Dirty Dollars details one of the most elaborate money laundering schemes ever orchestrated in the US — hundreds of millions in money stolen from Ukraine and plowed into steel factories in the US heartland in what became a steel empire. Ultimately, the cost-cutting and dangers inside the facilities led to explosions, accidents, hazardous waste — and workers left disabled — as the owners simply used the facilities to launder millions. While national news organizations told important stories about offshore shells and trusts, we told readers about the human cost to everday Americans.
Our project was cited by the U.S. House financial services committee, whose investigators contacted the Post-Gazette reporters to inform them that the panel was using our findings to create a report that shows the breakdowns in anti-money laundering safeguards that took place that allowed a Ukraine oligarch to move hundreds of millions of suspicious dollars into the United States — through Deutsche Bank — to acquire a real estate fortune.
The panel is also expected to chronicle the lack of screening by the US Treasury (which heads the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) that allowed an oligarch with the checkered past to buy 13 steel facilities in the US — an industry considered critical to the country’s national security.
National financial crimes experts in Washington DC cited the Post-Gazette’s reporting in pushing two landmark proposals unveiled by the US Treasury in December that could force anonymous shell companies to disclose their owners and US real estate professioinals to report the buyers of commercial and residential properties — both critical in the fight against money laundering. The first package (two stories) ran on April 16, 2021 and the second package (two stories) was published on November 19, 2021. A third story (supplemental) ran on December 26, 2021.
Through intricate, interactive graphics, the Post-Gazette created two compelling online presentations that showed the movement of the money from Ukraine to the United States — including the stops along the way to conceal the funds in offshore shell companies, and ultimately into the US properties.
One of the graphics showed a single deal: $20 million moving in various amounts through a maze of shell companies — the names of each company and the amount of money carefully marked — and ultimately used to buy a steel factory in Kentucky in 2013. It was a noteworthy effort to simply show to readers how money laundering works.
Through our drone photography, the Post-Gazette captured powerful images of two of the dangerous steel factories owned by the olgarch who orchestrated the entire scheme: Ihor Kolomoisky. Since the companies would not allow us onto the grounds, we flew over the facilities, showing burned-out, empty buildings scattered across a desolate landscape — places where steelworkers nearly died in explosions and other dangerous events.
What was the hardest part of this project?
For this project, it was the writing. Through long and painstaking drafts, our goal was to explain in minute detail the financial fraud — how it played out without being detected for years — and how it brought incredible harm to people. The idea was to make readers care about these kinds of crimes, which are often so opaque and remote that they seem inconsequential. Most of the stories published by news organzations last year about secret trusts and shells used by powerful foreign leaders were fascinating and critically important. They had great impact. But few came as close to bringing it home to US readers and capturing the human misery of shadowy money and financial schemes as Dirty Dollars. The organization, the writing, the reporting — it was a long and humbling process, but we believe the it resonated with readers. In addition to the crafting of the stories, there were real challenges in getting confidential documents, since the Justice Department was already investigating. But we managed to get secret grand jury records, internal bank documents, a confidential audit of the money that was allegedly stolen from the Ukraine bank and moved into the United States to help us tell this dramatic story. During the pandemic, we were forced to drive hundreds of miles to peoples’ homes to prod them to talk. This made all the difference in going above and beyond what had been filed in court by prosecutors in forfeiture actions. The audit alone was critical in being able to verify much of the information we were reading in court files. To complete our work, we tracked down and interviewed some of the most powerful law enforcement officials in Ukraine to verify our reporting.
What can others learn from this project?
Read the stories and then examine the level of reporting that went into this kind of project about financial crime.
The Post-Gazette was able to show with clarity and powerful online graphics how to take complex subjects like layering and speed transfers and offshore shell companies and break them all down in strong storytelling. In most cases, money laundering makes peoples’ eyes glaze and the way it is carried out can be just as boring.
We didn’t do that. Again, most Americans don’t care about Eastern European oligarchs and corruption in Belize and other places — unless you bring it home. This wasn’t about laundering in Miami or Manhattan or LA. It was in the US heartland and an industry that helped build this country: steel.
The Justice Department had already initiated forfeiture proceedings and launched a grand jury, but we went far beyond the government actions using hundreds of confidential documents to show just what the oligarch and his partners were doing and how it impacted real people.