NEW YORK - A Florida software engineer was sentenced to 16 months in prison for helping run an illegal Bitcoin exchange suspected of laundering money for a group of hackers who targeted financial and publishing firms including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Dow Jones & Co.
Yuri Lebedev, 39, helped operate Coin.mx, which tricked banks into processing bitcoin transactions by disguising them as restaurant-delivery charges and online purchases of collectible items. He was convicted in March of conspiracy and fraud following a month-long trial in Manhattan.
Lebedev, wearing a black suit, stood before sentencing to tell the judge he regretted his actions. He said he joined Coin.mx to create “cutting edge technology” and build something “that would make me exceptional.”
“I got carried away,” he said, adding he realizes now “there are no shortcuts.”
U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan in New York said Lebedev used his “impressive technology skills” to trick banks, making them “unwilling participants in the scheme.”
Prosecutors said the unregistered exchange sold bitcoins that were used in illegal online transactions and as payment in ransomware attacks. To help dodge regulators, Lebedev also conspired with his boss to bribe a New Jersey pastor to let them take over a credit union that was run out of a church and use it to help legitimize the exchange’s corrupt operations.
The operator of Coin.mx, Anthony Murgio, was sentenced to 5½ years in June. He admitted in January that he ran Coin.mx for the hacking scheme’s main Israeli architect, Gery Shalon, the self-described founder of a sprawling criminal enterprise that hacked at least nine companies.
Lebedev was born in Russia and raised in Ukraine before moving in with a host family in the U.S. state of Georgia. His attorney, Eric Creizman, cited the wide-ranging nature of the scheme to portray his client as a husband and doting father of three who was been caught up in something too big for him to recognize. In court papers, he described Lebedev as an “unlikely criminal defendant.”
“This case in which Lebedev was tried and convicted as a defendant involved a far broader scope of criminality than the conduct that Lebedev purposefully involved himself in or even knew about,” Creizman said in a court filing.
Lebedev wasn’t accused of money laundering and wasn’t involved in the hacking scheme. Creizman emphasized his technology role and said he wasn’t involved in the three-way calls with banks in which customers lied about the nature of their transactions.
Family and friends sent letters to the court supporting Lebedev, all of which described him as a man devoted to hard work and to giving his children the kind of opportunities he didn’t have in Ukraine. His host family described how Lebedev tutored their child in math, while a college friend relayed how Lebedev washed dishes to avoid using a credit card for living expenses like others did.
Shalon’s global network allegedly stole information on more than 100 million customers of banks and publishing firms and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit proceeds from pump-and-dump stock scams and online gambling.
Murgio operated the exchange with Lebedev from about 2013 to 2015 through a front company, the Collectables Club Private Member Association, which lists Murgio’s West Palm Beach address, court papers show. At Murgio’s sentencing hearing, he wept and said he’d “screwed up badly.”
The men “knowingly exchanged cash for people whom they believed may be engaging in criminal activity,” the government said in court filings.
As part of the scheme, Lebedev was installed on the board of New Jersey-based HOPE Federal Credit Union to bribe Trevon Gross, a pastor who was convicted in the same case, to gain control of the credit union and use it to process corrupt bank transactions that would appear legitimate, court filings show. Gross hasn’t been sentenced.
“Lebedev was one of the handful of co-conspirators involved in the credit union’s processing of over $60 million in risky” transactions, prosecutors said in court papers.
Lebedev’s role was to set up an array of servers that Coin.mx used to process its transactions, a critical element of the scheme that required constant attention to avoid detection by the banks, the U.S. said.
“One of those critical issues that Lebedev handled was the use of separate servers to mislead banks and payment processors into thinking that Coin.mx bitcoin transactions were actually Collectables Club memorabilia and MyXtremeDelivery food transactions,” the U.S. said in court papers.
Lebedev also attempted to obstruct the case by deleting files from a computer, prosecutors said.
Shalon and his alleged top lieutenant, Ziv Orenstein, were arrested in Israel in July 2015 and extradited to the U.S. last year. They have pleaded not guilty. An American who allegedly conspired with them, Joshua Aaron, who attended Florida State University with Anthony Murgio, was detained by Russian authorities in 2015 and returned to the U.S. to face charges. He denies wrongdoing.