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Over the past year DOJ's Task Force Kleptocapture has been extremely busy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A year ago, the Justice Department unleashed a task force to target allies of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and their riches, from luxury yachts to opulent homes. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas brings us this update.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Less than a week after Russian tanks swept across the Ukrainian border, Attorney General Merrick Garland stood at the podium at the Justice Department to announce the creation of Task Force KleptoCapture. Its mission, he said, was to hold accountable Russian oligarchs trying to evade sanctions the U.S. and its allies had imposed in response to the Kremlin's invasion.

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MERRICK GARLAND: We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate, arrest and prosecute those whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue this unjust war.

LUCAS: And over the past year, the task force has kept busy. It's brought charges against at least 35 individuals and corporate entities, a list that includes Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who's been accused of sanctions violations. It's also brought charges against suspected Russian intelligence officers and individuals working with them to allegedly obtain advanced American technology that could be used by the Russian military.

LISA MONACO: We thought it was really important to go after, in the first instance, those individuals whose corruption has fueled the Russian war machine.

LUCAS: That's Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.

MONACO: And to send a very clear signal that we could work quickly with our partners and that we could set a pace for enforcement of these sanctions.

LUCAS: Part of that enforcement work has involved seizing some of the big-ticket items that Kremlin-aligned oligarchs have reaped from their allegedly ill-gotten gains. Last May, for example, the FBI assisted authorities in Fiji to seize a 348-foot luxury yacht that the U.S. says belongs to sanctioned oligarch Suleiman Kerimov. The $300 million vessel now sits at a dock in San Diego. And just last week, the department filed a forfeiture complaint for six properties worth an estimated $75 million in New York and Florida belonging to another oligarch. In all, Monaco tells NPR, the task force has seized, forfeited or otherwise restrained more than half a billion dollars in Russian oligarch assets over the past year. And the task force, she says, has now entered a second phase.

MONACO: Which is to go after the enablers, the facilitators, the companies that prop up and enable and facilitate the ability of these oligarchs to hide their wealth, to shield it, to evade sanctions.

LUCAS: A prime example of targeting so-called enablers is the case against Deripaska, who's been sanctioned for his alleged ties to the Putin regime. Deripaska and three women have been charged with conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions. Part of the alleged scheme involved arranging for Deripaska's Russian girlfriend to give birth in the United States. Deripaska's U.S. attorney, Erich Ferrari, declined to comment on the case. But Ferrari says his office is fielding calls on a daily basis from Russians with sanctions-related questions.

ERICH FERRARI: It's been a huge jump. And I would say our caseload has doubled over the last year.

LUCAS: Some of the callers want advice on how to comply with sanctions, he says. Others are looking for help to get out from under the punitive measures. While the task force and the broader international effort has imposed a degree of discomfort on Kremlin-aligned oligarchs, there's little indication that it's prompted them to pressure Putin to pull back in Ukraine, as some Western policymakers had hoped. In part, says Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, that's because the people who matter most in Russia are those in charge of large, armed bureaucracies, like the army, the security services and the police.

ALEXANDER GABUEV: Everybody else is exactly people with means but without any protection from the system and just too afraid to be thrown into jail.

LUCAS: Back in the U.S., meanwhile, the Justice Department is moving forward with the first-ever transfer to Ukraine of money seized from a sanctioned oligarch. It's just over $5 million, which is, of course, a drop in the ocean of Ukraine's needs at the moment. But Monaco says it's just a start of putting oligarch riches to the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.