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

Former FBI informant Alexander Smirnov, left, walks out of his lawyer's office in downtown Las Vegas after being released from federal custody Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. Prosecutors say that Smirnov, who is charged with making up a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden, his son Hunter and a Ukrainian energy company, had contacts with Russian intelligence-affiliated officials. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)
Former FBI informant Alexander Smirnov, left, walks out of his lawyer's office in Las Vegas after being released from federal custody Tuesday. (K.M. Cannon / Las Vegas Review-Journal via Associated Press)
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He rubbed elbows with Russian elites, spoke of an exclusive invite aboard an oligarch's mega-yacht and cozied up to foreign intelligence agencies.

As a valued FBI informant for the last 13 years, Alexander Smirnov hopscotched the globe to sweep up information on powerful figures and illicit activities. Federal agents even authorized him to break the law while doing so.

For much of this time, Smirnov, 43, also lived a quiet, seemingly unremarkable life in the suburbs of Los Angeles with a long-term girlfriend 15 years his senior, calling Calabasas, Woodland Hills and Orange County home.

"They were very, very secretive," a former landlord said. "They packed really, really quick and left. It was weird."

Smirnov's tenure as a confidential source for the FBI ended in spectacular fashion this month, with a grand jury in L.A. charging him with obstructing justice and lying to federal agents.

The lies, according to prosecutors, included an explosive allegation that has been central to Republican efforts to impeach President Biden and bolster Donald Trump's campaign to return to power — that Biden and son Hunter each accepted $5 million in bribes from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

The falsehoods that Smirnov shared with his FBI handler in 2020, coupled with his extensive ties to Kremlin intelligence agencies, have fed into prosecutors' portrayal of him as a walking vector of Russian disinformation.

It is unclear how Smirnov went from being a renter in the San Fernando Valley awash in credit card debt to orbiting the powerful in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere with millions of dollars in his bank accounts.

Federal agents arrested Smirnov 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.

After being released from custody Tuesday, he was rearrested two days later under a new warrant from U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II, the Los Angeles jurist overseeing the case. Wright suggested that defense attorneys wanted him free "likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States."

Smirnov's defense team, headed by veteran Las Vegas attorney David Z. Chesnoff, filed an emergency petition last week with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, 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 in full, clearing the way for a hearing Monday morning for Wright to evaluate whether Smirnov, who has not yet entered a plea, should remain in custody. Chesnoff declined to comment.

In their attempt to hold Smirnov behind bars before trial, federal officials have revealed an unusual degree of detail about his covert work, murky wealth and shadowy existence. What emerges from filings, public records and interviews are the contours of a life layered with duplicity and mystery.

His lies, as well as his contacts with Russian intelligence, have continued in recent months, prosecutors allege, including a false account of Hunter Biden's dealings at the Premier Palace Hotel in Kyiv, despite the younger Biden never having stepped foot in Ukraine.

"What this shows is that the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2020. He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November," prosecutors said in court papers.

Smirnov grew up in Ukraine and holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and in Israel, where his parents and sister live. He called Israel home until 2006 and has lived in America for about 18 years, according to Chesnoff. His covert work may have started as early as 2002, when he claimed to be involved in recruiting Russian and foreign consular officials, apparently as sources, according to what he told his FBI handler years later.

Court records show that Smirnov married a Wisconsin woman who told The Times she had not spoken to “that guy” in years. By the time their 2010 divorce was finalized, he was in a Woodland Hills rental, the first in a string of residences across the Southland.

Joining him in Southern California was the Ukrainian-born Diana Lavrenyuk, who also divorced her spouse in 2010 in Wisconsin and headed west, records show.

For a time, Smirnov and Lavrenyuk lived in Calabasas, according to court records, renting a single-family home in a modest suburban neighborhood with carefully tended lawns and brick mailboxes.

"They were good renters — they paid on time," their landlord said in a brief interview. Their departure from the four-bedroom home appears to have coincided with mounting credit card debt and American Express’ intensifying efforts to collect.

In 2013, American Express sued Lavrenyuk and Smirnov, her for more than $35,000 and him for about $125,000 on his two cards. Lavrenyuk's bill was paid off by 2018. For Smirnov, American Express appears to have secured a court order to levy his bank accounts for funds.

At some point, Smirnov became a U.S. citizen. There’s no record of him or Lavrenyuk voting in Los Angeles County. His earliest voter registration obtained by The Times was in 2019, when he signed up to vote in Orange County and listed his residence as a Laguna Hills rental. He did not affiliate with a political party.

Smirnov also listed the Laguna Hills rental as the address for his business, an investment firm. But the homeowner, Kevin Rahimi, told The Times he did not know of Smirnov and had leased the home to another man and his family. That man is linked in public records to Smirnov, declaring himself in 2011 as the director and primary officer of a retail sales company that Smirnov registered a year earlier.

Next door to the Rahimi house, Heather Ruttan remembered her erstwhile neighbors as quiet and keeping to themselves. Her younger children play in the cul-de-sac, so she knows what's going on in the neighborhood, she said.

"Nothing stands out about them," she said.

Lavrenyuk, meanwhile, registered to vote in 2014 using a Costa Mesa home address and around 2019 using the address of a San Juan Capistrano residence that her son had purchased a year earlier and sold last year for $3 million.

Between 2013 and 2020, court records suggest a change in fortune for Smirnov.

Citing bank records, prosecutors say he now has access to more than $6 million, at the same time that he doesn't own property in the U.S. or have a job here.

Officials have questioned the provenance of his wealth.

“He claims to have a ‘security business,’” prosecutors wrote in court papers, but they added that his bank records conflict with the existence of a “security business.” Banking records cited in court documents show large wire transfers “from what appear to be venture capital firms and individuals.”

One transfer highlighted by prosecutors was $600,000 from Economic Transformation Technologies Corp. in 2020. The Texas company, known as ETT, bills itself as having "built and harnessed a portfolio of disruptive technologies" in healthcare, artificial intelligence and real estate, among other sectors. A spokesman for ETT did not respond to questions about what prompted the cash transfer to Smirnov.

Prosecutors say that Smirnov downplayed the extent of his financial resources. After his arrest, he told court officials that he had only $1,500 in cash and $5,000 in his checking account. But prosecutors said his accounts total more than $2.9 million, including a business account in the name of “Avalon Group Inc.,” which was used to fund his and Lavrenyuk’s lifestyle. Between February 2020 and the end of 2022, he withdrew more than $1.7 million in cashier’s checks payable to Lavrenyuk, according to prosecutors.

During a court hearing in Las Vegas, Chesnoff countered that Smirnov was not lying about his financial resources but said Smirnov's English was "not the best" and that he was asked only about his personal bank accounts, not any business accounts.

By Feb. 1, Lavrenyuk had accumulated more than $3.8 million in a Wells Fargo account, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors said that after the “substantial transfers” to Lavrenyuk, she paid off the charges on his credit cards, which were his “primary means” of paying personal expenses.

Around 2022, Lavrenyuk and Smirnov headed to Las Vegas. There, using money he transferred to her, Lavrenyuk purchased a condo in a high-rise for just under $1 million in cash, according to court and property records.

Smirnov's work for the FBI as a confidential source began around October 2010. The agency’s vast network of informants help procure inside information about criminal activity, sometimes at extraordinary risk. The FBI typically spends tens of millions of dollars a year to compensate its informants, but officials have not said whether Smirnov was paid for any of his work.

Smirnov’s handler was based at the Seattle field office, and in court papers, the pair were described as having an extremely close relationship: communicating almost daily for a decade, with Smirnov describing his handler “as family,” according to prosecutors.

“It was so personal,” Chesnoff said during a court hearing last week, “... that he wouldn't even call him on his FBI phone; he would call him on his personal phone.”

What cases or prosecutions Smirnov was involved in is unclear, but his work appears to have been extensive. He was reminded 20 times from 2010 onward to provide truthful information to the FBI, according to the indictment. When he was authorized to break the law as part of his informant work, he was admonished on five occasions to not obstruct justice, including by fabricating evidence, lying or tampering with witnesses, the indictment states.

The charges against him center on what he told his handler starting in March 2017 about Burisma. Smirnov said then that he had had a call with the owner of the Ukrainian conglomerate and that the owner was interested in acquiring a U.S. company. Smirnov noted, seemingly as an aside, that Hunter Biden was on Burisma’s board, which had been widely reported. At the time, Joe Biden’s term as vice president had already ended.

In June 2020, prosecutors said, Smirnov reported “for the first time” two meetings in 2015 or 2016 in which he claimed that Burisma executives confessed to hiring Hunter Biden to “protect us, through his dad, from all kinds of problems” and that they had paid $5 million each to Hunter Biden and his father so that the former “will take care of all those issues through his dad,” or help quash a criminal inquiry. Smirnov also claimed he had had two phone calls with a Burisma executive who claimed to have been forced to pay the Bidens.

“In short, Smirnov transformed his routine and unextraordinary business contacts with Burisma in 2017 and later into bribery allegations,” prosecutors said.

The people who participated in the meetings and phone calls that Smirnov described "will refute that there was ever any discussion of [Joe Biden] or [Hunter Biden]," prosecutors also said.

Why the FBI re-interviewed Smirnov in 2020 has become a point of focus, particularly for top Democrats.

Scott Brady, the former U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, testified in the fall of last year that his investigation related to Hunter Biden and Ukraine was done at the behest of former Atty. Gen. William Barr and his deputy, and that he was instructed to contact Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.

After Giuliani was interviewed, Brady testified that he asked the FBI to search agency files for “instances of Burisma or Hunter Biden,” which yielded the 2017 memo of Smirnov discussing Burisma's business interests. One sentence of that memo referred to “a brief, non-relevant discussion” about Hunter Biden.

Brady testified that the “one sentence” reference to Hunter Biden serving on the board of Burisma prompted him to urge the FBI to re-interview the confidential source. Brady said there was a “back and forth” with the FBI about speaking to Smirnov, but the re-interview eventually proceeded.

After learning what Smirnov said about the Bidens, Brady testified that his team used “open-source material” and information about Smirnov’s travels to corroborate some of the claims. Brady agreed that the source was “highly credible” and said there were “sufficient indicia of credibility” to pass along the account to federal prosecutors.

On Friday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called on Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland to examine the circumstances around the push for the interview, suggesting it could have been “part of a deliberate attempt to launder foreign disinformation through the Department of Justice.”

“Given what we now know about Mr. Smirnov, it seems unlikely that Mr. Brady actually verified any of the information Mr. Smirnov provided to the FBI,” Nadler said.

In court last week, federal prosecutors said that the U.S. attorney's office in Delaware, which has led the prosecution of Hunter Biden, was asked to investigate Smirnov's 2020 claims in July 2023. That time frame corresponds to when Republican lawmakers took the rare step of publicly revealing the internal FBI memoranda of Smirnov's bribery claim. The partially redacted document fanned a torrent of Republican criticism of the Biden family.

Prosecutors said last week in court that they confirmed

only in the fall of 2023 that Smirnov was lying, after meeting with him in September.

Since Smirnov's arrest Feb. 15, federal officials and his attorneys have engaged in a tug of war over whether he should be locked up or allowed to remain free before a trial.

Prosecutors have pointed out that Smirnov has “regular and recent” contacts with overseas intelligence. “He can use these contacts with foreign intelligence services to flee and to resettle overseas,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Leo Wise said, adding that the millions of dollars at his disposal could help.

To bolster their argument, prosecutors have revealed extensive excerpts of what Smirnov relayed to his handler in recent months.

In January 2023, Smirnov spoke of learning from a Russian intelligence officer the location of another Russian intelligence officer and that person's first name. He later shared a Russian businessman's plans for a birthday party aboard a yacht where two oligarchs in attendance were known to have ties to a senior Russian intelligence official.

Later, Smirnov said he planned to attend an unidentified person's birthday party in the Middle East, which would include time aboard a mega-yacht owned by a high-ranking member of Russia’s largest steel and mining company. He named powerful Russian figures who would probably be in attendance.

In October, Smirnov said he had conversations with a senior Russian official who discussed his "seeming control" of two teams of Russian operatives tasked with assassinating an unidentified leader of another country. He later recounted attending a meeting where "a high-ranking member of a Russian Foreign Intelligence Service" was among those discussing possible resolutions to the war in Ukraine.

"They've managed to put out to the entire world his cooperation without any concern for his safety," Chesnoff argued in court. Still, the defense has said Smirnov is in less danger out of federal custody.

Chesnoff has pointed to Smirnov's long record of living in the U.S. and his ties to Lavrenyuk, her son and other family, including his cousin, Linor Shefer, an Israeli-American reality TV star who was Moscow’s Miss Jewish Star in 2014.

Shefer wrote a letter to Wright, the judge, pleading for her cousin's release.

"He is a law-abiding American citizen who pays his taxes," Shefer wrote. "I believe he would never flee to another country or state."

Countering the prosecution's arguments that Smirnov's extensive ties to foreign intelligence and his travel history make him a flight risk, Chesnoff argued in court that much of it “was at their behest.”

“So it's kind of like a catch-22. We're going to let you go there. We're going to send you there. We're going to use you for our purposes, which is what they did," Chesnoff said. "And now they turn around and tell Your Honor, ‘See, he travels everywhere.'"

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.