The former head of FBI counterintelligence in New York has been charged with taking secret payments from sanctioned Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, after spending years investigating the oligarch while working at the agency.
Charles McGonigal, who had been the special agent in charge of the FBI’s counterintelligence division in New York before he retired in 2018, allegedly worked to have Mr Deripaska’s sanctions lifted in 2019 and accepted money in exchange for investigating a rival oligarch.
Mr Deripaska, a metals and oil magnate once described as one of President Vladimir Putin’s most loyal associates, was added to the US Treasury’s sanctions list in 2018 for involvement in Russia’s energy sector amid Moscow’s ongoing threats to Ukraine.
He is still believed to own property in London, and previously enjoyed connections with the British political elite.
He was embroiled in a row in 2008 that was dubbed Yachtgate, after meetings with Lord Mandelson, who at the time was a senior Labour figure and EU trade commissioner, and George Osborne, then opposition Conservative Party’s chief spokesman for finance. The pair were accused of attempting to solicit party donations from the billionaire, but vigorously denied the claims.
The indictment, unsealed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday, charges Mr McGonigal, 54, with one count of violating US sanctions, one count of money laundering and two conspiracy counts. He was arrested at JFK airport on Saturday after returning from a trip to Sri Lanka.
After leaving the FBI, Mr McGonigal began working for Mr Deripaska through a law firm representing the tycoon.
He made at least $25,000 as an “investigator” for the law firm, according to the indictment. Mr McGonigal then worked directly for Mr Deripaska, getting an initial payment of $51,000 and then payments of $41,790 each month for three months from August 2021 to November 2021 through shell companies.
In communication, he did not refer to Mr Deripaska by name but rather used labels such as “the individual” and “our friend from Vienna”.
He told friends only that he was working for “a rich Russian guy” but said it was “legal”, according to the court filing.
Mr McGonigal supervised and led investigations of Russian oligarchs, including Mr Deripaska, during his long service at the agency.
He was required to report to the FBI contacts with foreign officials, but prosecutors allege that he hid that from his employer as he pursued business and foreign travel that created a conflict of interest with his law-enforcement duties.
Mr McGonigal is one of the highest-ranking former FBI officials ever to be criminally charged.
The case has shaken the intelligence community, with former colleagues saying he was primarily investigating Russian counterintelligence and espionage during his lengthy career with the FBI.
The 55-year-old Mr Deripaska, believed to own property in London, is worth $1.7 billion, according to Forbes’ Billionaires List, though he was worth nearly $7 billion in 2018 at the time he was sanctioned.
He had various properties seized by the Kremlin after criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Deripaska said in March that peace was needed “as soon as possible” and in June stressed that “destroying Ukraine would be a colossal mistake”, the Financial Times reported.
Mr Deripaska was sanctioned by the British Government over the invasion in March 2022.
Lawyers for Mr McGonigal did not respond to a request for comment.