How a High-Ranking F.B.I. Official Fell From Grace

Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Today we’ll look at a former spy hunter for the F.B.I. who is accused of selling his services overseas.

Today Charles McGonigal is expected to appear in federal court in Manhattan on criminal charges involving allegations that he worked for a Russian oligarch. He is accused of violating economic sanctions against Russia, as well as money laundering and conspiracy. McGonigal has been in talks to resolve those charges and could enter a guilty plea today. He is also in separate negotiations with prosecutors in Washington over charges about dealings he had in Albania.

The charges were a troubling turn for a high-ranking official who spent 22 years with the F.B.I. I asked Michael Rothfeld, who with Adam Goldman and William K. Rashbaum took a close look at McGonigal’s dealings, to explain the charges.

He led a double life, at first in plain sight. How did he manage that? Who was he, anyway?

Charlie McGonigal, as he was known — Charles Franklin McGonigal — climbed the ladder at the F.B.I. while living a pretty typical suburban life in Maryland and working at F.B.I. headquarters and other postings in Washington.

Then, in 2016, he got the biggest job of his career, as chief of counterintelligence in the New York City office of the F.B.I., which is a huge job. He left his family behind in Maryland, and as far as we know, that’s when he’s accused of going a little bit rogue.

First, he met Agron Neza, an Albanian-born businessman who’s a former Albanian intelligence officer and was living in New Jersey. McGonigal proposes that Neza pay him $225,000 that he said he was going to repay.

Isn’t that more than twice what he was making with the F.B.I.? What was McGonigal going to do in return?

We don’t know why McGonigal asked for this money. But in short order, these two men, McGonigal and Neza, traveled to Albania and Kosovo and other places.

McGonigal met the prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, and they started to become friends. And, according to the Justice Department, McGonigal was doing things which seemed like they were payback for the money from Neza. He steered the prime minister toward giving an oil drilling license to a company that Neza was associated with.

Later, the Justice Department says, McGonigal tried to arrange a $500,000 payment to Neza from some people who wanted a diplomatic meeting at the U.N.

So he used his F.B.I. role, according to the charges, to help friends and associates.

To be clear here: Was he a spy? Did he hand over secret documents?

No, there’s no evidence from what we’ve been told that he leaked any classified information to anyone, including Russia.

Russia comes up because the other set of the allegations against him relate to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch — a billionaire metals magnate who was close to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Deripaska figured prominently in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by the special counsel Robert Mueller III.

McGonigal’s first brush with Deripaska came when he was still with the F.B.I. McGonigal met an aide to Deripaska and set up what was basically a V.I.P. tour of the New York Police Department for this man’s daughter.

And after he retired from the F.B.I. in 2018, McGonigal and an associate — an interpreter who used to be a Russian diplomat — introduced Deripaska to a law firm in the U.S., because Deripaska was on a list of sanctioned oligarchs and desperately wanted to have the sanctions removed. McGonigal was paid $25,000 a month from the law firm with money that was ultimately coming from Deripaska but was funneled through the law firm, according to an indictment.

Then, after the pandemic, he is accused of doing more for Deripaska. Prosecutors say that the aide to Deripaska set up a deal for McGonigal and the interpreter to investigate a rival oligarch. That work ended in November 2021, when McGonigal and the associate were raided by the F.B.I. Essentially the F.B.I. had already been investigating them, and seized their electronic devices.

Why did McGonigal need so much money?

We don’t know all of the details about his finances. But a woman who had an affair with him when he moved to New York has said that he loved the high life in New York City. She said he loved to go out to fancy restaurants — Sparks Steak House and other places like Jean-Georges. He would dress to the nines — he liked nice suits, nice ties.

Clearly he wanted to make more money than he could make on his F.B.I. salary. It has happened in past cases of corruption of federal agents. And New York City can be very expensive.

What does this case say about the F.B.I.’s ability to detect corruption among its own?

What it speaks to is how much trust the F.B.I. places in its personnel, particularly high-level people who have access to a lot of secrets but who, a lot of times, start operating on their own without real close supervision.

The F.B.I. does have a few mechanisms. One is they make agents take lie detector tests from time to time.

The bureau also requires agents to report their contacts with foreigners, especially foreign officials and business people. McGonigal is accused of lying and omitting information when he made those reports.

Are there financial reporting requirements?

Yes, F.B.I. personnel like McGonigal have to report if they have any outside income. He did not report the money he received from Neza, the Albanian businessman. That was one of the charges.

What about the $25,000 a month that was channeled through the law firm?

That came after his retirement. He wouldn’t have been required to report that.

But he was accused of laundering the payments through a friend’s company so they wouldn’t be detected — demonstrating, according to the prosecutors, this was something he knew he shouldn’t be doing.

What brought down McGonigal’s high-flying life? He broke up with the woman he had the affair with, didn’t he?

We don’t know exactly what put the government onto him, but he ended the relationship with the woman he had the affair with after he retired from F.B.I.

She got angry because she thought his marriage was over, and she drunkenly emailed the head of the New York F.B.I. office, suggesting an investigation of McGonigal. We don’t know if that is what triggered the investigation or something else. There was some reporting he had been monitored by British intelligence meeting with Deripaska in London.

McGonigal and his wife sold their house in Maryland and own an apartment in New York City now and appear to still be together. His wife got a restraining order against Allison Guerriero, the woman with whom he had the affair in New York, alleging that Guerriero was harassing her.


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Football Fans

Dear Diary:

I met the woman who became my wife on the F train. She was wearing a University of Washington sweatshirt. I was wearing one, too, and I decided to try to strike up a conversation.

We were both headed to the same Midtown bar to watch our alma mater play. It turned out the connection between us was deeper than having attended the same college. We had graduated the same year, but it took us both traveling 2,500 miles to meet.

More than 10 years later, we still ride the F train to the same bar to watch the same football games, and neither one of us strikes up conversations with strangers when we do. Once seems like enough.

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Hannah Fidelman and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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James Barron is a Metro reporter and columnist who writes the New York Today newsletter. In 2020 and 2021, he wrote the Coronavirus Update column, part of coverage that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. He is the author of two books and was the editor of “The New York Times Book of New York.” More about James Barron

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