On April 25, 2023, the US Department of Justice announced that New York attorney Robert Wise pleaded guilty in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York for his role in a scheme to pay $3.8 million to maintain US-based properties owned by sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. The DOJ reports that the guilty plea was entered as part of a plea agreement reached between Wise and federal prosecutors, in which he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit international money laundering and agreed to forfeit more than $3.7 million – an amount that prosecutors agreed could be satisfied by a payment of $210,441. Wise is currently scheduled to be sentenced on November 6, 2023.
According the criminal information, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) designated Vekselberg, in 2018, as a Special Designated National (“SDN”) in connection with certain actions taken by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. In March 2022, Vekselberg was redesignated as a SDN by OFAC following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2022, OFAC also blocked Vekselberg’s yacht and private airplane. The information also alleges that Wise, who was initially retained by Vekselberg’s longtime friend and associate Vladimir Voronchenko, was hired to assist with Vekselberg’s acquisition of six real properties located in New York and Florida, collectively worth approximately $75 million. Wise is accused of willingly and knowing paying $3.8 million to maintain these six properties from his interest on lawyer’s trust account (aka “IOLTA Account”) – payments that were funded between 2009 and 2018 by shell companies owned by Vekselberg and thereafter by a shell company controlled by Voronchenko from a Russian bank account held by one of Voronchenko’s relatives. Following Vekselberg’s designations, Voronchenko and Wise also allegedly attempted to sell two of Vekselberg’s six properties and continued to make payments to maintain the properties without disclosing or seeking OFAC’s approval.
On February 7, 2023, federal prosecutors filed a five-count indictment against Voronchenko, a citizen of Russia and legal permanent resident of the US, for his involvement in a scheme to make payments to maintain four of Vekselberg’s US properties and his attempts to sell the two properties. The DOJ reports that Voronchenko is a fugitive after he reportedly took flights to Dubai and then to Moscow after he was served, in May 2022, with a Grand Jury subpoena in Florida.
On February 24, 2023, federal prosecutors marked the one-year anniversary of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by filing a civil forfeiture complaint against Vekselberg’s six US properties.
DOJ Press Release | DOJ Press Release – February 24, 2023 | DOJ Press Release – February 7, 2023 | Superseding Information – Wise | Consent Preliminary Order of Forfeiture/Money Judgment – Wise | Indictment – Voronchenko