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NEWS: Bizlato exchange was ‘open turnstile’ for dirty money as Russian co-founder admits processing $700M in illicit funds

BIZLATO LAUNDRY: US Attorney Breon Peace is joined by Deputy AG Lisa Monaco, AAG Polite, and officials from FBI and Treasury on Wednesday announced the arrest of Russian national running Bitzlato, a "no questions asked" cryptocurrency exchange that was a haven for criminals and their dirty money.

By STEPHEN RAE for AML Intelligence

RUSSIAN co-founder of crypto exchange Bizlato, Anatoly Legkodymov has admitted processing $700M in illicit funds.

As part of his plea agreement, Legkodymov agreed to dissolve Bitzlato and to release any claim over approximately $23M in seized assets of Bitzlato.

Also known as “Gandalf” and “Tolik,” he pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn to operating a money transmitting business that transported and transmitted illicit funds. 

The charges stem from Legkodymov’s majority ownership of Bitzlato Ltd., a cryptocurrency exchange that served as a primary conduit for dark market purchasers and sellers, as well as a safe haven for ransomware criminals. 

Because of its lax KYC procedures, Bitzlato became a haven for criminal proceeds and funds intended for use in criminal activity. 

Bitzlato’s largest counterparty in cryptocurrency transactions was Hydra Market, an online marketplace for narcotics, stolen financial information, fraudulent identification documents, and money laundering services that was the largest and longest running darknet market in the world. 

Hydra Market users exchanged more than $700M worth of cryptocurrency with Bitzlato, either directly or through intermediaries, until Hydra Market was shut down because of seizures made by U.S. and German law enforcement in April 2022.

Bitzlato also received millions of dollars’ worth of ransomware proceeds.  The defendant was repeatedly advised that cryptocurrency routed through Bitzlato represented the proceeds of crime and/or was intended for use in illicit transactions.

“Legkodymov’s guilty plea today confirms that he was well aware that Bitzlato, his cryptocurrency exchange, was being used like an open turnstile by criminals eager to take advantage of his lax controls over illicit money transactions,” Breon Peace US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

“The defendant may have thought he was operating from a safe haven overseas for his ‘No Questions Asked’ clearinghouse, but this prosecution and conviction demonstrate otherwise,” said US Attorney Peace.

Other leading members of the prosecution team were Lisa O. Monaco, US Deputy Attorney General, Nicole M. Argentieri, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and James Smith, Assistant Director-in-Charge, at the FBI’s New York Field Office announced the guilty plea.

The proceeding was held before United States District Judge Eric N. Vitaliano.

“As alleged, Bitzlato advertised a safe haven for fraudsters, thieves, and other criminals to launder illicit proceeds—but their business model didn’t account for federal law enforcement,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco.

“We are dismantling and disrupting the cryptocrime ecosystem using all tools available—including criminal prosecution.  In January, the Department and our partners took down Bitzlato’s infrastructure and seized its cryptocurrency.  Today’s conviction of Bitzlato’s founder is the latest product of our efforts.”

“Legkodymov operated a cryptocurrency exchange that was open for business to money launderers and other criminals,” stated Acting Assistant Attorney General Argentieri.  

“He profited from catering to criminals, and now he must pay the price.  Transacting in cryptocurrency does not put you beyond the reach of the law. Legkdoymov’s plea demonstrates the consequences for those who would offer a safe haven for criminals and their ill-gotten gains.”

As alleged in public filings, Legkodymov is a senior executive and the majority shareholder of Bitzlato Ltd. (Bitzlato), a Hong Kong-registered cryptocurrency exchange that operated globally.  Bitzlato marketed itself as requiring minimal identification from its users, specifying that “neither selfies nor passports [are] required.”  

On occasions when Bitzlato did direct users to submit identifying information, it repeatedly allowed them to openly provide information belonging to “straw man” registrants.

The investigation was jointly prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET), which was established to combat the growing illicit use of cryptocurrencies and digital assets. 

MODEL: An image shared by Europol when Bizlato was shut down in Germany. Graphic shows how the exchange laundered dirty money.

Within the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, the NCET conducts and supports investigations into individuals and entities that are enabling the use of digital assets to commit and facilitate a variety of crimes, with a particular focus on virtual currency exchanges, mixing and tumbling services, and infrastructure providers. 

The NCET also works to set strategic priorities regarding digital asset technologies, identify areas for increased investigative and prosecutorial focus, and lead the Department’s efforts to collaborate with domestic and foreign government agencies as well as the private sector to aggressively investigate and prosecute crimes involving cryptocurrency and digital assets. 

The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs and the FBI’s Legal Attaché in France provided critical assistance in the case, with support from the department’s Cyber Operations International Liaison. The department also thanks the Cyber Division of the Paris Prosecution Office and to France’s Gendarmerie Nationale Cyberspace Command (Cyber Crime Investigation Unit/ C3N).

The government’s case is being prosecuted by CCIPS/NCET Trial Attorney and EDNY Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Mindlin, CCIPS/NCET Trial Attorney Sarah Wolfe, and EDNY Assistant U.S. Attorney Artie McConnell are prosecuting the case, with substantial assistance from former NCET Trial Attorneys Scott Meisler and Matthew Blackwood.

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