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How clean is the dirt on Hunter Biden? A key Republican source is charged with lying to the FBI

Mar 2, 2024, 5:33 AM

FILE - Alexander Smirnov, second from right, leaves the courthouse on Feb. 20, 2024, in Las Vegas. ...

FILE - Alexander Smirnov, second from right, leaves the courthouse on Feb. 20, 2024, in Las Vegas. The FBI informant who was once held up by Republicans as a credible source of information about Hunter Biden now finds himself charged with lying to federal authorities. Smirnov is accused of fabricating a tale of bribery and espionage involving the then-vice president and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and has claimed to have ties to Russian intelligence operatives. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Alexander Smirnov was cast by Republicans as one of the FBI’s most trusted informants, offering a “highly credible” account of brazen public corruption by Joe Biden that formed a pillar of the House impeachment investigation of the Democratic president.

Then, last month, the script changed dramatically.

charged with lying to the FBI, accused of fabricating a tale of bribery and espionage involving then-Vice President Biden and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, and he has told officials he has Russian intelligence contacts.

It’s muddied the GOP inquiry plenty.

Interviews and a review of public records by The Associated Press suggest this was not likely Smirnov’s first turn in what the government says is a cycle as a fabulist.

They offer a portrait of a businessman who operated a string of murky shell companies, ran with others who have been accused of fraud, and boasted of his own ties to the FBI. The episode highlights not only the perils of the Republicans’ reliance on unverified information in their quest to confront Biden but also the risks inherent in the FBI’s use of sometimes-unreliable informants who may have ulterior motives.

“How come in all of the universe nobody in America figured out for years that this guy is a fraud and a liar? How did this (expletive) make its way to Congress?” said Yossi Attia, a Los Angeles businessman who has interacted with Smirnov and once ran a penny stock company in which Smirnov held a substantial stake.

Republicans leading the impeachment inquiry have dismissed the fabrication allegations against Smirnov as irrelevant to their investigation and are raising doubts about the FBI’s credibility. The FBI, for its part, has never publicly called the informant’s information verified or complete.

“The trust level that I have with the FBI is zero,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said in a Fox News interview this past week.

Smirnov’s lawyers did not address questions about their client’s past business dealings.

“Mr. Smirnoff is charged with making a false statement to federal officials. All of these inquiries into his prior business dealings only deflect from the important question of the accuracy of his prosecution,” attorneys David Z. Chesnoff and Richard A. Schonfeld said in a statement.

A MURKY PAST

Little is known publicly about Smirnov other than allegations in the government’s case, court records, corporate financial disclosures and business filings.

A dual Israeli and U.S. citizen, Smirnov moved to the United States in 2006, traveling in Los Angeles’ Eastern European expatriate circles for more than a decade while providing information to the FBI. It wasn’t immediately clear what investigations Smirnov may have contributed to, though he worked with an FBI handler based in Seattle and the indictment suggests he provided reporting related to “ROC” — a likely reference to Russian organized crime.

A short biography included in a corporate financial document from 2011 describes Smirnov as a veteran businessman “fluent in Russian, English, Hebrew and Arabic” who once was president of a “private mineral and logistic operation, with assets in Russia.”

Even as Smirnov was being paid as a government informant, he participated in duplicitous business schemes, according to court records and interviews.

One example is his investment in an obscure penny-stock company called Eco-Trade Corp.

Such companies can yield a handsome return on a minimal investment. They are lightly regulated and often subject to financial scams and market manipulation.

In 2010, Smirnov purchased a stake in Eco-Trade valued at roughly $3 million as the company was on the verge of launching an advertising blitz that dramatically inflated its value. A crash three years later saddled investors with losses.

Eco-Trade had existed on paper for years under a variety of names and purported business aims, with control of the company changing hands repeatedly until it landed with some associates of Smirnov, according to interviews, court records and Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It was sued multiple times for securities fraud, leading to at least one settlement.

The company’s fortunes began to rise in 2010 after William Lieberman, who was later convicted in a separate penny stock fraud scheme, became president. Smirnov was appointed chairman of the company’s board, but ultimately declined to take the position, SEC filings show.

Soon the company was issuing news releases promoting new financial commitments, ongoing negotiations for oil and gas rights and the prospect of riches to be made in the Bakken oil fields of Montana.

The stock caught fire online and share prices soared to more than 70 cents, even as analysts warned about the company’s dodgy past. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority suspended trading of shares for several weeks in the spring of 2013. Then the stock’s price plummeted and the company went dormant.

It’s unclear from SEC filings how much Smirnov may have made. He has not been not accused by authorities of wrongdoing in connection with that company.

Court records indicate it wasn’t his only stock scheme.

SIX-FIGURE INVESTMENT, FAKE STOCK

In 2016, Tigran Sarkisyan and Hripsime Khachtryan sued Smirnov, claiming he pitched them on a company called Grand Pacaraima Gold Corp. It was only after paying him $100,000 that the two discovered the stock certificates Smirnov provided were fake, according to the complaint. When they approached him about it, Smirnov told them he was working with authorities on a fraud investigation that did not involve them and he “continued to make excuses and lie” about their investment, the complaint said.

The suit was dismissed in 2018 when Sarkisyan and Khachatryan failed to show up for a court date because they were incarcerated. The two been sentenced to prison for racketeering weeks earlier in a far-reaching case against dozens of defendants that included allegations of fraud, money laundering and murder-for-hire, court records show.

Another acquaintance, Dmitry Fomichev, sued Smirnov in 2013, claiming Smirnov failed to repay a $500,000 loan. Court records state Smirnov boasted of his connections with the FBI and said he could help Fomichev “resolve certain matters then being investigated by several agencies of the federal government” in exchange for the loan.

Several months later, Fomichev was indicted on tax and immigration charges and sentenced to probation. A Los Angeles judge ruled in Fomichev’s favor in the civil case, though, issuing a nearly $600,000 judgement against Smirnov.

Business disclosures reveal Smirnov also served as president of a company called GV Global Communications, which was founded by Avady and Galina Vaynter, a penny-stock power couple who have often found themselves at the center of litigation with investors and former business partners.

In one case settled last year, according to records, the Vaynters accepted a $250,000 judgment against them after the disappearance of 619,000 share certificates for a company they controlled, which were owed to one of their investors. The Vaynters accused a business partner of stealing the certificates from their home, though their daughter filed a police report in 2016 that stated the shares were inside a pink briefcase that was lost near a Los Angeles community college, court records show.

In an interview, Galina Vaynter acknowledged Smirnov had a role in GV Global Partners, but insisted it was only on paper and lasted for a month at most. She adamantly denied any wrongdoing in connection with past business dealings.

“All of the allegations are not true,” Vaynter said, adding, “I can state right now in front of God and any authorities — anybody — and prove myself. No one can point any finger on us.”

Court documents filed in Smirnov’s current criminal case read like a spy novel, portraying him as a jet-setting global traveler who took meetings with mysterious foreign figures and stashed $6 million across numerous accounts.

Prosecutors also have emphasized Smirnov’s preoccupation with keeping his accumulated wealth out of his own name, noting how he would withdraw large sums and use it to purchase cashier’s checks to give to his longtime girlfriend. After moving to Las Vegas in 2022, he gave her money to purchase a $1 million condo just off Elvis Presley Boulevard that is owned under her name, records show.

Smirnov told his FBI handler in 2017 that the Biden family name surfaced during a business call he had with a representative for Burisma, where Biden’s son Hunter served on the company’s board.

But after Donald Trump and his allies, including Rudy Giuliani, acting as a Trump lawyer, began to peddle unsupported corruption claims involving the Bidens and Ukraine before the 2020 presidential election, Smirnov’s story grew more elaborate.

‘I’LL TRY TO PROVE IT FOR YOU BRO’

“It’s all over the news in Russia and Ukraine” Smirnov texted his handler in May 2020. In another text at the time, he said, “I’ll try to prove it for you bro.”

He later said a Burisma official told him during the waning days of the Obama administration that Joe and Hunter Biden had each accepted $5 million bribes in exchange for a promise to alter U.S. policy in Burisma’s favor. Smirnov claimed recordings existed of a Burisma official being “forced” to pay.

Investigators determined that Smirnov had not, in fact, spoken with a Burisma official until after Trump was president and that their conversation was about a cryptocurrency venture Smirnov and an associate were promoting.

During a September 2023 conversation with investigators, Smirnov claimed the Russians likely had recordings of Hunter Biden because a hotel in Ukraine’s capital where he had stayed was “wired” and under their control — information he said was passed along to him by four high-level Russian officials.

But Hunter Biden has never traveled to Ukraine, according to the indictment against Smirnov.

Congressional Republicans repeatedly promoted the credibility of the information provided by Smirnov, whose identity they say was unknown to them. Even after Smirnov was charged, lawmakers said they were simply relying on what they claim they were told by the FBI. Comer, chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, recently asserted that FBI Director Christopher Wray had said Smirnov was “one of the most trusted and highest paid” informants in the bureau.

The FBI, however, communicated a different message in correspondence with Congress over the past year, repeatedly cautioning lawmakers that information from the source should not be treated as authenticated. In a letter to Comer last spring, the FBI congressional affairs chief wrote that “information from confidential human sources is unverified and, by definition, incomplete.”

That didn’t stop Republicans from running with it in their Biden investigation.

Members of Comer’s committee were permitted to view a redacted copy of an FBI form summarizing Smirnov’s account, a concession in the face of a Republican threat to hold Wray in contempt. A full version was later released by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

During a hearing with Wray in December, three months after the FBI said Smirnov had been reinterviewed, Grassley attested to the witness’s purported credibility. But the FBI director did not endorse any of the senator’s characterizations or discuss the ongoing investigation.

Steve Laycock, a former FBI executive assistant director of the bureau’s intelligence branch who oversaw management of its confidential human source program, said informants can be vital for investigations because they offer “placement and access” that agents might not otherwise have on their own.

But, he said, it is imperative on an informant’s handler to ask probing questions of an informant and to vet information through other sources.

“We’re in a society now of disinformation and misinformation. You’ve really got to be watching and on the watch when information comes in and validating and verifying it,” he said.

___

McCartney reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Amy Taxin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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