(CNN)The Department of Justice is quietly unraveling a complex web of shell companies and middlemen used by Russian oligarchs, and President Vladimir Putin himself, as it accelerates efforts to seize assets belonging to the Kremlin’s most wealthy and influential players, the Justice official charged with leading the team hunting the assets told CNN on Thursday.
Like other Russian oligarchs on the US sanctions list, Putin is a target for the Justice Department’s corruption task force as it wages a global campaign against money-laundering Kremlin insiders in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I can tell you nothing about what the US knows about any particular person, but he’s certainly on the list,” Andrew Adams, the head of the Justice Department’s KleptoCapture task force, told CNN in an interview. He declined to answer any other direct questions about Putin and his wealth.
Thursday, US officials announced the seizure of a $300 million yacht belonging to a Russian oligarch close to Putin, its second yacht seizure in recent weeks. The Justice Department’s task force, which was launched in March to increase pressure on Putin and his closest allies amid the attack on Ukraine, is taking an expansive look at the scope of its powers and will target luxury real estate and enforce export laws to block Russia’s access to sensitive technology, including military technology.
“I think, importantly, beyond very wealthy, very famous sort of celebrity oligarchs, there are people who are close to the Kremlin, who are in the Kremlin, people who have a role and have a voice within the Russian defense industry and the Russian Defense Ministry, who are on that list and who I think of as particularly important from a strategic point of view,” Adams said.
Adams repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether the Justice Department is taking specific steps to seize assets belonging to Putin but suggested that prosecutors have mapped out how the Russian President and wealthy kleptocrats are attempting to hide their money.
“The kleptocrat playbook is to exploit your country to get as much money out of your country as possible and then to physically get your money out of the country that you have exploited,” he told CNN. “And to do that you look to jurisdictions around the world. And to play it safe. You want to hedge your bets, put money across the world as you’re doing this.”
A major hurdle
Adams explained that Russian kleptocrats have developed a complex system of shell companies and middlemen to hide the money currently being hunted by the US and its allies.
“The way that people operate in terms of moving assets, when they’re laundering assets, often includes family members that include shell companies that are shell companies within shell companies within shell companies,” he said.
While Russian oligarchs have employed attorneys and law firms across the world who are willing to set up these shell companies and trust structures involving a paid middleman who’s willing to put their name down as the beneficial owner, Adams told CNN that Justice Department officials have been monitoring these actions for years and have developed ways to identify who the true owner is.
“That’s a typology I’ve seen for years, and I’m sure that it’s one that has continued to be relied on,” he said.
The layers upon layers of shell companies stand as one of the biggest and most time-consuming challenges.
“One major hurdle for us is piercing through shell companies,” said Adams. “The difficulties there are amplified when you’re having to deal with bank accounts and trustees who are located in jurisdictions scattered around the world, and often scattered around the world even for one person.”
It’s difficult, Adams said, to quantify the impact that seizures of yachts, bank accounts and other assets of those closely linked to Putin have had on the war, but he credits as important the public statements by some Putin allies who are distancing themselves from the Russian President.
“Certainly incentivizing people close to the Kremlin to take whatever actions they can to stop this war is part of the calculus in terms of who’s on the list and the actions that we take,” said Adams. “Largely public statements again, by people who previously were actively supportive of the Kremlin, or, or criminally silent about its actions, who have now come forward to complain about the latest effort to inflict damage in Ukraine. It’s a little ‘too little too late’ in in many respects. But that is the signal that I would look for in terms of the solidity and stability of Putin’s grip on these people.”
“If they’re saying it publicly, then that’s, I think, all that we can ask them to do,” he added.
The US and its partners have rolled out a series of sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, targeting key institutions and individuals who Adams said he believes “the Kremlin expected would be off the table.”
“They were wrong about that,” he added.
The Justice Department has successfully worked with a variety of countries to seize high-profile assets belonging to Russian oligarchs, including super yachts that were on the other side of the world.
For example, a $300 million super yacht belonging to Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov was seized by Fijian authorities on Thursday at the request of the Justice Department.
That yacht will now be sailed to the US, where it will be kept at an undisclosed port until it can be auctioned off or liquidated another way, Adams said.
Adams declined to specify which port this or other super yachts seized by the Justice Department are being taken due to security concerns, but noted it has to be a location that “can handle the risk of having such a gigantic structure come in and sit there potentially for many months or years.”
“You can’t pull that one into the Potomac,” he said about the yacht seized on Thursday.
Once the boat arrives in the US, there are maintenance costs, which are factored into the planning before a seizure takes place, Adams added.
While US officials have said the global enforcement of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and entities is eroding support for Putin within the Kremlin, Adams made clear on Thursday that the Justice Department is looking for other ways to crack down on various avenues of money laundering used by Moscow’s most wealthy influencers.
That includes turning an eye to real estate investments within the US, including properties in New York and Miami.
“All sorts of assets are on the table, for sure. And bringing up real estate is particularly pertinent,” Adams told CNN. “The way in which much money laundering is occurring is through large, stable value assets. Real estate is at the top of the list for that kind of investigation.
“Looking at jurisdictions where you have extremely expensive real estate in stable economies is where investigators are going to be looking for indications of money laundering.”
Several wealthy Russians are known to own properties in New York City and Miami, often pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into real estate investments and hiding them under someone else’s name.
However, real estate property is treated under federal forfeiture law, Adams noted.
“As a general matter, what you will not see is a seizure before the end of a litigation. We may sue the house and we may begin forfeiture proceedings with respect to a house, but in large part … here won’t be an immediate seizure and padlocking, kicking people out (when) you file suit,” he said.
He also said there are other less obvious areas they’re taking a “hard look at,” including private investment holdings in asset managers and hedge funds, Russian ownership of corporations and the secondary market where debt instruments are traded.
Adams said they’re getting cooperation from US financial institutions, which are required by law to flag suspicious transactions.
“We’re looking at middlemen. We’re looking at facilitators. We’re looking at institutions that fail to maintain those obligations,” he said.
Countries that have historically been havens for dirty money, he said, are cooperating with US authorities, driven in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“These seizures are, are going to continue apace, and people recognize that where the seizures are happening around the world are in pockets of the world that might not have been expected,” he said, adding, “There are no safe havens.”
While the US tracks and traces yachts, it is also following the money as Russians move assets into other jurisdictions that were once friendly places to hide it. But, Adams says, times are changing.
“There are pockets across the world. But those pockets are dwindling quickly,” he said.