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How the Case of Arrested FBI Agent Charles McGonigal Is Tied to a Russia-Linked Influence Effort

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It’s all about a mysterious shell company, a top GOP operative, Albania, and lots of money.

It was shocking news: Charles McGonigal, a former counterintelligence chief for the FBI, was arrested for his alleged role in two separate schemes. In one, he purportedly accepted $225,000 from an Albanian-American businessman, while he was still in the FBI, and did favors for that businessman and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. In the other, McGonigal, after he retired in 2018, allegedly provided investigative services to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who was sanctioned in 2018 for assisting the global “malign” activities of Putin’s regime. McGonigal’s indictments raise a boatload of questions and has spurred the bureau to scrutinize his actions when he was in charge of monitoring and thwarting the intelligence efforts of foreign powers (including Russia) aimed at the United States. In spy-movie parlance, the FBI will want to know when did he go bad (presuming he did go bad). 

The McGonigal case also has cast attention on one of the more bizarre foreign influence operations to occur in Washington, D.C., in recent years—a little-known and underreported Russia-linked effort to influence American politics about Albania.  

The tale of this influence operation is a complicated one that Mother Jones revealed in 2018. The main disclosure was that a mysterious shell company registered in Scotland called Biniatta Trade—which was created by two Belize companies that were partly controlled by two British companies that were each controlled by a different Russian national—paid $150,000 in early 2017 to a Washington lobbyist named Nick Muzin to promote in the United States the Democratic Party of Albania, the conservative party opposed to Rama’s government.

Muzin, who had worked on Trump’s winning presidential campaign, used his influence to gather support within the Republican Party and the US conservative movement for Lulzim Basha, the DPA leader, who was campaigning for prime minister. Muzin set up a visit to Washington for Basha that included meetings with GOP House members. Basha attended the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual dinner, which featured Trump as the speaker. Muzin contacted Steve Bannon, then a top White House adviser, and other White House officials on Basha’s behalf. He arranged for Basha to be interviewed by Breitbart News. 

The aim was to round up backing in the United States for Basha, who was running in Albania as a populist nationalist and Trump fan and pushing the slogan “Make Albania Great Again.” As an ardent foe of Rama, a pro-West critic of Putin who had warned about Russia’s attempt to gain influence in the Balkans, Basha, presumably, was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate.  

At one point, Muzin brought Basha to a GOP fundraiser in Wisconsin where Trump was the main speaker. At this event—where a $20,000 donation earned an attendee a VIP seat and a photograph with Trump—Basha had his photo snapped with Trump. In Albania, the DPA widely disseminated the picture, and Basha claimed he’d had an “extraordinary meeting” with Trump.

The Trump connection that Muzin helped Basha forge did not win the day for the Albanian. In the Albanian election that year, Rama’s Socialist Party picked up seats and won a full majority of the parliament.  

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