On Aug. 3 of last year, just as the US presidential election was entering its final, heated phase, the Russian foreign ministry sent nearly $30,000 to its embassy in Washington. The wire transfer, which came from a Kremlin-backed Russian bank, landed in one of the embassy’s Citibank accounts and contained a remarkable memo line: “to finance election campaign of 2016.”
That wire transfer is one of more than 60 now being scrutinized by the FBI and other federal agencies investigating Russian involvement in the US election. The transactions, which moved through Citibank accounts and totaled more than $380,000, each came from the Russian foreign ministry and most contained a memo line referencing the financing of the 2016 election.
The money wound up at Russian embassies in almost 60 countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20, 2016. It is not clear how the funds were used. At least one transaction that came into the US originated with VTB Bank, a financial institution that is majority-owned by the Kremlin.The US Treasury Department placed VTB Bank under sanctions in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The sanctions prohibit VTB Bank from raising capital or accepting loans from American individuals or companies. A wire transfer to the embassy’s US bank account is permitted, however, and Citibank has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
In a statement, Citibank spokesperson Jennifer Lowney wrote that the financial institution is “diligent” in reporting suspicious transfers but that “given the confidential nature of these reports, we do not comment on or confirm any particular report or transaction.”
After discovering the $30,000 transfer to the embassy in Washington, Citibank launched a review of other transfers by the Russian foreign ministry. It unearthed dozens of other transactions with similar memo lines. Compliance officers in Citibank’s Global Intelligence Unit flagged them as suspicious, noting that it was unable to determine the financial, business, or legal purpose of the transactions.
Much as checks include a memo line, wire transfers often include a note that states what the money is for. The note on this set of transfers does not indicate what election the money was to be used for, or even the country. Seven nations had federal elections during the span when the funds were sent — including the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, on Sept. 18, 2016. Russian embassies and diplomatic compounds opened polling stations for voters living abroad.
The FBI was first made aware of the suspicious transactions two months ago. Two FBI sources said that FBI legal attaches in other countries are now investigating whether the money may have been used for the US presidential election and, if so, how.
Officials with the Russian embassy and the Russian foreign ministry did not return multiple phone calls or emails seeking comment. A VTB spokesperson said in a statement: “VTB strictly conducts its operations in full compliance with applicable rules and regulations. The U.S. banks also monitor and abide by all the restrictions imposed by the (Office of Foreign Assets Control).”