Ex-FBI informant who allegedly lied about the Bidens will remain behind bars, judge rules

David Chesnoff, left, defense attorney for Alexander Smirnov, walks out of federal court with a group of unidentified people, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Los Angeles. A former FBI informant charged with fabricating a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden's family must remain behind bars while he awaits trial, a judge ruled Monday, reversing an earlier order releasing the man. (AP Photo/Eric Thayer)
David Chesnoff, left, defense attorney for Alexander Smirnov, walks out of federal court with Smirnov's relatives. (Eric Thayer / Associated Press)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A former FBI informant pleaded not guilty on Monday to lying to federal agents about President Biden and his son Hunter's dealings with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, and a judge in Los Angeles ordered the informant to remain behind bars.

From the outset of the hearing, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II said he was concerned that Alexander Smirnov might escape the country while awaiting trial on charges of obstructing justice and lying to the FBI.

Lawyers for Smirnov pressed for his release and even offered to hire private security and rent a home in L.A., part of a broader proposal aiming to address concerns that he could flee. Smirnov, 43, responded to questions from Wright and entered his plea but otherwise sat quietly, wearing a tan jumpsuit and thick black glasses, his head closely shaved.

"I have not changed my mind," Wright said near the end of the 40-minute hearing. "The man will be remanded pending trial."

The decision by Wright marked the latest development in a case that has reverberated to the White House and torpedoed much of the effort by Republican lawmakers in Congress to impeach Biden on the very claims that prosecutors now say were fabrications.

Smirnov was charged Feb. 14 with falsely telling his longtime FBI handler that in 2015 or 2016, an executive at Burisma had arranged for payments of $5 million each to Biden and his son during the elder Biden's tenure as vice president, according to the indictment. Republican leaders made Smirnov's accusations public in the summer by releasing internal FBI records, spurring weeks of attacks on the Biden family.

Federal agents arrested Smirnov on Feb. 15 at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas as he was returning from overseas. He had planned to embark on a months-long international tour and meet with intelligence contacts before the criminal charges thwarted him, prosecutors said.

In their push to keep Smirnov behind bars, prosecutors have pointed to his ties to Russian and other foreign intelligence agencies, as well as his murky wealth — including access to more than $6 million — and shadowy existence. During the hearing Monday, prosecutors revealed that Smirnov also had worked with the U.S. Department of Defense and said that Smirnov's banking records contradict his and his lawyer's claims that he works in the security and finance industries.

Read more: The informant next door: A quiet L.A. life masked Kremlin ties for FBI source accused of lying about Bidens

Further, prosecutors have portrayed Smirnov as a vessel for a Russian disinformation campaign.

"The defendant's lies in this case have captured the national imagination," Assistant U.S. Atty. Leo Wise said at an earlier hearing. On Monday, Wise detailed that Smirnov in September had peddled a new lie, claiming that Hunter Biden was recorded talking to his father while staying at a hotel in Kyiv, Ukraine. Prosecutors said Hunter Biden has never set foot in Ukraine.

"Thus, Smirnov’s efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States continues," prosecutors wrote in court papers.

But Smirnov’s defense team, headed by veteran Las Vegas attorney David Z. Chesnoff, portrayed their client as a valuable government asset who was hung out to dry — and had his covert work exposed for the world to see. Chesnoff proposed a variety of conditions for Smirnov to be released, including house arrest; the appointment of a third party over his bank accounts; and a guarantee from the Israeli Consulate in L.A. that it would not reissue another passport to Smirnov, who is a dual U.S. and Israeli citizen.

The attorney also proposed round-the-clock security (paid by Smirnov) and pointed to his client's relatives in the courtroom who would ensure he would not flee, including longtime girlfriend Diana Lavrenyuk, who sat alongside her adult son Nikolay, and Smirnov's cousin, Linor Shefer.

"We so badly want him to be out so that we can fight this case," Chesnoff said. "So that he gets a fair trial, he has to be able to help us."

Smirnov was briefly released from custody last week after a federal magistrate judge in Las Vegas found that although he posed a flight risk, the court could impose sufficient conditions to ensure he would not flee.

"I understand the concern about foreign intelligence agencies potentially resettling Mr. Smirnov outside of the United States," said the magistrate judge in Las Vegas, Daniel Albregts, "but I think on some level that's speculative as well because ... I don't know what Mr. Smirnov will be thought of in Russia, but my guess is at this stage he probably thinks that's not the most attractive place to go either if he was in fact inclined to go hide somewhere."

After being released, Smirnov was rearrested Thursday while at his lawyer's office, under a new warrant from Wright. In a court order last week, Wright had suggested that defense attorneys wanted him free “likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States.”

Defense attorneys vehemently disputed that they were assisting their client to evade prosecution. Chesnoff filed an emergency petition last week with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, arguing that Wright had no authority to order Smirnov’s rearrest and transfer to L.A. The defense team also sought to have the case reassigned to another judge, accusing Wright of “biased and prejudicial statements.”

Late Sunday, the 9th Circuit denied Smirnov’s petition.

After the hearing Monday, Chesnoff told reporters outside the courthouse that he planned to return to the 9th Circuit and press for his client's release.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.