Olympic doping whistleblower fights back against Russian-backed lawsuit

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Grigory Rodchenkov in the 2017 documentary “Icarus.” (Photo: Netflix/Entertainment Pictures via Zumapress.com)

The whistleblower who exposed Russia’s Olympic doping scandal is firing back at a powerful oligarch who is financing a lawsuit against him in the United States, demanding that the businessman preserve documents that he believes may show Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is secretly behind the litigation.

And in a letter addressed to Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman who is also the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, the lawyer for whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov threatens a countersuit aimed at exposing the Russian government’s efforts to harass and intimidate his client in the United States.

The letter by lawyer Jim Walden, a copy of which was provided to Yahoo News, adds to the intrigue surrounding a lawsuit that was filed against Rodchenkov last week in a New York state court by three Russian biathletes who were stripped of their 2014 Olympic medals as a result of the whistleblower’s allegations about Russian doping. The lawsuit accuses Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s antidoping laboratory, of defaming the biathletes and “destroying their careers.”

Letter To Mikhail Prokhorov

Scott Balber, the New York lawyer for the Russian athletes, has acknowledged that Prokhorov is helping to finance the lawsuit along with unnamed others. “I am not at liberty to identify anyone else other than Mr. Prokhorov,” Balber said in an email Monday, when asked who else was bankrolling the lawsuit.

Balber once represented Donald Trump in a $5 million lawsuit — filed in 2013 and later withdrawn — against comedian Bill Maher for likening Trump’s hair to an orangutan’s. He currently represents another Russian oligarch, Aras Agalarov, and his son Emin Agalarov — two key figures in the Trump-Russia investigation who helped arrange the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives at which Trump campaign officials were promised derogatory information about Hillary Clinton.

Silver medalists Olga Zaitseva, far left, Yana Romanova, Ekaterina Shumilova and Olga Vilukhina of Russia pose during the ceremony at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

“Mr. Balber’s admission that unnamed ‘others’ are also financing this lawsuit is strange — raising the specter that the Kremlin itself might be acting through proxies here,” Walden said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Certainly, this could be problematic for all involved in this shady suit.”

In his letter to Prokhorov, Walden asks that all documents relating to the litigation be preserved, including any communications between the Brooklyn Nets owner and “any current or former Russian government officials, Russian law enforcement officers, officers or agents of the FSB [Russia’s domestic intelligence service] or representatives of the Russian Olympic Committee.”

Asked for comment, Balber called Walden’s letter “a publicity stunt” and said, “As far as I know, there is absolutely no Russian government role in the filing of the lawsuit. This appears to be complete fiction.” He added: “The sole purpose of this lawsuit is to clear the names of three hard-working, world-class Olympic athletes, and to obtain compensation for the economic loss they have suffered as a result of Mr. Rodchenkov’s false and defamatory statements.”

The legal sparring is the latest development in a complicated political and sporting saga that has been playing out since Rodchenkov fled Russia and went public with his account in 2016, describing what he portrayed as a vast and sophisticated scheme by Russia to provide banned drugs to the country’s athletes to boost their performance in the Olympic Games and other international sporting competitions — and to cheat the systems meant to catch them.

Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov speaks during an NBA basketball news conference in New York in 2016. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

In numerous interviews and in the widely acclaimed Netflix documentary “Icarus,” Rodchenkov described how he worked with the FSB, the Russian spy agency formerly headed by Putin, and with Russia’s sports ministry to oversee a system in which sealed urine samples of athletes were routinely swapped after testing, allowing athletes to take banned substances to avoid detection. After the Sochi Olympics, Rodchenkov was awarded a prestigious Order of Friendship medal by Putin.

The allegations by Rodchenkov were confirmed by international investigators and led to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to bar Russia from sending a delegation to this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, although Russian athletes were allowed to participate as individuals. That decision was reaffirmed just this week by the Olympic Committee, which refused to let Russian athletes march under their own flag in the closing ceremony at the South Korea Olympics.

Since fleeing to the United States, Rodchenkov, now in the federal witness protection program, has provided key evidence to international investigators and Justice Department officials about potential violations of federal law by the Russians. In doing so, he has become virtually public enemy No. 1 to Putin’s government: Prosecutors in Russia have filed criminal charges against him, accusing him of drug trafficking, and Putin during his end of the year press conference last December suggested that Rodchenkov was being drugged and manipulated by U.S. intelligence agencies.

“What are [U.S. intelligence agencies] doing with him there?” Putin said at the December press conference. “Are they giving him some kind of substances so that he says what’s required?”

Shortly after Putin’s comments, Walden said he was warned by U.S. officials that Russian agents may be looking for Rodchenkov in the United States. Walden, a former federal prosecutor, said he is concerned that the lawsuit is in fact in furtherance of that effort — an attempt “to find him through judicial means.”

Russia’s athletes enter the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 25, 2018. (Photo: Florian Choblet/AFP/Getty Images)

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