BY JOHN SOLOMON
The Obama administration awarded a visa allowing a top Russian nuclear executive to enter the United States after the FBI had already gathered substantial evidence he was involved in a racketeering scheme involving bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering, court records show.
The records show TENEX executive Vadim Mikerin was engaged in illegal conduct as early as the fall of 2009, yet he was allowed to enter the country by the Obama administration with a L1 temporary work visa when he arrived in December 2011.
Milkerin’s visa was renewed in August 2014, just months before he was arrested and charged with extortion, the records show. He and his company applied for the visa in summer 2011, records show.
The lengthy delay is now being investigated by multiple GOP-led congressional committees, one of which sent a letter Tuesday to the State Department and Homeland Security Department demanding answers.“It is concerning that a suspected criminal was able to apply for and renew a work visa while being under FBI investigation,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in the letter.
Officials for the FBI, State and Homeland did not return calls and emails seeking an explanation why Mikerin was granted a visa after the FBI already had evidence he was engaged in wrongdoing.
Officials familiar with law enforcement issues involving visas said it was possible the FBI evidence on Mikerin was not flagged in databases checked by State and Homeland before Mikerin was granted entry.
They added another possibility was that the FBI asked the agencies to allow Mikerin to enter the country so they could monitor his activities as part of a larger counterintelligence operation and detect other possible conspirators.
The adequacy of visa safeguards was raised anew Tuesday by Homeland Security’s own internal watchdog, who said there were several “shortfalls” in the screening of applicants for H1-B visas, a similar temporary worker program as L1.
The government safeguards “provide minimal assurance that H-1B visa participants are compliant and not engaged in fraudulent activity,” the inspector general warmed.
The five-year delay between the time when the FBI first detected illegal conduct by Mikerin in 2009 and when the Justice Department finally brought charges in 2014 has garnered new attention in recent weeks after The Hill reported details on the bribery case.
During the five-year delay, the Obama administration approved the controversial sale of uranium assets to Mikerin’s parent company Rosatom, and also allowed billions in new contracts to be signed between TENEX and American utilities. Republican lawmakers now want to know whether the criminal scheme should have been grounds to oppose those deals.
An L1 visa permits a temporary transfer of a foreign company’s manager to the United States because the visa holder is deemed to have unique skills.
Mikerin was a director of TENEX in Russia, and was dispatched to the United States to help the Russian nuclear giant set up and run a new American subsidiary called TENAM designed to win new commercial business with American utilities, court records show.
The long delay in charges also left another party incredulous: Mikerin’s own legal team, records show.
In a court motion in 2015, Mikerin’s defense team argued the five-year “pre-indictment delay” should be grounds for dismissing the charges against the executive of the Russian nuclear firm TENEX. They noted that their client during the ensuing years was allowed to legally enter the country and a potential defense witness died of cancer before he could be cross-examined by defense lawyers.
“In 2009, the government began an investigation into the alleged criminal activity set forth in the indictment, and the last overt act of the alleged conspiracy occurred in January 2012,” the defense lawyers wrote. “Despite this, and despite knowing in early-2011 that an alleged co-conspirator and key defense witness was terminally ill, the government delayed seizing key evidence — which was then destroyed — and delayed bringing the Indictment until the end of 2014.
“Over the course of the five year investigation, with a paid informant as a member of the investigative team the entire time, the government made just two brief video recordings of interactions between Mr. Mikerin and the informant and just one audio recording of conversations between the two. This remarkable lack of evidence makes the Government’s delay and the consequences thereof all the more prejudicial,” it added.
“Mr. Mikerin renewed his L1 Visa in August 2014, and initiated the process of obtaining lawful permanent residence shortly thereafter,” his lawyers told the court, arguing he had built a respected network of friends and business associates on U.S. soil.
The court was ultimately not persuaded to dismiss the case, and Mikerin eventually pled guilty to a money laundering charge for a racketeering scheme that prosecutors said stretched from 2004 to 2014 and included bribery payments to the heads of an American trucking company that moved sensitive uranium around the country.
When Mikerin was sentenced to four years in prison in December 2015, a federal prosecutor argued the defendant should not be shown more leniency because the evidence the FBI had gathered showed a sensitive asset, a uranium shipping company, had been compromised by the bribery-kickback scheme.
“Why is a Russian official coming to the U.S., soliciting bribes from companies working in these sensitive areas?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ephraim Wernick was quoted in a media report as asking during the sentencing hearing.
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