Fleecing an Oligarch (Guest blog by Leigh Sprague)

Leigh Sprague is a former lawyer sentenced on March 2014 to serve 50 months in Lompoc Prison Camp, a federal facility in California. Prior to his arrest, Leigh spent years working in Russia for various oligarchs.

In the oligarch's sprawling Moscow headquarters, I walk into my cell-like office and flip a switch. I squint into the sudden light, catching my reflection in the mirror at the rear behind my desk: my hair’s a mess and my pale skin has a pallid ghostly yellow glow. Disgust rises up in me. I quickly switch off the overhead light, and step into the room.  The door closes behind me with a muffled thump. A beam of weak, diffuse light shines through the window from an outside streetlamp, leaving the room in a dark shadow. Stumbling forward, I bang my thigh on the corner of a desk. I wince and sink down into a chair while flipping the lid of my laptop.

I grab the mouse and open my e-mails, holding my breath. The overtaxed computer begins to hum.  Several seconds later Outlook opens, revealing hundreds of unopened messages.  With a sinking heart, I scan the frantic subject lines, many written in capital letters.  I click on a random message.

“Leigh, what the hell is going on?  We need to talk IMMEDIATELY. Ollie [the oligarch] is making threats.  I don’t understand any of this.”

I scroll quickly through the remainder.  More of the same.  E-mails from the auditors, e-mails from the bank, e-mails from every minion in the joint, all with one basic message: What the hell did you do?

What the hell did I do? I ask myself.

Well, I stole $10 million from the oligarch, for starters. And went back for more. I had helped him set up a secret illegal account in an offshore jurisdiction that he needed for a transaction he was planning. He ended up paying for the transaction with other financing, but that money remained in the account. For the oligarch, it was pocket change. He just forgot about it. After a couple years had passed, I remembered about the money, how it was just sitting there, and decided to put it to good use. I set up some offshore companies and a bunch of wire transfers. Because the account had been set up in secret, there weren't the usual control mechanisms, and I had authority to direct the funds. A year later I went back for another $5 million. That time around, I was sloppy.

From the e-mails, I see that now they're onto me, although they don't yet know about the initial theft, just the botched second attempt. I think back on the years I've spent in the oligarch's employ, terrible, miserable years during which I helped him increase his fortune and launder the money he stole as the Soviet Union collapsed. I bore witness to business, Russian style, and I can't say that I liked it very much, the corruption, the brutality, the greed. I started out as an idealistic, honest minion in the oligarch's army, but over time became corrupted and corrupt. When I stole the money, I told myself that I was taking from a thief. I convinced myself that he deserved it. But that reasoning is faulty, I realize now. I spent the money on myself. It was greed, pure and simple.

I sit back, take a shuddering gasp, suddenly realizing that I’ve been holding my breath. Sweat pours down my forehead, into my eyes. My hands shake on the keyboard. My worst fears are now confirmed. But how did I get past the guard? Where is everybody? Is this a trap? Here I am in the heart of the oligarch's domain and no one seems to care. I jump from my desk, glance about my office. It is, to put it mildly, a mess. Incriminating documents are strewn everywhere. I’m one irresponsible thief. A strange thought flits through my mind: did I possibly want to be caught? Perish the thought. Now I want to escape. The fight-or-flight instinct kicks into overdrive. I grab piles of documents, and mash them into my briefcase.

At that moment, there is a loud knock at the door. I freeze with my hand in the air holding a fistful of documents. Another knock. My jaw drops: the whole door vibrates as if whoever is on the other side intends to knock it down. I wonder to myself whether, in my panic, I even locked the door. I run behind my desk, and crouch, like a burglar caught in the act, waiting for the door to open. I hold my breath, and wait. The silence is deafening, punctuated only by the frantic tick-tock of my heart. No more knocks. I slowly right myself and begin, once again, to gather documents.

Five minutes pass. I’m almost done. My bag bulges with documents. I scan the room one last time.  A ping of regret courses through me: I will never see this place again. To my surprise, I am sad. An ignominious end to my Russia experiment if there ever was one. But even this departure from the oligarch's grasping arms is better than no escape at all. Enough reminiscing for the moment. I’m not even close to home free. Back to the matter at hand. Have I managed to gather everything? Almost decidedly not, but some progress is better than none.

I walk toward the door. Another knock, even louder. I turn, preparing once again to hide, a trapped rat. I listen with horror as a key turns in the lock. My eyes are glued to the handle, which oh-so-slowly turns. There’s nowhere to run or hide. The door swings open. My mouth falls open. I straighten, as if this were any other evening in the office.

“Privet, Igor,” I say.

What comes next is a story for another blog entry. 

Shaun Attwood  

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