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Ex-FBI counterspy chief McGonigal pleads guilty in payment plot

The FBI’s former top spy hunter in New York, who last month pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions and launder funds for a Russian billionaire he once investigated, pleaded guilty Friday in a separate case charging him with hiding secret cash payments while overseeing highly sensitive cases.

Charles F. McGonigal, 55, pleaded guilty to one count of concealing material facts, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

Under a plea deal accepted by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington, both sides agreed that federal sentencing guidelines could range from zero to 27 months for McGonigal. Federal prosecutors agreed to drop all other pending charges: two counts of falsifying records or documents, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and six additional counts of concealing material facts or making false statements.

In signed plea papers and an in-court statement, McGonigal admitted to the substance of the facts and scheme alleged against him: that he concealed his receipt of payments and meetings with foreign officials to avoid questions about a conflict of interest between his private post-retirement business plans and his official duties as one of the FBI’s top leaders.

“I did not disclose these facts to the FBI because I knew that engaging in personal business development efforts while still working with the FBI was inappropriate, and could raise questions from the FBI that would interfere with my plan to set up my business before I left the government,” McGonigal told the court.

“I want to apologize to the FBI. This is not a situation I wanted to be in, or to put the FBI through,” he said.

As special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office from 2016 to 2018, McGonigal led counterintelligence and national security operations including investigations of Russian oligarchs, including Oleg Deripaska, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. McGonigal retired from the FBI in September 2018. He was indicted by federal authorities in January in two separate cases that shook the U.S. counterintelligence community, exposing the vulnerability to corruption of those who keep the nation’s sensitive government secrets.

McGonigal pleaded guilty last month in Manhattan to receiving $17,500 for secretly working for several months in 2021 on behalf of Deripaska to help get the billionaire removed from the U.S. sanctions list and to dig up dirt on a rival Russian oligarch. The 22-year FBI veteran admitted receiving what he knew were illegal payments from a Cyprus bank filtered through a New Jersey company for work as a consultant and investigator.

Deripaska was barred from doing business with U.S. entities after the Russia occupation of Crimea, but McGonigal negotiated for $25,000 monthly payments to be sent to an account controlled by Sergey Shestakov, an interpreter for the U.S. government who was a former Russian diplomat, according to his indictment. McGonigal pleaded guilty to one of four counts against him, a conspiracy charge punishable by up to five years in prison. Shestakov has pleaded not guilty and faces trial in June before U.S. District Judge Jennifer H. Rearden in Manhattan.

As an FBI agent, McGonigal had investigated Deripaska, whose own indictment on sanctions-violation charges was unsealed last September.

A second indictment, filed in Washington, accused McGonigal of hiding payments totaling $225,000 that he allegedly received from “Person A,” described in charging papers as a New Jersey man employed decades ago by an Albanian intelligence agency, and who The Post has reported is Agron Neza. The indictment also accused McGonigal of acting to advance Person A’s interests from at least August 2017 and continuing after his retirement from the FBI, while failing to disclose the relationship, as well as an “ongoing relationship with the Prime Minister of Albania,” Edi Rama.

According to the indictment, McGonigal received $225,000 in cash from Person A in late 2017.

Months later, the FBI at McGonigal’s urging opened an investigation into an American lobbyist for the main opposition political party to Rama in Albania, a probe that used Person A as a source of information, prosecutors alleged.

In a separate trip to Austria in 2017, McGonigal and a Justice Department prosecutor interviewed an Albanian politician to whom McGonigal had been introduced by Person A, and who wanted someone to investigate a death threat, the indictment charged.

The following year, McGonigal allegedly asked the FBI’s liaison to the United Nations to arrange a meeting with the then-U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, or another high-ranking official, as well as a former Bosnian defense minister and founder of a Bosnian pharmaceutical company. The indictment said the meeting would have benefited Person A, and at the time McGonigal suggested the pharmaceutical company pay half a million dollars to a company registered to Person A for arranging the meeting.

McGonigal admitted in a statement of offense to not disclosing the meetings with unnamed foreign official and nationals — who were named in a separate sealed filing — and to commingling personal and official FBI business. He acknowledged concealing that he traveled with Person A on four foreign trips the year before retiring and that his lodging was paid for by others. He also concealed receiving the $225,000, which he told the court was a loan from a prospective partner to start a security consulting business.

“The cautionary tale here is that realistically I think a lot of people in this town and elsewhere when they’re in government and thinking about leaving for the private sector, they wonder, ‘How could the skills and relationships that I’ve developed now serve me in private practice?’” McGonigal’s defense attorney Seth DuCharme said outside the courthouse after the hearing. “And the critically important thing, which Mr. McGonigal certainly recognizes now is that there needs to be a clear separation and a break.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Aloi said the government did not expect to seek forfeiture or restitution, and DuCharme said he would file under seal a classified submission of McGonigal’s contributions to the FBI.

One of the most senior FBI officials ever to be charged with a crime, McGonigal led major intelligence investigations, including into the 2010 release of classified State Department cables to WikiLeaks and the hunt for a suspected spy for China inside the CIA. He had access to an extraordinary amount of sensitive information, including investigations of foreign spies or U.S. citizens suspected of working on behalf of foreign governments, and foreigners whom the FBI and the CIA were recruiting to spy for the United States.

In his New York plea hearing, McGonigal said, “I understood what my actions have resulted in, and I am deeply remorseful for it.” Facing sentencing in that case Dec. 14, McGonigal said, “I appear before you in this court to take full responsibility as my actions never intended to hurt the United States, the FBI and my family and friends.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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