Fast Living and Foreign Dealings: An F.B.I. Spy Hunter’s Rise and Fall

By the time he reached middle age, Charlie McGonigal was living a comfortable suburban life.

He had married and raised two children in a tidy Maryland neighborhood near the Capital Beltway. He coached his co-workers on an office softball team and went to church on Sundays. In his den, he hung posters celebrating sports teams from his native Ohio; in his home office, a sign above a doorway announced in flowing script his devotion to his job.

“I want to thank the Good Lord,” it read, “for making me a F.B.I. Agent.”

But Charles Franklin McGonigal was no ordinary agent. As the chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New York, he was tasked with rooting out foreign efforts to steal vital national security and economic secrets in one of the world’s most fertile cities for spying.

Apart from his outward image as a wholesome and responsible G-man, however, there was another, less visible side to Mr. McGonigal, federal prosecutors and his former colleagues say. He held off-the-books meetings with foreign politicians and businessmen and accepted illicit payments while doing favors for associates, according to federal indictments filed against him in two states earlier this year.

Mr. McGonigal’s arrest, in part based on accusations that he had worked for a Russian oligarch, came at a time when U.S.-Russia relations had reached their lowest point since the Cold War, leading to questions about whether one of the country’s most trusted spy hunters had become a spy himself. But a close look at Mr. McGonigal’s life and career reveals an arc that appears to have little or nothing to do with espionage and international intrigue. Instead, it seems to be a quintessentially American story about greed.

Smooth and politic while navigating an upward trajectory through the F.B.I.’s bureaucracy, he was a different man with subordinates, flashing his temper at the smallest provocation, former associates say. An expert in Russian counterintelligence, he spoke publicly of international security threats. At the same time, prosecutors say, he was privately courting the oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska, who figured prominently in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Now, Mr. McGonigal, 55, appears set to become one of the highest-ranking F.B.I. agents ever to be convicted of a crime. He is scheduled to appear in federal court in New York on Tuesday for a possible guilty plea in the case involving Mr. Deripaska, and is in talks to resolve an indictment brought by federal prosecutors in Washington. Until any deal is finalized, it could still fall apart, and Mr. McGonigal, who has so far pleaded not guilty, could go to trial.

The case has raised unsettling questions about the F.B.I.’s ability to detect corruption within its ranks. Prosecutors suggested that Mr. McGonigal traveled extensively while at the bureau, meeting with foreign officials and businesspeople who, on the surface, had nothing to do with his job. Agents are required to report such contacts and certain financial transactions and to take lie-detector tests, but the bureau relies heavily on the integrity of the people it has placed in positions of trust.

Over more than three years, the investigation has so far produced no evidence that Mr. McGonigal provided national security secrets to the Russians or to anyone else, according to American officials who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing cases. Although the officials said Mr. McGonigal appears to have been engaged in simple graft, his actions stunned many in the F.B.I., where a core tenet is drilled into every agent: “Never embarrass the bureau.”

The F.B.I.’s director, Christopher A. Wray, said the charges demonstrated “the F.B.I.’s willingness as an organization to shine a bright light on conduct that is totally unacceptable, including when it happens from one of our own people, and to hold those people accountable.”

Peter J. Lapp, a former F.B.I. agent who once worked for Mr. McGonigal, said that the openness with which he seems to have crossed legal lines — “doing it right in front of everyone” — took audacity. But the charges did not explain what he called “the great mystery.”

“Why did he need so much money?”

While investigators have described brazen attempts to profit from his F.B.I. career, the actual crimes Mr. McGonigal is charged with are technical. Between the two indictments, he is accused of concealing details of his finances and activities overseas, violating U.S. sanctions and laundering money. Some charges carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years, but a judge could impose far less.

Seth D. DuCharme, Mr. McGonigal’s lawyer, said at a recent hearing in New York that the indictment was more dramatic than the case actually seemed to be.

“Every time I hear the government describe this as a small white-collar case, I feel a little more comforted,” he said.

And the Washington prosecution, Mr. DuCharme has said, is basically “about some omissions on government forms.”

What most shocked former colleagues was Mr. McGonigal’s boldness. He had behaved in ways that he most likely knew would get him caught. In 2020, two years after his retirement, he spoke on a panel about the corruption of the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., Russia’s counterpart to the F.B.I., including its agents’ participation in money laundering and acting as “private contractors” for businessmen and criminals.

“It has really become an organization that is rogue, in my opinion, and is at the behest of those who can pay for the services they offer,” he said.

By then, prosecutors said, Mr. McGonigal had already accepted cash from a former Albanian intelligence officer — and had begun working with Mr. Deripaska.

An unpolished edge

In the Cleveland suburbs where he grew up, one of four siblings in a family of modest means, Mr. McGonigal went by “Chuck,” studied martial arts and liked to drive fast cars and party on weekends, according to his high school yearbook.

After graduating from Kent State University, and working briefly for the National Bank of Canada in New York City, Mr. McGonigal joined the F.B.I. Assigned to investigations into the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island and the Sept. 11 attacks, he gradually climbed the ranks, eventually supervising a counterespionage squad at the agency’s Washington field office. He was aided by a gift for “briefing up” — impressing superiors with analysis and presentations.

“He was a very hard-working, intelligent, nice guy — always, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’” said another colleague, Clayt Lemme, who worked as special agent in charge of counterintelligence, two levels above Mr. McGonigal, at the F.B.I.’s Washington field office.

He revealed a less polished side, though, when underlings displeased him, erupting in tirades while spraying spit. Mr. Lapp, his former employee, said it became a running joke: Offending agents got a second shower — “the McGonigal hot wash” — when he yelled at them.

Mr. McGonigal and his wife, Pamela, who had been a year behind him at Kent State, bought a red brick rambler in hilly North Chevy Chase, Md., where they raised their son and daughter. He joined Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a nearby Catholic church. He registered to vote as a Republican and coached the Washington field office’s softball squad. His den became a man cave, its walls covered in posters paying homage to the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Cleveland Browns and other teams.

Though Mr. McGonigal took pride in his home state, he also played down his humble roots, leaving Kent State off his official bio and accentuating the graduate degree he later earned at Johns Hopkins University.

All the while, he had access to some of the F.B.I.’s most sensitive and important information, even helping to lead the investigation in 2012 into the compromise of C.I.A. informants in China.

By early 2016, Mr. McGonigal was running the bureau’s Cyber-Counterintelligence Coordination Section in Washington, where agents analyzed Russian and Chinese hacking and other foreign intelligence activities.

In that senior position, Mr. McGonigal became aware of the initial criminal referral that led to the investigation known as Crossfire Hurricane — an inquiry into whether Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign and associates were coordinating with Russia.

That October, then-director James B. Comey appointed Mr. McGonigal special agent in charge of counterintelligence in New York, overseeing hundreds of agents and support staff. It was a return to where Mr. McGonigal had gotten his start, but in a vastly more important role.

The job would be the culmination of Mr. McGonigal’s law enforcement career.

“If you want to learn and work counterintelligence, New York City is the pre-eminent field office,” Mr. McGonigal told a gathering at the Foreign Policy Association seven months after his appointment, adding that audience members who traveled overseas should expect to be under surveillance by foreign intelligence agencies.

Despite urging caution, it seems that Mr. McGonigal had already thrown it aside in his own life.

He had left his family in Maryland, and, soon after moving to New York, begun an affair with a woman who socialized in law-enforcement circles.

Mr. McGonigal met the woman, Allison Guerriero, 49, of Florham Park, N.J., through her work volunteering at a nonprofit organization called the Federal Enforcement Homeland Security Foundation, which says it raises money for the families of federal agents injured or killed in the line of duty — in part by hosting galas and golf outings with celebrities such as the “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf and the actor Stephen Baldwin.

Ms. Guerriero, who has been publicly critical of Mr. McGonigal since his arrest, has said he led her to believe his marriage was dead, only to end their affair after he retired from the F.BI. in 2018. In the aftermath, Pamela McGonigal, citing harassment, obtained a restraining order against Ms. Guerriero, who has acknowledged overstepping during periods of alcohol abuse.

Ms. Guerriero has said that, in her anger, she drunkenly sent an email to the head of the F.B.I.’s New York office suggesting he investigate Mr. McGonigal, which has led some to suspect that his marital indiscretion was what ultimately led to the federal inquiry that resulted in his arrest.

During their 18-month relationship, Ms. Guerriero said, she and Mr. McGonigal sometimes stayed at a Brooklyn apartment and enjoyed the swirl of the city. He loved Sparks Steak House and other upscale restaurants and was fastidious about his appearance.

“Suits, shoes, expensive ties,” Ms. Guerriero said. “If he went out, he would have to be dressed to the nines.”

Over dinner in Manhattan one evening in 2017, Mr. McGonigal was introduced to a man who would figure heavily into his undoing: Agron Neza, an Albanian-born businessman living in Leonia, N.J., who is labeled “Person A” in the Washington indictment. As a young man, Mr. Neza had worked for the Albanian State Intelligence Service before moving to the United States. Now, balding and bearded, Mr. Neza was brokering deals overseas.

In August 2017, according to prosecutors, Mr. McGonigal proposed the men make their own deal, in which Mr. Neza would lend him $225,000 in cash.

The Vienna client

Prosecutors have not said why Mr. McGonigal needed that money or what he may have agreed to do in return. But over the next several months, they said, he injected himself into foreign political and business affairs, apparently while trading on his F.B.I. position, in dealings that would culminate in his arrest.

He befriended the prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, and used his position to drum up foreign business for his associates, according to the indictment filed against him in Washington.

On one occasion, Mr. McGonigal opened an F.B.I. investigation into a lobbyist for the Albanian prime minister’s main political rival, the prosecutors said. On another, prosecutors said, he helped secure an oil drilling license benefiting Mr. Neza and others.

Along the way, there was some indication that the F.B.I. was aware of his dealings with the Albanians. According to two people who spoke with him, Mr. McGonigal said the F.B.I. had authorized him to approach U.S. contractors about working with Mr. Rama to help reform the Albanian government, which had long been plagued by corruption and inefficiency.

Perhaps none of Mr. McGonigal’s associations was as alarming as the one prosecutors said he had with the Russian oligarch, Mr. Deripaska. A billionaire metals magnate seen as shrewd and ruthless, Mr. Deripaska built his fortune after the fall of the Soviet Union, as state resources were taken over by businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin. He also cultivated ties to the West, hosting parties in Europe, courting politicians and hiring lawyers and lobbyists to look after his interests.

He did business with Paul Manafort, a lobbyist and political adviser who later served as chairman of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. F.B.I. agents attempted to recruit Mr. Deripaska as an informant, in part to find out whether Mr. Manafort had been a link to the Kremlin, which Mr. Deripaska denied.

In April 2018, the Treasury Department added Mr. Deripaska to its sanctions list, citing his ties to the Kremlin and accusations that he laundered money and threatened rivals, among other things. Before the sanctions were made public, Mr. McGonigal reviewed a list with Mr. Deripaska’s name on it, the New York indictment said.

By late 2018, prosecutors suggested, he was laying the groundwork for a future business relationship with Mr. Deripaska.

Mr. McGonigal is accused of setting up an internship at the New York Police Department for the daughter of an unnamed aide to the oligarch — a reference to the Russian businessman Evgeny Fokin, according to people familiar with the case. (A senior police official said that the woman received a multiday “V.I.P.-type” tour of specialized units, not an internship.) Mr. McGonigal had been introduced to Mr. Fokin by a former Russian diplomat who had become an interpreter for U.S. courts, prosecutors said.

After retiring from the bureau in late 2018, and taking a job as vice president for security at the real estate firm Brookfield Properties, Mr. McGonigal began working for Mr. Deripaska, prosecutors said. He and the former diplomat connected the oligarch with an American law firm, Kobre & Kim, in 2019 to aid in getting the sanctions lifted.

They referred to Mr. Deripaska as “the individual” or “the Vienna client” in electronic communications, and Mr. McGonigal met with Mr. Deripaska and others in London and in Vienna, prosecutors said.

Mr. McGonigal was paid $25,000 per month by the law firm for the sanctions-related work, using Mr. Deripaska’s money, prosecutors said.

In August 2021, Mr. Fokin retained Mr. McGonigal and the former Russian diplomat for a new brief: investigating a rival oligarch with whom Mr. Deripaska was involved in a business dispute. The two men were paid $218,000, until F.B.I. agents seized their devices that November, prosecutors said.

Last year, federal prosecutors in New York charged Mr. Deripaska and others with scheming to evade sanctions by engaging in real-estate deals.

In January, F.B.I. agents met Mr. McGonigal at Kennedy Airport and arrested him as he returned from an unrelated business trip to Sri Lanka. He had lost his job at the real-estate firm, but in the following months, the wholesome Midwesterner became a celebrity in Albania, where Mr. Rama’s opponents and the media took to short-handing the scandal in a particular way.

They called it “the McGonigal affair.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

Michael Rothfeld is an investigative reporter on the Metro desk and co-author of the book “The Fixers.” He was part of a team at The Wall Street Journal that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for stories about hush money deals made on behalf of Donald Trump and a federal investigation of the president’s personal lawyer. More about Michael Rothfeld

Adam Goldman reports on the F.B.I. and national security from Washington, D.C., and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He is the coauthor of “Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America.”  More about Adam Goldman

William K. Rashbaum is a senior writer on the Metro desk, where he covers political and municipal corruption, courts, terrorism and law enforcement. He was a part of the team awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. More about William K. Rashbaum

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