Former Senior FBI Official Accused of Working for Russian He Investigated

Shayna Jacobs, Spencer S. Hsu, Devlin Barrett and Shane Harris / The Washington Post
Former Senior FBI Official Accused of Working for Russian He Investigated Attorney Seth DuCharme said it was a 'distressing day' for former FBI official Charles McGonigal as they left the U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Jan. 23. (photo: WP)

Charles McGonigal, a former counterintelligence chief, is also accused of taking $225,000 from a former Albanian intelligence worker while still at the FBI

The FBI’s former top spy hunter in New York was charged Monday with taking secret cash payments of more than $225,000 while overseeing highly sensitive cases, and breaking the law by trying to get Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska removed from a U.S. sanctions list — accusations that shocked the cloistered world of his fellow high-ranking intelligence officials.

Charles McGonigal, 54, who retired from the FBI in September 2018, was indicted in federal court in Manhattan on charges of money laundering, violating U.S. sanctions and other counts stemming from his alleged ties to Deripaska, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his role at the FBI, McGonigal had been tasked with investigating Deripaska, whose own indictment on sanctions-violation charges was unsealed in September.

A second indictment, filed in Washington, accused McGonigal of hiding payments totaling $225,000 that he allegedly received from a New Jersey man employed decades ago by an Albanian intelligence agency. The indictment also accused him of acting to advance that person’s interests.

McGonigal’s alleged crimes may undercut Justice Department efforts to ramp up economic sanctions on wealthy Russians after last year’s invasion of Ukraine. The twin indictments are also a black eye for the FBI, alleging that one of its most senior and trusted intelligence officials accepted large sums of money and undermined the bureau’s overall intelligence-gathering mission.

McGonigal was arrested by agents from the bureau where he had worked for 22 years and where he rose to one of the most important counterespionage positions in the U.S. government. Given his former role, the investigation was run by FBI agents in Los Angeles and D.C. rather than in New York.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the case showed the FBI did its duty. “The way we maintain the trust and confidence of the American people is through our work — showing, when all the facts come out, that we stuck to the process and we treated everyone equally, even when it is one of our own,” Wray said in a statement. “We hold ourselves to the highest standard, and our focus will remain on our mission and on doing the right thing, in the right way, every time.”

Through his lawyer, Seth DuCharme, McGonigal pleaded not guilty to the New York charges at a brief court appearance Monday, where he was released on bond. DuCharme, a former Justice Department official who recently served as acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said outside the courthouse that he looks forward to reviewing the evidence, “but we have a lot of confidence in Mr. McGonigal.”

“As you all know, Charlie’s had a long distinguished career with the FBI. He served the United States for decades,” DuCharme said. “This is obviously a distressing day for Mr. McGonigal and his family.”

McGonigal is scheduled to appear via video link in federal court in D.C. on Wednesday. In that case, prosecutors alleged that from at least August 2017 — and continuing after his retirement from the FBI — McGonigal failed to disclose to the FBI his relationship with the former Albanian intelligence worker, described as “Person A” in charging papers. He also allegedly failed to disclose that he had an “ongoing relationship with the Prime Minister of Albania,” the indictment said. Since 2013, Edi Rama has served as the prime minister of that country.

In late 2017, authorities charge, McGonigal received sums of cash totaling $225,000 from Person A — the first time in a parked car outside a New York City restaurant, and the next two times at the person’s New Jersey home. According to the indictment, McGonigal “indicated to Person A that the money would be paid back.”

Months later, at McGonigal’s urging, the FBI opened an investigation into an American lobbyist for an Albanian political party that is a rival of Rama, an investigation that used Person A as a source of information, authorities said.

That was not the only instance in which the indictments suggest McGonigal used his job for the benefit of people with whom he had undisclosed financial or personal relationships.

On a 2017 trip to Austria, McGonigal and a Justice Department prosecutor interviewed an Albanian businessperson and politician who had previously told McGonigal that they wanted someone to investigate a death threat against them, according to the indictment in Washington. McGonigal had been introduced to that individual by Person A, the indictment charges.

The following year, McGonigal allegedly asked the FBI’s liaison to the United Nations to arrange a meeting with the then-U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, or another high ranking official, as well as a former Bosnian defense minister and founder of a Bosnian pharmaceutical company.

The indictment says McGonigal’s associates sought that meeting for political reasons that would have benefited Person A financially. At the time, the indictment charges, McGonigal suggested that the pharmaceutical company pay half a million dollars to a company registered to Person A, as a fee for arranging the meeting.

Current and former U.S. officials who know and have worked with McGonigal said they were shocked by the indictments. As a senior FBI counterintelligence official, McGonigal had access to an extraordinary amount of sensitive information, potentially including investigations of foreign spies or U.S. citizens suspected of working on behalf of foreign governments, these people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the work McGonigal did. One former official said McGonigal had worked with the CIA on counterintelligence matters.

According to the New York indictment, a law firm retained McGonigal to work as a consultant and investigator on the effort to get Deripaska removed from the sanctions list. He was listed as a consultant and arranged for $25,000 monthly payments to be sent to an account controlled by another person, an interpreter for the U.S. government who was a former Russian diplomat. The interpreter, Sergey Shestakov, was also charged.

McGonigal’s FBI role gave him access to classified information, including a then-secret list of Russian prospects for sanctioning by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Justice Department said. That list included Deripaska before the sanctions were actually imposed.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement that McGonigal and Shestakov “should have known better” given their experience in government service. Shestakov also pleaded not guilty.

U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves of D.C. called the alleged coverup of foreign contacts and financial relationships a “gateway to corruption,” and he credited the FBI with its handling of the “delicate and difficult” investigation of a former high-ranking official.

“McGonigal is alleged to have committed the very violations he swore to investigate while he purported to lead a workforce of FBI employees who spend their careers protecting secrets and holding foreign adversaries accountable,” said the FBI assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, Donald Alway, who announced the charges along with Graves and the leaders of the D.C. FBI office and the Justice Department National Security Division. Asked about the case Monday, Attorney General Merrick Garland declined to comment.

McGonigal faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on the two D.C. counts of falsification of records and documents, and up to five years in prison for each of seven counts of concealing material facts or making false statements. The most serious charge in the New York indictment carries a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison.

McGonigal joined the FBI in 1996, working in New York, Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland. Along the way, he was involved in some of the most sensitive and high-profile intelligence cases in the U.S. government, including the conviction of former national security adviser Samuel Berger for knowingly removing classified documents from the National Archives. In 2010, McGonigal was tapped to lead the task force probing the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The charges against McGonigal alarmed his former colleagues in part because of his depth of knowledge of so many elements of U.S. espionage. McGonigal was an expert on Russian intelligence activities targeting the United States, as well as U.S. efforts to recruit Russian spies, said several former intelligence officials who worked with him and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive matters.

His position at the New York field office would have given him direct access to past and current recruitment efforts, work that was coordinated with the CIA, these people said. McGonigal was well-known at the CIA among officers who dealt with Russia and counterintelligence matters, and he knew the details of some intelligence operations targeting Russia, former officials said.

McGonigal has not been charged with espionage, but the former officials who worked with him said his knowledge and experience would have put him at high risk of being recruited by a foreign government.

One former official noted that McGonigal was in charge of an investigation into why numerous individuals in China who were spying for the United States were arrested and taken out of commission. As part of that investigation, McGonigal would have known details about the covert systems that the CIA used to communicate with its agents, the former official said. Those systems are believed to have played a central role in exposing the agents to government authorities.

Deripaska has been a focus of FBI investigative work for many years. In 2021, agents searched two homes linked to him, one in D.C. and the other in New York. At the time, a spokeswoman for the aluminum tycoon said the properties were owned by his relatives.

The name of Deripaska, a politically connected billionaire, came up repeatedly in recent U.S. investigations involving Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Deripaska did business for years with Paul Manafort, whose tenure as Trump’s campaign chairman became an intense focus of FBI investigations.

Manafort and Deripaska have both confirmed that they had a business relationship in which Manafort was paid as an investment consultant. In 2014, Deripaska accused Manafort in a Cayman Islands court of taking nearly $19 million intended for investments without accounting for how they were used.

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