U.S. mobsters conned a former congressman into paying thousands of dollars for fake letters fr om dead Russian crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov that claimed Belarus was holding U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War.
But the former congressman, John LeBoutillier, who served as a Republican representative in the early 1980s, said Tuesday that he had received "some good and accurate information" through an organized crime figure imprisoned in the United States when making the purchase.
"Indeed, I did ask inmate Frank Sparaco to contact Mr. Ivankov, whom he knew in U.S. prison, to help find American POWs captured in the Vietnam War and later taken to the U.S.S.R.," LeBoutillier told The Moscow Times in e-mailed comments.
Sparaco, who is serving a 24-year sentence, is a reputed member of the Colombo crime family from New York.
Vyacheslav Ivankov, better known as Yaponchik, was a reputed godfather of the Russian mafia, and he died last October in a Moscow hospital from wounds inflicted in a shooting last July.
He was jailed for extortion in the United States in 1995 and was extradited to Russia in 2004, wh ere he was acquitted.
LeBoutillier paid $18,500 for the information supposedly compiled by Ivankov, the New York Post reported late last week.
LeBoutillier confirmed the amount. "Yes, I am told that $18,500 was stolen from me," he said.
The bizarre fraud scheme was co-organized by Charles Guiga, from Brooklyn, who served as Sparaco's intermediary. Guiga pleaded guilty in a New York court on Thursday to mail fraud and admitted that he corrected Sparaco's letters and forwarded them to LeBoutillier, the report said.
Described as a "blue-blood Republican," LeBoutillier is a political columnist for the conservative Newsmax.com web site. He has been on a decades-long mission to locate and bring home U.S. servicemen captured in Vietnam.
He was adamant Tuesday that he thought some were still in Russia or neighboring countries. "I believe 70 to 90 of these men are still being held on the territory of the former Soviet Union," he said.
He cited comments by President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 that Stalin had ordered the imprisonment of 12 American airmen downed in the 1950s and that some might be alive.
Yeltsin's comments prompted Washington to send a special envoy to Russia in July 1992. But during a meeting with Yevgeny Primakov, then the country's intelligence chief, the envoy, Malcolm Toon, was told that there was no new information about missing Americans.