Russian and $7.2 million disappear Moscow bankers hire Baltimore lawyers to search for money

March 29, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Clara Germani contributed to this article.

Former Soviet submarine Lt. Igor Fyodorov came to Maryland six years ago and learned the basics of capitalism. Once he made a bundle exporting children's swimming pools back to Russia, a country in need of nearly everything America has to offer.

Then he learned something more intricate: how to vanish after purportedly absconding with $7.2 million from a Moscow bank in a shadowy business deal.

Now a prominent Baltimore law firm is searching for the money in a Swiss bank and Fyodorov is being hunted by mysterious Russian men who have been calling his former associates in the middle of the night, asking questions no one seems able to answer.

"This guy called me at 11 o'clock one night and said, 'There's a $200,000 reward for Fyodorov, and if you help me find him I'll split it with you,' " said Kurt Jakobson, a Baltimore accountant who used to do Fyodorov's taxes. "I've gotten a lot of calls. Frankly, I don't know if they're private detectives or Russian henchmen."

Says another of Fyodorov's old friends, Aleksander Sirota of Rockville: "Fyodorov called me a month ago and said he was someplace in Central America. I felt like he wanted to tell me something, but he said it was a long story, too long to tell."

The law -- either in the United States or in his native Russia -- may be the least of Fyodorov's worries. Russian banks are in their infancy under the new capitalist market, but most have their own security forces, often employing former KGB agents, according to international banking experts.

And curiously, U.S. law enforcement officials say they haven't been contacted by Russian authorities or Mosbusinessbank, the Moscow financial institution that filed papers in U.S. District Court in Baltimore claiming that it was defrauded by Fyodorov. The bank hasn't sought official police assistance, at least not publicly.

"According to the Russian Federation legislation, we do not have the right to disclose confidential information," Giorgy M. Kolesnitsky, an aide to the Mosbusinessbank deputy board chairman, said in a Moscow interview.

But a federal lawsuit filed earlier this week spells out the bank's relationship with Fyodorov, who convinced bank officials last June to wire $7.2 million to a Cayman Islands bank account that he controlled. Mosbusinessbank, one of Russia's largest private banks, hired the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard to file the suit in an attempt to freeze money Fyodorov transferred to a Zurich bank last summer.

Fyodorov's Baltimore-based company, Edge Investment Group Inc., made a deal in April 1996 with Russia's National Reserve Bank to swap Russian government bonds for hard currency, the lawsuit said. As part of that agreement, Mosbusinessbank "agreed to provide to Edge an on-demand loan facility whereby Mosbusinessbank would lend up to $7.25 million to Edge," the lawsuit said.

The money from the loan was an advance that would enable Fyodorov's company to purchase the Russian bonds so that Edge "could fulfill its obligations under the swap agreement," the lawsuit said.

Cayman Islands connection

On June 6, Mosbusinessbank wired $7,228,750 to a Fyodorov-controlled account at EuroBank in the Cayman Islands. But instead of using the money to buy government bonds as agreed, Fyodorov later transferred nearly the entire amount to the Bank von Ernst et Cie in Zurich, the lawsuit said.

The bank "has made several demands upon Edge for repayment. Despite these demands, Edge has not paid or accounted for any of the principal or interest, court papers said.

It is unclear whether the money is still in the Swiss account. Another mystery is what happened to Fyodorov, who closed his Baltimore business and left no word with friends about where he was going. His accountant drove him to Pennsylvania Station to catch a train last April and says he never saw him again.

Another oddity is the fact that the bank transferred the money to a Cayman Islands bank account. In recent years, many of the unregulated banks in that Caribbean nation have been the target of Russian organized-crime groups looking to launder money looted from the former Soviet Union.

A spokesman for Venable, Baetjer & Howard refused to answer questions. But one banking expert says Russian bank swindles are not surprising, given the state of turmoil that the Russian economy and its banking system have been in since converting to a market-driven economy.

"The Russian bankers are becoming more sophisticated, but there are still a lot of scams going on," said Juliet Johnson, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago who is an expert on the Russian banking system.

"Most of the banks are looking for quick ways to make money and sometimes they tend to be pretty cocky," Johnson said. "They think they understand all the ways they can be ripped off, but they don't."

Bank security officers often come from the ranks of the former Soviet secret police, she said, adding, "It's not a good idea to mess around with them."

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