NEW YORK – The Manhattan U.S. attorney and representatives from several law enforcement agencies announced Tuesday an indictment charging Liberty Reserve, one of the world’s largest digital currency companies, and seven of its principals and employees with money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. The charges stem from an investigation by the Global Illicit Financial Team which consists of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Criminal Investigations Division.
Law enforcement officials arrested five defendants Friday. Arthur Budovsky, 39, the principal and founder of Liberty Reserve, and Azzeddine El Amine, 46, a manager of Liberty Reserve’s financial account, were both arrested in Spain. Vladimir Kats, 41, the cofounder of Liberty Reserve, was arrested in Brooklyn. Mark Marmilev, 33, and Maxim Chukharev, 27, both who helped design and maintain Liberty Reserve’s technological infrastructure, were arrested in Brooklyn and Costa Rica, respectively.
The defendants are each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison, one count of conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business, which carries a maximum term of five years in prison, and operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business, which carries a maximum term of five years in prison.
Two other defendants, Ahmed Yassine Abdelghani ("Yassine") and Allan Esteban Hidalgo Jimenez ("Hidalgo") are at large in Costa Rica.
The defendants are accused of structuring Liberty Reserve as a criminal bank-payment processor, designed to help users conduct transactions anonymously and launder the proceeds of their crimes. Liberty Reserve is alleged to have had more than one million users worldwide, including more than 200,000 users in the United States, who conducted approximately 55 million transactions – virtually all of which were illegal. Law enforcement officials believe that more than $6 billion in suspected criminal proceeds have been laundered via Liberty Reserve because it provided an infrastructure that enabled cyber criminals around the world to conduct anonymous and untraceable financial transactions.
The defendants also protected the criminal infrastructure of Liberty Reserve by, among other things, lying to anti-money laundering authorities in Costa Rica and pretending to shut down the company after learning it was being investigated by U.S. law enforcement. They continued operating the business through a set of shell companies, moving millions of dollars through shell company accounts maintained in Cyprus, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Morocco, Spain, Australia and elsewhere.
In addition to the criminal charges brought in the indictment, law enforcement seized the Liberty Reserve domain name and the domain names of four exchanger websites that were controlled by one or more of the defendants. They also restrained or seized 45 bank accounts. Prosecutors filed a civil action against 35 exchanger websites seeking the forfeiture of the exchangers’ domain names because the websites were used to facilitate the Liberty Reserve money laundering conspiracy and constitute property involved in money laundering.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury and its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network also named Liberty Reserve as a financial institution of primary money laundering concern under Section 311 of the Patriot Act.
"The actions of the U.S. Secret Service, IRS and HSI in dismantling the Liberty Reserve operation are critical because transnational criminal organizations can succeed only so long as they can funnel their illicit proceeds freely and without detection," said HSI New York Special Agent in Charge James T. Hayes Jr. "HSI is proud of its partnership through the Global Illicit Financial Team and will continue to aggressively target financial institutions that deliberately enable businesses and individuals to evade global financial systems in furtherance of criminal schemes."
The investigation and takedown involved law enforcement action in 17 countries, including: Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Spain, Morocco, Sweden, Switzerland, Cyprus, Australia, China, Norway, Latvia, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, Russia, Canada and the United States.
Several international law enforcement agencies also participated in the investigation, including: the Judicial Investigation Organization in Costa Rica, the National High Tech Crime Unit in the Netherlands, the Spanish National Police, the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation’s Financial and Economic Crime Unit and Cyber Crime Unit, and the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office.