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"Russian pair in custody, accused of embezzlement"

The Washington Post

June 29, 1996

By Pamela Constable

The dashing Russian immigrant couple lived like prosperous jet-setters, renting a co-op in the Watergate complex and driving his-and-hers BMWs. He had once been a successful banker in Moscow, and she had movie-star looks, according to federal immigration officials.

But two days ago, agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, acting in cooperation with visiting federal prosecutors from the Russian Federation, knocked on the co-op door and arrested the pair, who were wanted for allegedly embezzling $8 million from the Russian Exchange Bank in Moscow.

Alexandre Konanykhine and his wife, Elena Gratcheva are now in custody in Virginia, charged with violating the conditions of their U.S. visas. Immigration authorities will seek to have them deported, and Russian prosecutors said they will be waiting at the airport in Moscow if they are sent back.

"This man is a prominent leech. Our banking industry was in its infancy, we had no complicated regulations, and he was able to take advantage of a chaotic situation," Alex Volevodz, the Russian prosecutor, said through an interpreter at an interview yesterday in the local INS office in Arlington.

Volevodz said he and his colleagues had been tracking the couple across Europe and the Caribbean since 1992, when Konanykhine, a director of the Russian Exchange Bank and a pioneer in establishing private commercial banking and stock trading in post-Soviet Russia, allegedly stole $8.1 million through "falsified financial transactions" from his own bank and fled the country.

This spring Russian authorities traced the couple to Washington, where they apparently had been living since entering the United States on temporary visas in 1994, and asked for INS help in catching them. Volevodz and another prosecutor arrived here two weeks ago and began working closely with INS officials, who carried out the arrests Thursday morning. "They seemed very glamorous, a couple of young jet-setters," said Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the INS, who participated in the arrests. "They were obviously disturbed to be found, but they said very little. I think they felt they were insulated here from the charges against them."

Russia has no extradition treaty with the United States, but INS agents said the pair had used a fake Russian subsidiary corporation to obtain U.S. travel documents and thus could be seized for violating U.S. immigration law. If they are deported and tried in Moscow, Volevodz said, they could face up to 15 years in prison and have all their property seized.

The cooperative arrangement between the INS and the Russian prosecutors was highly unusual, as was the use of a technicality in U.S. immigration law to seize someone wanted on criminal charges abroad. Minor visa violations by well-to-do immigrants are not high government priorities and do not often come to official attention.

Volevodz stressed repeatedly that without help from the INS, the fugitives would never have been caught. He said there was evidence that Konanykhine planned to carry out "other financial crimes" from his base in the United States. The sober-faced Russian prosecutor, 37, who had never been to the United States before this month, said he was somewhat amused that Konanykhine and his wife chose the Watergate, the scene of another famous crime, as their residence.

"It is a humorous coincidence, but these people were known to like luxurious surroundings," he said sternly. "I myself didn't like the Watergate. It has exclusive shops but cramped quarters, like a museum with a nice entrance and nothing inside." Volevodz said he was staying in a more modest hotel in the capital.

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Media About Alex

Washington Post:
Konanykhin, one of the first Russian millionaires after the fall of the commies, left in 1992 and was granted asylum here in 1999. He's built a very successful Web advertising business in New York City. He had been chosen "New York Businessman of the Year." "As such, you will be honored and presented with your award," NRCC chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said, at a "special ceremony" April 1. " President Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are our special invited guests.
CNN:
Alex Konanykhin controlled Russia's largest commercial bank in the 1990s
Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Konanykhin was a whiz-kid physics student who became a pioneering Russian capitalist in early 1990s, building a banking and investment empire valued at an estimated $300 million all by his mid-20s. He was a member of President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle.
The Baltimore Sun:
Business whiz kid.
WJLA TV / ABC:
Russian Bill Gates.
The Times:
By the time he was 25 he was one of the most important figures in post-Communist Russia. But in 1992, while on a business trip to Hungary, Alex Konanykhine was kidnapped.
The New York Times:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation notified Konanykhin that Russian organized crime figures had paid to have him killed.
CBS "60 Minutes":
Alex Konanykhin didn't only have KGB after him… He had the FBI, the Justice Department, even the CIA all on his case, as a favor to the Russians, part of a deal to allow the FBI to keep a bureau in Moscow.
Los Angeles Daily Journal:
Representing himself through much of the process, Konanykhin managed to convince an immigration judge of an alleged INS and KGB conspiracy and cover-up. Following the court's admonishment, the INS agreed to drop all charges and also pay $100,000..The judge also ordered an investigation of the Justice Department. In separate actions, Konanykhine subsequently won multimillion dollar libel judgments against two Russian newspapers. A $100 million lawsuit against the Justice Department is pending, alleging perjury, fraud, torture and witness tampering by U.S government officers on behalf of the Russian Mafia.
Profit Magazine:
Imagine you are a teenage physics genius who quickly amasses a $300 million empire of real estate and banking ventures, has dozens of cars, six hundred employees, several mansions and two hundred bodyguards—but you are nonetheless kidnapped by those you trusted, threatened with torture and death, and have your entire empire stolen from you one dark night in Budapest. You escape with your life by racing through Eastern-block countries and flying to New York on stashed-away passports—only to have the KGB and Russian Mafia hell-bent on your hide and the U.S. government jailing you and conspiring to serve you up into their clutches. All this before your 29th birthday. Sound like a Tom Clancy thriller? No. . . just a slice in the life of Alexander Konanykhine.