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Judge orders Biden informant Alexander Smirnov to remain in jail

LOS ANGELES — A former FBI informant pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that he lied to the FBI when he claimed to know that Joe Biden and his son Hunter took bribes, and the judge overseeing his case ordered him to remain in jail out of concern he might flee the country.

Alexander Smirnov was arrested earlier this month, sending shock waves through Congress, where Republicans had pinned their allegations of Biden family corruption largely on claims Smirnov made to an FBI agent in 2020. Those claims, the Justice Department now charges, were lies.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II to keep Smirnov in jail while he fights the charges marked the latest chapter in a puzzling turn of events with significant stakes for the Republican-led impeachment inquiry into President Biden — and a broader GOP effort to paint the president as corrupt while he campaigns for reelection.

In arguing for Smirnov to remain behind bars, prosecutors working for special counsel David C. Weiss have cited the former informant’s self-professed ties to Russian intelligence agents — ties that raise the possibility that Smirnov’s alleged lies about the Bidens were part of a foreign plot to interfere with U.S. democracy. The government’s lead prosecutor, Leo Wise, argued in court on Monday that Smirnov was peddling new stories about the president’s family as recently as September, portraying him as an ongoing conduit for Russian intelligence.

Smirnov’s attorney, David Chesnoff, called that allegation a “Catch-22,” saying his client maintained those relationships “at the direction of the government” and had aided many critical investigations. Whatever credibility Smirnov once had with U.S. authorities, Wise parried, “he clearly betrayed that trust.”

In the end, Chesnoff failed to convince the judge that Smirnov’s case was similar to many others, in which the courts release defendants ahead of trial, requiring them to agree to various conditions to prevent them from fleeing.

“There is nothing garden variety about this case,” Wright said in announcing his decision.

Smirnov, unshaven and wearing glasses, appeared in court wearing beige prison clothes and only spoke to plead not guilty and answer routine questions from Wright. Chesnoff urged the judge to release him with GPS monitoring and around-the-clock private security. After Wright ordered Smirnov back to jail, his lawyer vowed to appeal the decision and continue to seek his release.

Chesnoff also said his client aided not just the FBI but also the Defense Department.

Smirnov, 43, a dual American-Israeli citizen, was arrested in Las Vegas after disembarking from an international flight. He was released by a U.S. magistrate judge there after paying a personal recognizance bond, agreeing to submit to electronic monitoring and surrendering his passports. Prosecutors asked that he remain in jail, and he was rearrested last week while meeting with his attorneys, then transferred to Los Angeles.

Wise said the location of Smirnov’s second arrest — at his attorney’s office rather than his home — was chosen partly due to safety concerns because Smirnov owns a number of firearms.

The scheme first alleged by Smirnov in 2020, in which Biden and his son were said to have taken $5 million apiece years earlier to shield Ukrainian energy giant Burisma from prosecution in that country, has been a central part of the GOP effort to drive Biden from office. Parts of Smirnov’s tale emerged in FBI documents trumpeted by congressional Republicans, even as his identity remained unknown on Capitol Hill — and his claims unvetted.

Ultimately, prosecutors determined that Smirnov was telling baldfaced lies, according to a 37-page indictment filed earlier this month in California, where Weiss, the special counsel, has lodged separate tax charges against Hunter Biden. Weiss has also charged Hunter Biden in Delaware with offenses related to a gun purchase there.

The charges against Smirnov, who had been a confidential human source for the FBI since 2010, introduced a surprising new dynamic into the special counsel’s work.

To support their request that Smirnov remain in jail, prosecutors argued in a filing last week that the former informant was a flight risk because of his overseas contacts and his access to significant funds — as well as what they described as his demonstrated mendacity.

Smirnov, they wrote, “claims to have contacts with multiple foreign intelligence agencies and had plans to leave the United States two days after he was arrested last week for a months-long, multi-country foreign trip.” Foreign intelligence contacts he claimed to be meeting on that trip, they added, “could resettle Smirnov outside the United States if he were released.”

Smirnov lived in Israel from 1992 to 2006, according to prosecutors. He then lived in Southern California before relocating two years ago to Las Vegas with his longtime partner.

He has access to more than $6 million in liquid funds, according to prosecutors, which they described as “more than enough money for him to live comfortably overseas for the rest of his life.” But prosecutors argued he had not accurately described his financial situation when queried as part of the pretrial process — a sign, they alleged, of his deceit. Chesnoff argued that his client had sought to answer the question truthfully and stressed that English was not his first language.

In seeking his release, Smirnov’s attorney portrayed him as a family man with no criminal history and a grave eye disease that warranted his freedom. Chesnoff pointed to the presence in the courtroom of Smirnov’s longtime partner and her son, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran living in the Washington area, as well as a cousin of Smirnov’s who had flown in from Florida. Those relationships, his attorney argued, firmly ensconced Smirnov in the United States and showed that “he is not going to take off.”

Prosecutors, by contrast, characterized Smirnov as a globetrotting operator carrying on murky business work. They alleged that he reported no employment based in Las Vegas but claimed to have a “security business” registered in California. Bank records, however, failed to verify that work, according to prosecutors, and instead showed “large wire transfers from what appear to be venture capital firms and individuals.”

Chesnoff said in court that his client ran a financial business — and that his decision to make major monetary outlays to fund his defense was another sign he didn’t intend to flee. In the days before he was rearrested, Chesnoff said, Smirnov “didn’t try to run. He didn’t try to move the money around.”

But the judge, who began Monday’s hearing by saying he was skeptical of the arguments for pretrial release, was unmoved.

“I have not changed my mind,” Wright concluded.

Barrett reported from Washington.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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