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Ex-FBI informant arrested in Las Vegas to remain behind bars

Updated February 26, 2024 - 4:14 pm

LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles federal judge ruled Monday that Alexander Smirnov will be kept in custody, reversing a previous decision from a Las Vegas judge and ordering the former FBI informant to remain behind bars pending trial on charges of lying to officials.

Alexander Smirnov, a 43-year-old dual U.S. and Israeli citizen, is accused of falsely reporting to the FBI that executives with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, $5 million each in an alleged bribery scheme, a claim that has become central to a Republican impeachment inquiry in Congress.

“I have not changed my mind,” U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II said before ruling to keep Smirnov in custody.

Smirnov is charged with making a false statement to federal agents and creating a false and fictitious record.

Flight risk alleged

During the detention hearing, which lasted less than an hour, prosecutors said that Smirnov was a flight risk with ties to Russian foreign intelligence and that he had a history of making false statements to the FBI. Smirnov’s Las Vegas defense attorney, David Chesnoff, argued that Smirnov should be released in order to help with his defense.

“While disappointed with the result, Mr. Smirnov appreciates that he had a hearing, and we intend on seeking relief in the 9th Circuit,” Chesnoff said immediately following the hearing.

On Sunday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied an attempt to stop Monday’s detention hearing from taking place. The court denied a petition filed by Chesnoff and defense attorney Richard Schonfeld after Smirnov was arrested on a warrant out of California.

Smirnov’s defense attorney on Monday pointed to other high-profile cases in which the defendant was allowed to remain out of custody while awaiting trial, even going as far as to offer to hire private security to keep watch on Smirnov’s whereabouts. But unlike U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Albregts’ ruling in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles federal judge said he was not convinced that any measures would be enough to ensure Smirnov’s further court appearances.

“There is nothing garden-variety about this case,” Wright said during Monday’s hearing.

‘Catch-22’ argued

Chesnoff also argued that because Smirnov had contacts with foreign agents as part of his work with the U.S. government, accusing him of wrongdoing simply because of those contacts amounted to a “Catch-22.”

Federal prosecutor Leo Wise told the judge that when Smirnov was initially arrested, he lied about having access to nearly $6 million, which Wise characterized as Smirnov’s personal money. Defense attorneys have claimed that Smirnov was interviewed without an interpreter following his first arrest, and did not know to report “business” accounts.

Wise also said that Smirnov reported his most recent “misinformation story” when interviewed by investigators in September, which Smirnov “admits was from Russian intelligence.” Smirnov falsely claimed he had knowledge of a recording of Hunter Biden in a hotel in Kiev, Ukraine, Wise argued Monday.

“According to Smirnov, the Russians want Ukraine to assist in influencing the U.S. election, and Smirnov thinks the tapes of (Hunter Biden) at the Premier Palace Hotel is all they have,” prosecutors wrote in court documents. “Smirnov told investigators he wants them to ask (Hunter Biden) how many times he visited and what he did while at the Premier Palace Hotel.”

Prosecutors wrote that Smirnov’s story was false because Hunter Biden had never visited Ukraine, and that the interview shows that “Smirnov’s efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States continues,” court records show.

Released, rearrested

Smirnov was arrested for a second time at his attorneys’ office in Las Vegas on Thursday morning, less than 48 hours after he was released from custody by the Las Vegas federal judge.

Wise argued Monday that authorities waited to arrest Smirnov at his attorneys’ office because Smirnov had access to nine firearms, including an “assault-style” weapon, at his Las Vegas home.

Smirnov has lived in Las Vegas for the past two years and spent about 16 years in California prior to that, his defense attorneys have said. His significant other, identified in court records by Smirnov’s defense as Diana Lavrenyuk, owns a $980,000 unit in the One Turnberry Place luxury condominium complex overlooking the Las Vegas Strip near Paradise Road and Elvis Presley Boulevard, according to property records.

Lavrenyuk attended Monday’s hearing and left the federal courthouse accompanied by Smirnov’s attorneys, wearing a face mask, sunglasses and a scarf over her blond hair. She did not speak with reporters outside the courthouse.

In a court order filed Friday, Wright wrote that Smirnov sought an emergency hearing in Nevada to secure his release from custody, “likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States.”

Chesnoff and Schonfeld wrote in court documents filed Friday, “The suggestion that defense counsel is participating in an unlawful plot by advocating for release … is wrong.”

Decade as FBI informant

Prosecutors have said that Smirnov worked as an FBI informant for at least 10 years. He is accused of making false allegations to his FBI handler in 2020, after expressing bias against Joe Biden while he was the presumed Democrat presidential candidate.

Smirnov falsely claimed that “in 2015 and/or 2016,” Burisma executives told him that the company hired Hunter Biden to “protect us, through his dad, from all kinds of problems,” prosecutors wrote in court documents.

In reality, prosecutors wrote in court documents, Smirnov had contact with Burisma executives in 2017, after the Obama-Biden administration, in what was characterized as “routine and unextraordinary business contacts.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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