On the eve of congressional hearings into Russian money flows abroad, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today that a delegation of Russian law enforcement officials returned from the United States without finding evidence of money laundering through U.S. banks.
"Fortunately, the information which appeared in the mass media about laundering of Russian capital through the Bank of New York was not confirmed," Putin told reporters after meeting with President Boris Yeltsin.
The Russian officials, from the Prosecutor General's Office, the Interior Ministry, the federal tax police and the Federal Security Service, met with U.S. law enforcement experts last week. Putin was guarded in his comments, saying, "It is clear that the problem of capital flight exists, and not only in Russia."
U.S. officials, however, said they did not disclose much information to the Russians for fear that it would compromise the investigation.
Capital flight refers to the flow of money out of a politically and economically unstable country such as Russia, and it can take many forms, both legal and illegal. But money laundering refers to a specific scheme to take criminally tainted funds and "clean" them by passing them through bank accounts. News reports have said that U.S. investigators are focusing on why and how billions of dollars in Russian cash passed through the Bank of New York and whether some of it was money laundering.
Putin's remarks were the latest in a concerted effort by Russian officials to play down the importance of what he called "the financial scandal, naturally or artificially fanned recently." Russian officials blame the media reports on political jockeying in the United States.
But Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, accused the government of a coverup. "I do not think that the reports are untrue," he told reporters. "What is going on is a coverup because the senior officials implicated cannot explain the scandal away." He did not provide details.
Viktor Ivanov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service, who went to the United States, told reporters the Russians found no evidence of mishandling of funds from international financial organizations, or by senior Russian officials.
"No documentary materials were received, or handed over to us, that would give evidence of the involvement of the International Monetary Fund money, and of the international financial institutions in these transactions," he said. "Neither were submitted" to the Russian team "materials giving evidence of the involvement of the top Russian officials in the . . . transactions through the Bank of New York."
But he said the team did see documents outlining money flows by Russian businesses from Russia, which he described as capital flight, saying it is "an economic category and all countries face this problem to a greater or lesser extent."
Staff writer Kathleen Day in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Russian President Boris Yeltsin, left, meets with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin after a Russian delegation returned from the United States.