Sputnik radio, a media organization funded by the Russian government with offices around the world, broadcasts from a studio in downtown Washington blocks from the White House. It airs talk shows hosted by, among others, Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart News reporter, and Brian Becker of the far-left ANSWER Coalition. Its website recently featured a discussion of Russia's "Great Society" and a chat titled "Is Doing Business in Russia Really That Difficult?" The Weekly Standard once likened the experience of listening to Sputnik to "being immersed in some menacing alternate history timeline: It's like 'The Man in the High Castle,' but for Cold War kids and with real-world implications." And it has caught the ear of federal authorities.
Since U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, the Department of Justice has tried to compel Sputnik’s associates to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. So far, those efforts have mostly been successful: Rossiya Segodnya, the Russian news agency that funds Sputnik, has registered under FARA, as has the managing member of the company that owns 105.5 FM, one of two frequencies that Sputnik broadcasts on in Washington. (Before Sputnik, 105.5 FM played bluegrass.)
There is one holdout: Arnold Ferolito, owner of RM Broadcasting, which leases airtime to Sputnik on 1390 AM in Washington. Not only has he refused to register his company as a foreign agent, the semiretired 76-year-old Florida man is suing the Justice Department over the request. “I’m not being caught up in somebody’s agenda. I’m a business guy,” he told me. “No one gave me anything unless I fought for it. There’s a principle here. In the United States, a person should be able to do business without government interference. ... It’s nuts that you have to do something like this.”
In his complaint, filed last fall in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Ferolito contends RM Broadcasting doesn’t have “any kind of joint-venture relationship whatsoever with Rossiya Segodnya,” and that the two entities are simply engaged in “an arms-length commercial business transaction.”
The Justice Department isn’t buying that. In its countersuit, it alleged that Ferolito broadcasts Sputnik news under “the direction and control of Rossiya Segodnya” and is an “information-service employee.”
James Harris, a lawyer who specializes in national security and who is not involved in the litigation, said it may not matter whether money is Ferolito’s main motivation. In an email, he explained that FARA defines “information-service employee” in a “surprisingly broad manner.” (The law says the term “includes any person who is engaged in furnishing, disseminating, or publishing” information about the “benefits, advantages, facts, or conditions” of other countries, political parties or “other combination of individuals” whose principal place of business is in a foreign country.) Harris said the department has already determined that Sputnik’s content “directly promotes the interests of the Russian government,” and that the agency can choose to focus its enforcement efforts on countries, people and organizations “that it finds most interesting from a counterintelligence perspective.”
I went to see Ferolito in January at one of his homes, near the fourth hole of a golf course in a gated community in Palm Beach County. The name of the house — "Villa Azzurra," or "Blue House," in Italian — is emblazoned on a sign that hangs next to the front door. "It was here when I moved in," he said, showing me inside. We walked by his indoor pool and sat at a counter in his kitchen, with a view of the white grand piano that he bought for his mother-in-law to play.
Over tea, Ferolito told me his Horatio Alger story. He grew up poor in the Bronx. As a child, he built ham radios. As an adult, he fixed quadruplex videotape machines — an early commercial videotape format — in his basement, and founded a multimillion-dollar video company. In the 1990s, Ferolito set out for Russia, in search of business opportunities after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before he went, he took Russian language lessons from a Russian Jew who had fled the Soviet Union in 1989; she became his wife. (The day I visited, she was at their home in New Jersey.) He also learned some history. His father-in-law survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II, he said, nearly starving as Stalin’s troops successfully held off Hitler’s, and to this day he “always cleans his plate.”
In 2000, Ferolito explained, he sold his business and tried to retire, but he found a life of leisure didn’t suit him. In 2010, he started selling airtime on a station in New York City to the Kremlin-run news agency Voice of Russia. Ferolito didn’t own the license for the station, nor does he own one for 1390 AM in Washington. Instead, he leases airtime from the license holders, then leases that time to Sputnik. He said his attempts to get other types of programming, including an oldies show, haven’t panned out. “I’ll take the money wherever I can get it,” he said.
In 2012, the Justice Department asked RM Broadcasting for information so it could determine whether the company needed to register as a foreign agent. Ferolito told Radio Free Europe at the time that the request was a formality. He said the Justice Department eventually dropped the matter. Since then, though, the political environment has changed, becoming unnecessarily hostile to Russia, he told me. Stalin is gone. Our nations should be friends. “Russia was treated very badly by the rest of the world. The worst enemy is China. ... We need America and Europe united to hold off the dragon,” he said. “Where are our values? Why are we picking on one country and not looking at other countries the same way?”
John Garziglia, part-owner and managing member of 105.5 FM, agreed to register, but he supports Ferolito’s suit. “I’m glad he’s challenging them and I hope he succeeds,” he said, adding that registration “is not as benign as they maintain.” Garziglia told me that it has hurt his business, revealing the company’s inner workings to the world and derailing at least one deal he had to acquire space on a radio tower. Not everyone, it seems, wants to make a media deal with a foreign agent.
By leasing airtime, Ferolito said radio stations in the Washington area can earn $250,000 to $800,000 per year. Since he doesn’t own a station, he said, he makes a small percentage of that, and a lot of his money is going to lawyer’s fees. He’s even started a GoFundMe campaign. Beyond the financial considerations, it also seems Ferolito just doesn’t like being ordered around. At one point during my visit, he told me a story about being on a plane in the early 1980s with the comedian George Burns. They were stuck on the runway at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Ferolito persuaded a flight attendant to get Burns a drink, then asked the famous octogenarian the secret to longevity. Burns’s answer, Ferolito recalled, was: “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the wife of RM Broadcasting owner Arnold Ferolito left Russia. She left in 1989, not the 1970s. It also incorrectly stated when the U.S. Department of Justice asked the company for information to determine whether it needed to register as a foreign agent. The request came in 2012, not 2013. It also incorrectly stated that he can make $250,000 to $800,000 a year from leasing airtime. He earns a small percentage of that. This version has been updated.
Justin Wm. Moyer is a Washington Post staff writer.