indictment, the law firm agreed.
Kobre & Kim didn't respond to our requests for comment.
Larisa Belyaeva, a spokeswoman for Deripaska said that Fokin had never worked for the company nor was he involved in any other business or personal affairs. She stated that Deripaska was connected with Kobre & Kim via his Russian lawyers, and that Deripaska did not know anything about McGonigal's interactions or Shestakov.
According to the indictment the devastation caused McGonigal to stop working for Deripaska. Fokin started negotiations with McGonigal, Shestakov, in spring 2021 to work directly for Deripaska, bypassing the law office, which was, under U.S. law allowed to work for Russia in an attempt to remove him from the sanctions list.
Prosecutors claim that the job was illegal because it was supposed to be investigating one of Deripaska’s rivals. Deripaska was fighting for control over a large Russian company. The indictment does not name the rival or the company. Deripaska allegedly also wanted information about assets that someone might have hidden outside Russia, and possibly a passport issued by another country.
McGonigal Shestakov, Fokin and Shestakov allegedly drafted a contract in August 2021 that established what prosecutors call a network that hid Deripaska's identity as the client. Prosecutors claim that a corporation in Cyprus would pay a New Jersey company more than $40,000 per year for "business intelligence services" or research. Prosecutors also claim that McGonigal, Shestakov would receive the payments at Deripaska’s request. However, Fokin and Shestakov were not named in the contract or signed it.
According to the indictment, McGonigal was a friend who owned the New Jersey corporation. He had made arrangements for McGonigal to take part in the business while he was an FBI agent. According to the indictment, the friend gave McGonigal an email address at work and a phone number under a false name to hide his work while he was on the FBI payroll.
McGonigal is accused of seeking information on Deripaska's competitor and Russian company between August and November 2021. Prosecutors claim McGonigal employed a subcontractor in order to assist him, but did not disclose that Deripaska was his client. According to the investigation, files were found on the "dark internet" which might have revealed that the rival held more than half a million dollars in hidden assets. Also, McGonigal believed that Deripaska would benefit from other information.
According to the indictment McGonigal & Shestakov worked with Fokin to obtain money from Deripaska for the purchase of the files. However, the work was effectively stopped when FBI agents armed with search warrants seized McGonigal's and Shestakov’s electronic devices.
Belyaeva described the narrative in the indictment as "pulp fiction" or "a sick fantasy."
The Justice Department indicted Deripaska, a Moscow resident, for evading sanctions in September.
McGonigal's charges have shaken the tightly controlled federal law enforcement circles. They also have wider security implications and political consequences.
Senator Richard J. Durbin (D.Ill.), who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee called the allegations "extremely concerning" and asked whether McGonigal may have compromised sensitive antiintelligence and criminal investigations including Deripaska's and the FBI investigation into Trump's possible ties to Russia.
Durbin wrote to Attorney General Merrick Galrland and FBI Director Wray, "The Committee is still in the dark about the true extent to Mr. McGonigal’s alleged misconduct may impact these highly sensitive matters including whether he compromised sensitive methods, sources, and analysis."
On the same day, Jim Jordan, House Judiciary Chairman (R-Ohio), and Matt Gaetz (R. Fla.) wrote to the FBI asking for McGonigal's role in opening the FBI investigation into Russian election interference. McGonigal's "misconduct further undermines public confidence in law-enforcement activities and FBI conduct," lawmakers wrote.
McGonigal's involvement in the Trump-related investigations, if any is, remains unclear. McGonigal did supervise some New York agents who worked on elements of Crossfire Hurricane's investigation. This was especially true when it came down to the long-running investigation into Carter Page, former Trump adviser, and the receipt of allegations from Christopher Steele, a British spy. It's unclear what role McGonigal may have played in any of this work.
McGonigal was a former FBI agent. He said that he knew McGonigal from New York and the charges raised serious concerns about ex-agents using connections and influence to corrupt others.
According to a senior FBI official, the bureau is "strong today." The most regrettable aspect of this case is the desire for speculation and commentary that doesn't take into account the facts and information outlined in court documents.
McGonigal's story was not a sign of a larger problem within the FBI, said an ex-FBI agent. He said that he believed investigators should find out right away.
He said, "When you see smoke you must wonder if it's fire."
Belton reported from London. This report was contributed by Joseph Menn in San Francisco, Perry Stein, Joby Warsrick, and Devlin Barrett, all of the Washington Post.