It's hard to believe, but certain Russians have been laundering billions of dollars through American banks. The money appears to have been taken from Russian public funds and dry-cleaned in the Bank of New York before being sent to offshore banks around the world.

The news was very discouraging for all of us who believed that when the Russians accepted democracy, they would become squeaky clean.

Vladimir Rosskoff, a spokesman for the Russian mafia, said, "We used banks to launder our funds because, as Willie Sutton used to say, 'That's where the money is.' "

"Why do you have to launder money in the first place?"

"It's not ours to begin with, but once it's clean we can say it is. When we had a communist government, we had to deal in rubles, and nobody cared whether they were clean or dirty.

"Then we threw over the Red Menace, and dollars became more interesting for us than rubles. But American banks advised us that the world prefers clean dollars to dirty ones. They solicited our business and promised to launder any money we would deposit with them. They also promised us microwave ovens and electric coffeemakers.

"The big shots in Russia said, 'If that is the way capitalism works, sign us up for membership in the club.' And that's when we sent billions of dollars out of Moscow."

"It was a wise move," I said. "Didn't anyone in Russia complain?"

"How could they complain? The banks we sent our dollars to were top-of-the-line. It wasn't as if we were dealing with some bankrupt savings and loan."

Rosskoff said the Russian mafia's major concern was that the United States was going to confiscate their deposits because you're not supposed to launder money in the United States unless you have a good reason.

I told him, "If you were still a communist country and sent us your money, we would applaud and greet you with open arms."

He responded, "All we're trying to do is what any billionaire in the West wants to do--and that is make an honest buck."

{C} 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate