CHISINAU — U.S. officials said that Vlad Plahotniuc, a powerful Moldovan oligarch and political figure linked to a massive bank theft, is in the United States despite being subject to a visa ban earlier this year.
Officials confirmed earlier reporting by RFE/RL that said Plahotniuc was in the country, and said they were preparing to deport him.
The confirmation adds further questions to the circumstances surrounding his travels to the country, and the visa ban in particular, which was imposed in January on him and his family.
“We understand that Vladimir Plahotniuc is present in the United States, but is currently in administrative removal proceedings,” the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau said in a statement on March 19.
“Such proceedings, including permissible avenues of judicial review, often can take significant time,” it added.
The embassy and the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. declined to provide any further details, including when Plahotniuc arrived in the country, when he might be deported, and whether he was in U.S. law enforcement custody.
The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, which typically oversees questions of immigration and legal status of foreign citizens within the United States, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Plahotnuic could not be immediately located for comment.
The office of Moldovan President Igor Dodon did not immediately comment on the situation.
One individual with knowledge of the situation said Plahotniuc had entered the United States prior to the visa restrictions being imposed, and it was unclear what kind of visa he had used to enter the country initially.
In announcing the measures on Plahotniuc and his family on January 13, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically cited the oligarch’s “corrupt actions.”
“Vladimir Plahotniuc’s corrupt actions undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova,” Pompeo tweeted. “The U.S. stands with Moldova in its fight against corruption.”
Earlier, U.S. and Moldovan officials told RFE/RL that Plahotniuc had been in the country despite the restrictions. One individual told RFE/RL that Plahotniuc had been attending a lavish dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Miami, Florida, in late January.
Another individual who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity said the law under which Plahotniuc was targeted concerned prospective — or future — visas, and that it could not be used to cancel an existing visa.
A longtime behind-the-scenes power broker, Plahotniuc fled Moldova in June 2019 after being pushed out of parliament as part of a government shakeup brokered by Russia, the United States, and other European partners.
He dropped out of public view afterward, reportedly traveling under one or more assumed names and alternate passports.
He’s been linked to the disappearance of more than $1 billion — totaling nearly one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP — from the country’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014.
A confidential report commissioned by the Moldovan Central Bank and conducted by international investigative firm Kroll documented how companies and individuals tied to a 28-year-old businessman took control of three major banks during that period.
The businessman, Ilan Shor, then allegedly issued massive loans to his companies during a three-day period in November 2014, according to the report, which was later leaked and published by an opposition lawmaker.
Shor, who is currently believed to be in Israel, was charged in 2016 and later convicted with money laundering and embezzlement in connection with theft. Former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was found guilty of corruption in 2016, accused of taking bribes related to the theft. He was released early in December, after serving three years in prison.
But the brazenness of the crime, and the perception that those behind it have not been held to account, has outraged, and disillusioned, many Moldovans.
Plahotniuc, meanwhile, was the head of the Democratic Party of Moldova, and served as the first deputy speaker of parliament in the early 2010s.
In June 2019, amid a political realignment that resulted in a coalition between pro-European and pro-Russian parties, including Dodon’s Socialist Party, Plahotniuc fled Moldova.
Days later, Russia filed criminal charges against him, alleging he was part of a drug trafficking network.
In December, Dodon publicly stated that Plahotniuc was traveling on a different passport, under the name Vladimir Novak.
Moldova’s national anticorruption authority, meanwhile, sent two formal requests to the U.S. Embassy, requesting assistance in locating Plahotniuc.
The first, dated December 4, requests the assistance of “competent U.S. authorities (Department of Justice, FBI, Police)” in locating an individual whose name is blacked out. It also states that the person “might have been” at two locations in the Miami area, including The Setai Miami Beach Hotel, and the Portofino Tower between July 5-7, 2019.
The second, dated December 10, makes a similar request, and adds a second name, apparently an assumed name that Plahotniuc is known to travel under.
Angela Starinschi, a spokeswoman for the anticorruption bureau, known as the CNA, said the blacked-out names in the letters were Plahotniuc.
“The CNA is waiting for an official response from the U.S. authorities. On unofficial channels, however, we already have the information that the [individual] is on the territory of the United States,” Starinschi told RFE/RL on March 3.
While Plahotniuc’s name is familiar among corruption researchers and experts on former Soviet republics, it is not widely known in broader circles.
Last month, however, his name gained wider currency, when U.S. news media revealed that Richard Grenell, the current acting director of national intelligence, had written a series of article published in U.S. newspapers defending Plahotniuc in 2016.
ProPublica, a U.S. investigative news organization, reported that Grenell did not disclose that he was paid by Plahotniuc for the work, and did not register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
A representative for Grenell, who later became ambassador to Germany and special envoy for negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, did not disclose to ProPublica what Grenell’s paid consulting work involved at the time, but he argued that Grenell did not need to register under FARA.