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Ex-FBI informant charged with lying about Bidens to remain jailed while he awaits trial, judge rules

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former FBI informant charged with fabricating a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden’s family must remain behind bars while he awaits trial, a judge ruled Monday, reversing an earlier order releasing the man.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II in Los Angeles ordered Alexander Smirnov’s detention after prosecutors raised concerns that the man who claims to have ties to Russian intelligence could flee the country. Wright said he did not believe there were conditions of release he could set that would guarantee Smirnov would not escape.

“There is nothing garden variety about this case,” Wright said before announcing his decision. “I have not changed my mind. This man will be remanded pending trial.”

A different judge had released Smirnov from jail on electronic GPS monitoring after his Feb. 14 arrest, but Wright ordered him to be takenback into custody last week after prosecutors asked to reconsider Smirnov’s detention. Wright said in a written order unsealed Friday that Smirnov’s lawyers’ efforts to free him were “likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States.”

Smirnov is charged with falsely telling his FBI handler that executives from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma had paid President Biden and Hunter Biden $5 million each around 2015. The claim became central to the Republican impeachment inquiry of President Biden in Congress.

In urging the judge to keep him in jail, prosecutors revealed Smirnov has reported to the FBI having extensive contact with officials associated with Russian intelligence, and claimed that such officials were involved in passing a story to him about Hunter Biden. Prosecutors said Smirnov had been planning to travel overseas to multiple countries days after his Feb. 14 arrest where he said he was meeting with foreign intelligence contacts.

Smirnov, who holds dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship, is charged by the same Justice Department special counsel who has separately filed gun and tax charges against Hunter Biden.

Smirnov has not entered a plea to the charges, but his lawyers have said they look forward to defending him at trial. Defense attorneys have said in pushing for his release that he has no criminal history and has strong ties to the United States, including a longtime significant other who lives in Las Vegas.

In his ruling last week releasing Smirnov on GPS monitoring, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Albregts in Las Vegas said he was concerned about his access to what prosecutors estimate is $6 million in funds, but noted that federal guidelines required him to fashion “the least restrictive conditions” ahead of his trial.

Smirnov was re-arrested on Thursday morning while meeting with his lawyers at their offices in downtown Las Vegas.

In an emergency petition with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Smirnov’s lawyers said Wright did not have the authority to order Smirnov to be taken back into custody. The defense also criticized what it described as “biased and prejudicial statements” from Wright insinuating that Smirnov’s lawyers were acting improperly by advocating for his release.

The appeals court on Sunday evening denied Smirnov’s emergency petition, refusing to block Monday’s hearing or assign the case to a different judge.

Smirnov had been an informant for more than a decade when he made the explosive allegations about the Bidens in June 2020, after “expressing bias” about Joe Biden as a presidential candidate, prosecutors said. Smirnov had only routine business dealings with Burisma starting in 2017, according to court documents. No evidence has emerged that Joe Biden acted corruptly or accepted bribes in his current role or previous office as vice president.

While his identity wasn’t publicly known before the indictment, Smirnov’s claims have played a major part in the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family, and helped spark what is now a House impeachment inquiry into Biden. Republicans pursuing investigations of the Bidens demanded the FBI release the unredacted form documenting the unverified allegations, though they acknowledged they couldn’t confirm if they were true.

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Richer reported from Boston.

Amy Taxin And Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press