IRS crime-fighting arm takes on new tasks during Ukraine war

WASHINGTON (AP) — The crime-fighting arm of the IRS, which tracks financial crimes and hunts down pricey properties of sanctioned Russian elites, identified more than $32 billion in funds during the past fiscal year for eventual seizure, the agency reported Thursday.

Jim Lee, chief of IRS Criminal Investigation, said that’s a “huge” amount — three times what was identified in the previous year. And the amount of money seized in stolen cryptocurrency — more than $7 billion — doubled from the previous year, he said.

The division’s annual report sheds light on how it has added new responsibilities — like investigating sanctioned Russian oligarchs — to its priorities as Russia wages war on Ukraine.

It has opened 20 investigations of sanctioned people since it joined the Justice Department-led task force Kleptocapture in March. The task force targets Russian oligarchs and others who evade sanctions.

Lee said the increase in money identified, and the changing nature of how crimes are perpetrated, have posed a challenge to the little-understood agency within Treasury.

“As a division,” Lee said, “we are nimble and able to shift quickly.”

The division has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, particularly when Congress was debating the Inflation Reduction Act, which gives the IRS $80 billion in additional funding. Republicans have conflated the criminal investigation division’s armed agents with the unarmed IRS auditors who go over financial filings for the federal tax collector.

Those comparisons are misleading and false. “Not only is it wildly inappropriate but it’s dangerous,” Lee said.

“Much of the international success of CI special agents stems from a robust and aggressive international program that includes 11 foreign posts and memberships in multiple international taskforces,” the annual report states. Agents work alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement taskforce and other entities.

Among seizures this past year, the agency assisted in the investigation that led to the February arrest of Ilya Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan for an alleged conspiracy to launder cryptocurrency that was stolen during the 2016 hack of virtual currency exchange Bitfinex, valued at approximately $4.5 billion, the largest single financial seizure in government history.

And in August, Alexander Vinnik, a Russian citizen and an alleged operator of the illicit cryptocurrency exchange BTC-e, was charged in California with operating a cybercrime and online money laundering firm, alleged to have laundered more than $4 billion.

“If you get in the crosshairs of an IRS CI special agent,” Lee said, “it’s highly likely you’re going to jail.”

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