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Justice Dept Probing Russian Influence Buying

The Justice Department is investigating "what officials suspect are efforts by Russian-backed firms to gain influence or gather information in Washington," the Wall Street Journalreports today.

The piece reveals a number of new details about the investigation of ex-Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), whose former aide pleaded guilty to accepting corrupt payments from a Russian non-profit. But there is nothing else in the piece about this broader probe or who else might be of interest to investigators. One possibility involves lobbyist Jack Abramoff's longterm dealings with Russian oil company executives, who also had ties to Weldon.

Not that the Weldon case isn't sensational enough on its own. The Journal reports Russell Caso, Weldon's former aide, accepted payments via his wife from the International Exchange Group, a Russian arms-control group. The group, which employed the Russian army's current chief of staff and the head of the Federal Security Service (the successor of the KGB), paid his wife $19,000 for $1,500 worth of editing work, according to Caso's plea. Weldon and Caso energetically boosted the group's cause, mainly obtaining U.S. money for non-proliferation programs. 

And while Weldon touted the International Exchange Group's ties to the Kremlin, he was also involved with a Russian company with alleged associations of a very different kind. Citing "U.S. law enforcement officials," the Journal reports that Itera International Energy LLC has "longstanding connections to alleged Russian organized-crime figures." 

The Journal also reported in December of 2006 that the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section was conducting an international investigation that focused on the involvement of Semion Mogilevich, considered one of Russia's top organized crime figures, in an obscure company that had played a role in several multibillion-dollar gas deals, including deals involving Itera. (Mogilevich was indicted in Philadelphia in 2002 for an unrelated scheme and is one of the FBI's most-wanted men, but neither he nor any executives from Itera have been charged.)

And Weldon was also an enthusiastic emissary for Itera, a natural gas company that just happened to hire Weldon's 29 year-old daughter at a $500,000 a year tab to "create good public relations." Weldon lost re-election in 2006 after the FBI raided his daughter's home and office, among other locations.

Whether this bewildering array of Russian big business, organized crime and national security officials fits together in Weldon's case isn't clear. But the Journal notes that Attorney General Michael Mukasey has recently expressed  "grave concern" about "so-called 'iron triangles' of corrupt business leaders, corrupt government officials and organized criminals."

Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to giving bribes, lobbied on behalf of Russian oil firm Naftasib, a major supplier to the Russian military. The company's chief executives, Marina Nevskaya and Alexander Koulakovsky, reportedly funneled more than $2 million in fees to Abramoff from 1997 to 2004, in addition to $1 million channeled to a non-profit used as a front group by a former close aide to ex-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX). That $1 million payment in 1998, the non-profit's director told the Washington Post, was made to influence DeLay's vote on a key vote concerning Russia. Federal investigators have issued subpoenas seeking further information about Abramoff's and DeLay's ties to Naftasib.

The Naftasib executives were apparently eager to win influence with DeLay. An anonymous "former Abramoff associate" told the Post that Koulakovsky asked during a dinner in Moscow "'what would happen if the DeLays woke up one morning' and found a luxury car in their front driveway."

Koulakovsky was also known to Weldon, enough for Weldon to insert a "Tribute to Alexander Koulakovsky" in the Congressional Record in 1999. As one might expect when foreign intelligence services and organized crime is involved, there's plenty unclear about these Russian dealings with U.S. lawmakers and lobbyists --  and plenty unclear about just what the Justice Department is probing.

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