The Best Investigative Reporter You've Never Heard Of
Robert Friedman has been way out front in coverage of the Russian mob in the U.S.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
A BOISTEROUS TGIF crowd was gathering at the trendy New York City restaurant, but the reporter seemed oblivious. He was deep into reminiscing about his mob sources, including clandestine meetings where he clinked glasses with the kind of men who travel in white limousines and have names like Tarzan and the Tattoo Terror.
Between sips of red wine, he explained how he had built a network of Deep Throats in an organization where "combat brigade" is a euphemism for assassin squads and torture chambers are as common as swimming pools in some mob strongholds.
Swilling vodka with drug dealers, extortionists and black marketers became routine as he worked the Russian mob beat from Brooklyn to Miami. He has grilled the likes of Marat Balagula, whose nicotine-stained fingers bore Cyrillic letters, a sign of allegiance to a lethal secret clan. And he exposed the rise of a mobster named Ivankov, who served 10 years in a gulag for extortion and torture.
He has shared meals with men who can have enemies hideously maimed or decapitated. Many among their ranks sport gaudy tattoos designating status in a shadowy underworld that emanates from the former Soviet territories. The reporter even calls some within the Russian and Italian crime syndicates his "friends."
During dinner that Friday night, Robert I. Friedman talked about interviewing mobsters the way some reporters talk about covering city hall: with a nonchalance that hints of boredom. The freelance journalist, known as Robbie to friends, has been working the Mafia beat since the mid-1980s.
His stories on the Russian mob have appeared in the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Details and New York magazine. In November, he was pushing a deadline on a mob-related piece for The New Yorker.
Over the years, his reporting has caught the eye of agents in the FBI, CIA and Israeli intelligence. Capitol Hill lawmakers have asked him to testify at hearings on
Russian organized crime. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts cited Friedman's work in a book on the threat of transnational criminal networks.
His penetrating exposés also have drawn the ire of a Russian Mafia crime lord, described by the CIA, according to ABCNEWS.com, as "the most dangerous mobster in the world." Officials say the man ordered a hit contract on Friedman, reportedly worth $100,000, after the reporter wrote about his criminal career in 1998. Friedman wrote that a second Russian gangster, Vyacheslav Ivankov, sent a threatening message from inside a federal prison that same year. The Committee to Protect Journalists believes it is the first time an American reporter has been targeted by the Russian mob in this country.
A former FBI agent called Friedman "a true media hero" and remembers times when federal agents played catch-up as the reporter continued to divulge new information about the dramatic rise of the Russian crime cartel on American soil.
"He was a pioneer when there was nobody else out there," says Robert Levinson, who specialized in uncovering organized crime activities for the FBI. "I packed a sidearm for 28 years. Robbie had only his notebook and pen."
Y ET, FOR ALL his cutting-edge investigative reports on the global expansion of the Russian crime families, with tentacles extending to more than 50 countries, the freelance journalist has operated in what one friend calls "heroic anonymity."
For the most part, Friedman, 49, remains relatively unknown in mainstream media circles. But he received some high-profile attention last summer.
In an August column, the Washington Post's David Ignatius credited Friedman with groundbreaking reporting on the Russian mob that led to national headlines last year on an alleged $10 billion money-laundering scheme through the Bank of New York.
"It's now what we call a 'feeding frenzy,' with news organizations scrambling to add new morsels of information," Ignatius wrote. "For years, Friedman was out there nearly alone--risking his life to tell a story that no one seemed to want to hear."
When word of the death threats surfaced early last year, the New York Times covered them on page one.
Suddenly, Friedman found himself the "go-to guy" for information on the Russian Mafia, a group he has described as "a mélange of gangsters and black marketers, unemployed KGB spies, and Communist Party hacks."
He has been interviewed on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," CNN's "Moneyline" and "ABC World News Tonight." Representatives of a BBC newsmagazine and NBC's documentary unit have contacted him for help with stories. Hollywood bought three of his articles to explore movie possibilities, and Little, Brown and Co. is rushing to get his book "Red Mafiya" on the shelves as soon as it can.
Micah Sifry, a former associate editor at The Nation who once worked with Friedman, calls him "one of the most meticulous and fearless investigative reporters" in the country today. His body of work, says Sifry, is a definitive statement on the phenomenon of the Russian mob's power grabs.
But the occasional notice has hardly made the investigative reporter a household name. Mention Friedman to a group of journalists--not to mention the public in general--and you're likely to draw blank stares. No one in a room full of reporters and editors at a Society of Professional Journalists conference in October recognized his byline or knew of his breakthrough reporting on Russian crime.
The lack of acclaim among his peers doesn't surprise the Post's Ignatius. "There's a terrible danger that we only take seriously brand-name journalism," the columnist says. "We take it seriously if it runs in the Washington Post or Time magazine or the New York Times, but not if it runs in the Village Voice. And that is a mistake. Robert deserves to be much better known."
F RIEDMAN BEGAN infiltrating the Russian mob soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, ending the Cold War and communism in Europe. He used the connections he had developed in reporting on La Cosa Nostra to meet newcomers to the United States who were members of Russian crime families. His schmoozing with gangsters began paying off in magazine cover stories a few years later.
In January 1993, readers of Vanity Fair were introduced to Marat Balagula, "a brilliant, coldly efficient crime boss who would transform the 'Organizatsiya' into a multibillion-dollar-a-year criminal enterprise that stretches across the tatters of Communist Eastern Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia," Friedman wrote.
He quoted a U.S. federal agent saying that Balagula "makes John Gotti look like a choir boy."
The story traced how the mob, fanning out from its base in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach--"a cloistered seaside community of Russian Jewish émigrés"--had pulled off perhaps the largest jewelry heist in American history.
He told of Russian gangsters smuggling heroin into the United States from Southeast Asia and tapping poppy fields around Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear accident.
Friedman reported that Russian crime families, thanks to their control of gasoline terminals and distributorships in the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere, evaded as much as $5 billion a year in state and federal taxes. A portion of that money, he reported, "goes as tribute to the Italian Mafia, with whom they have an uneasy alliance--the first ever between two ethnic crime groups."
The end of the story was chillingly prophetic. An expert on the Organizatsiya was quoted as saying, "The Russia Mob will soon become the largest criminal syndicate in the world."
In a January 1996 cover story for New York magazine, titled "The Money Plane," Friedman wrote the following lead: "Five nights a week, at least $100 million in crisp new $100 bills is flown from JFK nonstop to Moscow, where it is used to finance the Russian mob's vast and growing international crime syndicate. State and federal officials believe it is part of a multi-billion-dollar money-laundering operation. The Republic National Bank and the United States Federal Reserve prefer not to think so."
In that same piece, he chronicled the rise of Ivankov, sent to Brighton Beach in 1992 to take over the Russian Jewish mob's empire in the United States. Friedman reported that Ivankov forged alliances with other Russian gangs across North America and set up a front company in New York called Slavic Inc. to launder drug money.
During the entire time, Friedman also was gathering information on the rise of Semion Mogilevich, a Ukrainian Jew who, according to federal investigators, runs one of the most dreaded mob families in the world. The FBI and Israeli intelligence have linked him to drugs, prostitution, money laundering and nuclear arms trafficking.
In May 1998, an exclusive report by Friedman in Details magazine reported that the Russian mob had muscled its way into the National Hockey League, extorting protection money from some of hockey's biggest stars. That same month, in a cover story for the Village Voice, Friedman traced Mogilevich's criminal career, using information from hundreds of pages of classified FBI and Israeli intelligence documents and interviews with a key criminal associate and with dozens of law enforcement sources in the United States and abroad.
The story reported that the crime lord had become "a grave threat to the stability of Israel and Eastern Europe" and was being exposed by the media for the first time.
In an interview from Moscow that appeared on the ABC News Web site in September, Mogilevich charged that the stories were driven by "a personal initiative of a journalist, Friedman, a former FBI agent and an official of the Attorney General's office. They want to write a book and they are working on the main hero of it," he told an ABC reporter.
Mogilevich, who has not been indicted, denied involvement in an alleged plot to launder billions of dollars through the Bank of New York and described himself as a publisher and consultant to a cereal company. The death threat against Friedman was picked up while the CIA was monitoring Mogilevich's telephone, the FBI reported. Friedman says the FBI called the reporter with the chilling news in June 1998 and suggested that he go into hiding and remain silent about the threats.
At first, Friedman took the advice, and with his wife, Christine Dugas, a business writer for USA Today, headed for a bed and breakfast in Vermont. (The couple have no children.) After a week, "I started feeling like a billy goat on a stake," he recalls. "I couldn't let them intimidate me."
The couple returned to their New York City apartment. "On at least two occasions I spotted muscle men, thugs that I had seen as bodyguards in Russian gangsters' offices while I was doing interviewing in New York, in my neighborhood," Friedman recalls. "They wanted to clearly show that, 'We know where you are. We can grab you if we want to.' "
As the months passed, Friedman grew furious over what he perceived as the FBI's lack of action on the mob bosses' threats against him. "That's when I went to CPJ, and it became a public issue," he says. A story by Blaine Harden in the New York Times followed. "From my point of view as a reporter, his story on the death threats checked out in every way," Harden told AJR. "He's a brave guy; he's put his life on the line to do a higher form of reporting."
CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper felt that placing a spotlight on Friedman's case would provide some protection. Cooper believes the death threats could have a chilling effect on how other American journalists report on Russian-related crime. "Anyone inclined to cover it will be given pause about how deeply to go if your life is going to be threatened," she says. According to CPJ, 16 journalists have been killed in countries of the former Soviet Union since 1993, in circumstances that suggest the involvement of Russian organized crime.
Last year other reporters began focusing on the Russian mob's ties to money laundering and other criminal activities.
On August 19, the New York Times ran a page-one story headlined "Activity at Bank Raises Suspicions of Russia Mob Tie." Reporters Raymond Bonner and Timothy O'Brien mentioned Friedman, his reporting on Mogilevich, and how the CIA picked up the death threat against him while monitoring the crime leader's telephone.
"Finally," says Sifry, Friedman's former editor at The Nation, "the mainstream press is catching up with Robbie."
D URING THE FRIDAY night interview, Friedman talked of meeting members of the Red Mafia and Genovese family just a couple evenings before. Another gathering was scheduled for the following Thursday. "I can't discuss the circumstances," he says. But he did discuss how he built relationships with men who break laws for a living.
Mobsters trust him, he says, because, "They are friends of mine. I have known them for a number of years, and they have become 'not for attribution' sources. I have never burned them, so they tell me stuff. I know them really well. It's not like one meal over 10 years. It's a lot of contact over a long period of time."
What do they gain by feeding him information?
"They know I really tell the truth, and sometimes the truth is what they want told--their dramatic rise, their fall, with the warts and all. I don't take anything on face value. Everything is checked out in a number of different ways."
Does he meet with them as a journalist or as a friend?
"It's both. First of all, I don't take my notebook out because that would just kill it. But, they know I'm a reporter. Tons of stuff they have said to me over the years has gotten into print.... That's why law enforcement marvels at me. They wonder, 'How the fuck does he get that stuff?' They don't have these sources. These bad guys are not talking to them.
"Of course, they're not going to tell me they robbed a Brinks truck today. But I will get a lot of good intelligence."
Is the mood of these meetings upbeat?
"Oh yeah. We'll be drinking; we'll be toasting; we'll be cutting up.... These are people who didn't like me at all to begin with, and I kept going to their haunts and making a pest of myself starting back in 1984-85. I was much younger back then, with a baby face. I looked harmless. It has paid off.
"I never betrayed anybody. There is a strong level of trust...and that is what I bring to the table that [no other journalist] does. I have gotten inside to a certain extent."
Has mingling with mobsters been worth the risk?
"I'm not like most investigative reporters. I don't wait for leaks from law enforcement. I have developed, over the last 15 years, good relationships with organized crime figures--first the Italians in La Cosa Nostra in New York City and then with the Russians. They know they can talk to me and if they say, 'Don't ever print this,' they know I won't.
"With some, I have become, yes, you could say, friends."
How does he cope with knowing that some criminal confidants are responsible for hideous crimes?
"I don't have to make a moral judgment," Friedman says. "I am a journalist."
R ISK-TAKING BECAME a way of life early for Friedman, who grew up in Denver, the oldest of four children. He left home at 15. He finished high school in 1968, turning to his studies between shifts on an assembly line at a Denver defense plant. "I was living at the poverty level," he says. "I developed a lot of street smarts during that time."
A few years later he dropped out of the University of Colorado to travel the world with only a few hundred dollars in his pocket. He returned and graduated in 1977 with a major in African and Middle Eastern studies and went on to get a graduate degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin. It was there that he met Dugas, who herself had been doing risky reporting in Central and South America.
In the early 1970s, he audited courses at the American University in Beirut and lived in a red light district with Palestinians, all members of the PLO. He was, Friedman recalls, the only Jew among them.
In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, he volunteered to work on a kibbutz near the Israeli border with Jordan while the men went off to fight. "I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't live on the edge," says the reporter who, with his mop of gray curls and thick brown moustache, could pass for a Middle Eastern entrepreneur.
Friedman credits Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, "The Jungle," which he read in an 11th grade journalism class, with sparking his love of investigative reporting. Sinclair exposed conditions in the meat processing industry in the United States, sparking radical reforms. "That book blew me away. I decided I wanted to write stories that would afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
"I knew I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer or go into business. I wanted to be a writer and bring down the bastions of power that caused common people so much suffering. That's what I thought in 11th grade. I guess I never grew up. I still feel that way."
A COMMON THREAD runs through Friedman's work, which dates back to the early 1980s. His reporting shows an uncanny talent for penetrating controversial, volatile political and criminal groups and obtaining confidential files from within intelligence organizations like the FBI. It also shows a deep respect for painstaking detail and attribution.
In one of his first successes as a freelancer, he published a piece in the New York Times in 1982 on a secret alliance between the Israeli Army and the Christian Phalangists, who had battled Palestinian, Syrian and Muslim leftist commando groups after Lebanon's civil war exploded in 1975. "It was on the op-ed page, but they let me report," Friedman recalls. "They let me break news."
In 1987, he received an Alicia Patterson fellowship to report on the rise of the radical Jewish right, which dreamed of establishing a Greater Israel on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
His stories and subsequent book, "The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane--from FBI Informant to Knesset Member," explored the role of violence-prone Israeli zealots, the driving force behind the establishment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the occupied territories. The Jewish Defense League, founded by Kahane, responded with lawsuits and public condemnation.
An article in the Sunday Times of London noted that "Friedman paints a portrait of Kahane as thief, adulterer, terrorist, and bigot. Kahane's supporters will be outraged, his enemies will gleefully learn the extent of his duplicity." A reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer called the work "extraordinary."
Later, four Pulitzer Prize winners, all with Newsday at the time, authored a book on the conspiracy behind the World Trade Center bombing. In a chapter titled, "Unreasonable Doubt," they discussed the November 1990 assassination of Kahane and cited Friedman's earlier reporting on who might have been responsible.
They also scolded the mainstream press: "Not a single one of the four New York newspapers pursued the leads exposed by Friedman--nor did CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN or Fox Television. A solitary freelance writer had raised the alarm. The mainstream press dined on its regular diet of bread crumbs from the cops and circus performances by the defense lawyers."
In 1992, Friedman wrote a second book, "Zealots of Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement." It was during this period that he was attacked by gun-toting thugs while on assignment in Israel for The New Yorker to write about radical settlers on the West Bank. He recalls that his driver, who doubled as a bodyguard, stood by. "I was set up. He was a Kahane person," says Friedman, who sustained bruises but no serious injuries.
Despite stellar reviews, the two books failed to sell very well. "American Jews don't want to read stuff that makes them feel bad about Israel, and they don't want to see a little journalist from New York writing these kinds of things," says Friedman, who traces his Jewish ancestry back to Russia. Crossing the line has been painful, he says, because, "I love Israel."
I N 1996, THE habit of courting dangerous assignments caught up with Friedman. In April of that year he roamed the slums of Bombay, India, documenting how sexual slavery and political corruption were creating an AIDS catastrophe. When he returned home, he developed what appeared to be serious flu symptoms. Instead, they were the first signs of a rare, incurable blood disease that has left his heart "ruined." Doctors, unable to diagnose the cause of the ailment, speculate that it likely is related to the India trip. ###
One day last September, Friedman answered the telephone in a slow, faint voice that hinted of heavy medication and described how he collapsed on an assignment for The New Yorker and had to use a wheelchair to get on and off a Continental Airlines flight. "I almost died last Tuesday," he said matter-of-factly. "There was a two- to three-week period where my heart almost gave out. Doctors are even considering doing a transplant."
He recalls that he left for India back in 1996 "completely healthy, without even a cold for 15 years." He credits his wife with helping him cope with the unpleasantries of hospital stays, swallowing "gobs" of medication each day, and continually hearing bad news from doctors who are scrambling to save his heart. "I couldn't do this without her," he says. "She gives me the extra strength, courage and resources I need to go on."
Yet Friedman remains steadfast in his commitment to his work. He believes that as a reporter he has the best of both worlds, swapping information with American and foreign intelligence sources and getting tips from within the most powerful crime families on the globe.
But more than the daring and a passion to stay ahead of the media pack drives Friedman's reporting. His voice shifts to a conspiratorial tone when he describes what he believes could be a worst-case scenario in the 21st century if crime families like the Red Mafia are not stopped.
"Their deadly virus could spread around the globe through international financial and political systems," he says. "It's easy for them to invade the American and political system in this age of intercommunication, where you can make a wire transfer in a second."
He describes the Russian Mafia as smarter, more ruthless and far wealthier than its Italian counterpart. "The best description I've heard on the difference between [the two groups] came from a law enforcement official who said, 'The Italian Mafia plays bocce ball, the Russian Mafia plays chess.' "
It is, in fact, the Russian syndicates' financial wizardry, coupled with their legendary viciousness, that makes them a threat to American security, Friedman says.
By now, it is around 10 p.m. Suddenly, Friedman leans forward across the table in the crowded restaurant and, in a somber, defiant voice, issues a warning to a man labeled the most dangerous mobster in the world by the CIA.
"I am still tracking Mogilevich right now, and my book [on the Red Mafia] isn't closed yet," he says. "We still are doing final edits. The new stuff I am finding definitely will get in. I know exactly what he's doing, and where he's doing it. He can't run, he can't hide, and I am not going anyplace."