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Ex-FBI counterintelligence chief Charles McGonigal sentenced to 50 months in prison for working with Russian oligarch

Charles McGonigal, the former head of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York office, stands silently as his attorney Seth Ducharme speaks to members of the media at Manhattan Federal Court after a court appearance on Feb. 09, 2023 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — One of the highest-ranking FBI agents to ever face criminal charges was sentenced to over four years in prison on Thursday for secretly colluding with a Russian oligarch.

Charles McGonigal, a former counterintelligence leader in the FBI’s New York field office, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. McGonigal’s lawyers had asked for no prison time, but the judge came down harshly on the former FBI bigwig.

“I committed a felony and as a former FBI special agent it causes me extreme emotional and physical pain,” McGonigal told the judge prior to the imposition of the sentence. “I stand before you today with a deep sense of remorse.”

Judge Jennifer Rearden paid tribute to McGonigal’s “extraordinary contributions” to counterespionage operations on the country’s behalf, but noted the “extraordinary seriousness” of his choosing to work for Oleg Deripaska, whom the U.S. sanctioned for enabling Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“Mr. McGongial well knew his actions violated those sanctions,” Rearden said before she imposed the 50-month sentence.

Federal prosecutors had requested a five-year prison term in a sentencing memorandum after accusing him of abusing the skills and influence his country entrusted him with by secretly working with Deripaska.

McGonigal has been told to surrender to authorities for his prison sentence on Feb. 26.

He served as the special agent in charge of the Counterintelligence Division of the FBI’s New York field office. In that position, McGonigal supervised and participated in investigations of Russian oligarchs, including Deripaska, to whom he provided impermissible services.

“McGonigal knew full well that Deripaska was sanctioned,” prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum. “McGonigal also cannot claim that he was unaware that he was selling his services to a scoundrel working against America’s interests.”

Despite that knowledge, they said McGonigal sought to gather derogatory information about a rival oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, and Potanin’s interest in a corporation that he and Deripaska were vying to control.

Prosecutors cast it as a serious crime that deserved a serious punishment.

“Although the first task Deripaska assigned his new recruit may not have appeared particularly nefarious, McGonigal was hoping to do millions of dollars in future work for the oligarch,” prosecutors said. “McGonigal was selling something just as useful to America’s enemies as military grade technology: The “erosion … in any rule of law” that ensues when a nation’s counterintelligence professionals begin ‘operating at the behest of the highest bidder,’ to use McGonigal’s description of his own crimes,” prosecutors said.

In a letter to the court earlier this month, McGonigal’s attorneys said he deserved no prison time for conspiring to help Deripaska.

Defense attorneys urged the judge to balance McGonigal’s “extraordinary service” to the country during his 22-year career in law enforcement and counterintelligence. The defense argued “a non-custodial sentence is sufficient to serve the ends of justice.”

“[J]ust punishment may be imposed upon Mr. McGonigal without the need for a lengthy term of incarceration. His fall from grace has been precipitous, having lost his job, his reputation and the peace of his family life,” defense attorney Seth DuCharme said.

McGonigal faces sentencing early next year in a separate case brought in Washington, D.C., that accused him of concealing a payment from an Albanian intelligence official while on the job.

In a pre-sentencing memorandum, defense attorneys conceded McGonigal provided impermissible services to Deripaska but argued the information McGonigal provided to Deripaska about a rival oligarch aligned with the interests of the United States.

“It was wrong, and he admits that. But it is critically important that the Court appreciate, in imposing a just punishment, that Mr. McGonigal understood that the work he agreed to do was consistent with, not in tension with, U.S. foreign policy in the sense that it was in furtherance of potentially sanctioning another Russian oligarch,” DuCharme said.

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