Russia has kicked off the trial of a prominent New York real-estate developer and former Guggenheim Museum board member who is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds to fuel her lavish lifestyle.
The in-absentia trial of Janna Bullock, a U.S. citizen and a staple of New York City’s social scene, was slated to begin in a Moscow court on May 2, escalating Russia’s multiyear pursuit of the Soviet-born businesswoman and her assets.
Bullock, 49, is accused of committing a raft of fraud and money-laundering crimes stemming from her business operations in Russia while her now ex-husband served as the finance minister of the Moscow Oblast, the region that surrounds the Russian capital.
Her trial is being held at Moscow’s Basmanny district court, according to the website of the court, which has handled politically tinged criminal cases and become synonymous with what Kremlin critics denounce as a rigged judiciary.
The judge in the case rejected a motion by the defense to involve U.S. diplomats in the case and inform them that a U.S. citizen was being tried, Russian state news agency TASS reported.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not immediately comment on the trial when contacted by RFE/RL.
The judge also ruled that that the trial could remain open to the public, TASS reported.
An attorney representing Bullock in court, Shamil Arifulov, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as telling the court that his client was not guilty.
It was not immediately clear whether Arifulov was serving as a court-appointed attorney.
The court said on its website later on May 2 that the trial had been adjourned until May 18.
Bullock has repeatedly said she and her former husband, Aleksei Kuznetsov, are victims of rampant corruption in Russia, accusing former business partners of colluding with officials to loot her business empire, which she once estimated at around $2 billion.
Russia accuses the pair of using Kuznetsov’s position to conduct financial machinations that resulted in the loss of more than 11 billion rubles from regional coffers — more than $400 million at exchange rates between 2005 and 2008, when the crimes were allegedly committed.
Russian prosecutors have already secured several convictions of alleged accomplices, while Kuznetsov was detained by French authorities on an Interpol warrant in 2013, triggering a fight by Moscow to secure his extradition.
A French court last month released Kuznetsov from jail but placed him under supervision pending the extradition matter. He has applied for political asylum in France.
Russian prosecutors said in an April 5 statement they had decided to proceed with Bullock’s in-absentia trial after U.S. authorities refused to extradite Bullock.
The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has previously declined to discuss Russia’s attempts to secure Bullock’s extradition.
The United States and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, and have sparred over mutual refusals to hand over suspects in high-profile cases — most notably in the case of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Moscow in 2013.
Bullock did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the trial, and the telephone number listed on her website appears to have been disconnected.
Richard Lafont, a New York attorney listed as her representative in unrelated U.S. civil litigation, did not immediately respond to an e-mail or voicemail seeking comment on May 2.
From Brighton Beach To Courchevel
The trial of Bullock in absentia marks the latest in a string of legal and financial difficulties she has faced since she and Kuznetsov left Russia for good in 2008 amid mounting allegations of financial wrongdoing.
A native of the Belarusian town of Pinsk, Bullock emigrated to the United States in the early 1990s and put down roots in Brighton Beach, an enclave in Brooklyn known for its large Russian-speaking population.
She met Kuznetsov, then an executive with the now-defunct Russian lender Inkombank, later that decade and began making a splash on the New York real-estate scene in the years after he assumed his post in the Moscow region in 2000.
She began snapping up and reselling pricey Manhattan real estate, amassed an art collection, and became a jet-set regular in New York and France, where she acquired two hotels in the ritzy ski resort Courchevel — a popular destination among Russia’s business and political elite.
She also launched a real-estate development company in Moscow that conducted substantial business with the Moscow Oblast government, whose finances were teetering at the time Bullock and Kuznetsov left Russia in 2008.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a May 2 statement on the start of the trial that Bullock and her alleged accomplices used “fictitious deals” to extract regional funds and transfer the money to offshore firms in Cyprus.
The money was used to purchase “elite” real estate in Switzerland and France, 10 automobiles, and a Cayman Islands-flagged yacht, among other assets, the statement alleged.
Bullock was elected to the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation — which oversees the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum — in 2007, but stepped down three years later as allegations of financial misdeeds began filtering out of Russia.
Russian authorities accuse Bullock, Kuznetsov, and several accomplices of moving regional funds to a vast network of offshore firms and using the money to finance an extravagant lifestyle.
Russia’s state-owned Gazprombank for several years has been seeking to recover more than $20 million in damages it claims to have suffered due to the alleged embezzlement.
The lender has secured a Cypriot court decision freezing $26.3 million of Bullock’s assets worldwide and ordering her to provide an exhaustive account of her global assets to the bank.
After a protracted and acrimonious fight over this disclosure in the U.S. federal court in Manhattan, Bullock began providing information about her assets to Gazprombank several months ago based on the Cypriot court order, according to U.S. court documents.