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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's U.S. Prosecutor Knows Russia's Mafia

MTThomas Firestone has spent two years in Moscow on a Justice Department program.
The term "Russian Mafia" became a household term in the 1990s as the rapid expansion of criminal organizations from the former Soviet Union raised concerns across the globe.

As late as 2000, FBI organized crime expert James Moody even predicted that in a few years the Russian mob in the United States would be bigger than the notorious organized crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra, or perhaps even corporations such as General Electric and Microsoft.

But such doomsday scenarios about Russian organized crime rarely pop up these days, and Thomas Firestone thinks such dire prognoses were misguided from the start.

Firestone should know. He spent nearly five years investigating and prosecuting Russian criminal groups in New York, and he is currently wrapping up a two-year stint in Moscow as the U.S. Justice Department's resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy.

Firestone, now 39, arrived in Moscow in May 2002 as part of a Justice Department program called Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training. The program dispatches U.S. federal prosecutors to work with foreign governments on rule of law and law enforcement.

In a recent interview at the U.S. Embassy, Firestone pointed out that, of course, Russian crime groups are still active and a cause for concern in the United States, but that fears the Russian mob would take over the U.S. crime underworld overlooked one fact: Many of the groups were in no way related to one another.

"People weren't clear about the phenomenon they were talking about," he said. "They tended to lump in crime among emigre communities from all over the Soviet Union with what's going on in Russia ... all at once, as if any one who spoke Russian and committed a crime was part of a global structure, which wasn't true."

Unlike La Cosa Nostra, which has a structured hierarchy -- with bosses, underbosses, consiglieres, captains, soldiers and associates -- the Russian crime groups run more of a hodgepodge operation, Firestone said.

"The Russian groups in the United States have a much looser structure [than La Cosa Nostra]. Even with the Gufeld Brigade, which purported to be a structured criminal group, [gang leader Dmitry] Gufeld himself wasn't really in control. People would come in and out of their gang. You didn't have that same type of concrete hierarchy."

The Gufeld case was the first Russian mob case Firestone worked on after he joined the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York in 1998. After picking off drug mules at Kennedy Airport for a year, Firestone got a chance in 1999 to prosecute the Gufeld Brigade.

"A lot of my pals wanted to do [the La Casa Nostra] cases, and they weren't particularly interested in the Russian cases" he said.

But after studying Russian in high school in New Jersey and at Harvard University, "I was interested in using it in my career as a prosecutor, so I volunteered to do those cases."

The Gufeld Brigade was a criminal group of about 15, involved in all sorts of criminal activity in New York, including trafficking women, which has become one of Firestone's areas of focus. He has worked with the State Duma on the formation of legislation to combat the practice.

According to Firestone, the Gufeld Brigade's plan was to take over the entire Russian-speaking underworld in New York, getting all of the Russian businesses in New York paying them a weekly tribute, and setting up an organization like La Cosa Nostra among New York's Russian-speaking criminal community.

One of the group's more tragicomic undertakings was when it tried to pull off an arson after being hired to burn down a competing business for a couple of thousand dollars. Instead, they burned down the entire city block, causing $1 million in property damage.

After several members of the gang cooperated, Firestone said, Gufeld was sentenced to 20 years, and his right-hand man, Alexander Kutsenko, was sentenced to 15 years, while other members of the gang got sentences of varying length.

Besides the structural differences between Russian crime groups in the United States and traditional syndicates like La Cosa Nostra, Firestone said there is a marked difference in the way individual members of these groups cooperate with the authorities.

With traditional Mafia families, he said, the code of silence is still very strong in their tight-knit communities. But once Mafia members do cooperate, they come on board entirely. They turn their backs on their life of crime and are honest about all of the crimes they have committed.

This is in stark contrast to Russian criminals.

"The Russian cases I had seemed to be a revolving door," Firestone said. "Somebody would be arrested, they would come in to cooperate, and then they would keep committing crimes at the same time as they were cooperating.

"And even when they were disclosed [as cooperators] within the community, people would continue to bring them into their criminal schemes," he added with a chuckle. "The line between the government and the underworld in the Russian-speaking criminal community in New York certainly is very, very permeable."

It is the linking up of Russian criminal groups and more traditional crime groups that worries him.

"What concerns me are emigres from the former Soviet Union involved in various forms of sophisticated fraud and white-collar crimes cooperating with ... La Cosa Nostra families. They are developing these very sophisticated schemes, making a lot of money, and then the La Cosa Nostra family is coming in to protect them and splitting the profits with them. So what they were doing was opening up a lot of opportunities for the traditional crime families in New York."

Finally, Firestone is careful to note that semantics have also played a role in the confusion about the cohesion of the Russian mafia. He points out that the term "Russian organized crime" is simply shorthand for Russian-speaking criminals from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not ethnic Russians, and who sometimes work strictly within their own diaspora.

As for his responsibilities in Moscow, Firestone works closely with the international directorate of the Prosecutor General's Office, which is responsible for extradition and requests for international assistance. The United States and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, but they do have a mutual legal assistance treaty that defines procedures for providing and obtaining evidence for criminal cases, such as money laundering, value-added tax fraud and homicides.

One case he cites as an example of positive cooperation between the two offices was the handover early this month of seven Russian citizens who were being held at the U.S. detention center at Guant?namo Bay, Cuba, after they were captured in Afghanistan.

He declined to comment on the details of the discussions regarding the prisoners.

Firestone will leave Moscow at the end of May, returning to New York to continue working on Russian crime cases for the U.S. Attorney's Office, and he said he expects to be met with some of the classic scams of New York's Russian criminal underworld: stock market fraud, gas tax schemes and medical insurance fraud.

But in a nod to the intricacy and resourcefulness of the Russian criminal scams he's seen, Firestone said, "I'm sure when I get back, there will be a dozen new ones that I haven't thought of yet."