New York Lawyer Pleads Guilty to Laundering Money for Sanctioned Russian Oligarch

Published: 27 April 2023

money-laundering glasses DollarA New York attorney pleaded guilty to helping a sanctioned Russian oligarch hide his assets and launder his money through the U.S. real estate market. (Photo: Nick Youngson, Pix4free, License)

By Henry Pope

A New York lawyer pleaded guilty Tuesday to his role in a multi-million dollar money laundering scheme, engineered to benefit his client, a sanctioned Russian oligarch.

In another case where Russia’s elite have been caught trying to hide their assets throughout the West, attorney Robert Wise of New York conspired to launder several properties owned by Viktor Vekselberg, a sanctioned oligarch, in a scheme that netted Wise approximately US$3.8 million.

Vekselberg was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in April 2018. In the decade prior to his blacklisting, he acquired six real estate properties through a series of shell companies, with Wise providing his legal services to help acquire and manage them, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said.

The properties include: two apartments on New York’s Park Avenue; a nine-bedroom, 11-bathroom estate in Southampton; as well as two apartments and a penthouse suite in Florida. Together, they are worth an estimated $75 million.

Wise further aided Vekselberg by managing necessary payments such as property taxes, insurance premiums, and other associated fees.

A civil forfeiture complaint was filed against the properties on Feb. 24.

In order to illicitly purchase these properties, shell companies owned by the oligarch made roughly 90 wire transfers totaling approximately $18.5 million to Wise’s interest on lawyer’s trust account (IOLTA account).

Following Vekselberg’s blacklisting, however, the sources behind the funds were changed. Amongst them was to a bank account in the Bahamas, held in the name of a shell company called ‘Smile Holding Ltd.’.

The shell company itself was owned by his associate, Vladimir Voronchenko, who was charged by the U.S. for money laundering and sanction evasion last month.

But despite the change in the source of the payments, their flow through Wise’s IOLTA account remained constant, an act which allowed the attorney to pocket himself almost $4 million.

Wise also conspired to sell off the Park Avenue and Southampton estates in 2018, following Vekselberg’s blacklisting, without alerting the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as to who stood to benefit from the properties’ sale, the DOJ said.

Wise’s guilty plea to conspiring to commit international money laundering could see him serve a maximum of five years in prison. He also agreed to forfeit more than $3.7 million.

Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 6 later this year.