Two of the 11 people arrested for allegedly participating in a Russian spy ring have ties to the real estate industry — one had worked for real estate brokerage company Redfin and another claimed to be CEO for an online real estate search company.
The two women, Anna Chapman and another known as Tracey Lee Ann Foley, were arrested on Sunday, along with eight other suspects; an 11th suspect was arrested Tuesday morning in Cyprus and released on bail, according to news reports.
The suspects had been under investigation by the FBI for several years and allegedly are employed by the foreign intelligence arm of the Russian government, the SVR, as U.S.-based agents on long-term, "deep cover" assignments, according to a criminal complaint filed against nine of the suspects.
These "illegal" agents had one alleged primary goal, the complaint said: "to become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles."
So far, the suspects have not been charged with espionage, but rather with money laundering and failing to register as agents or representatives of a foreign government, according to news reports.
To fulfill their mission, the suspects allegedly employed tactics reminiscent of the Cold War era: short-wave radio messages, invisible ink, encrypted Morse code messages, the creation and use of a cover profession, and the "brush pass" (a hand-to-hand delivery of items or payments made as one person walks past another in a public place), among others, the complaint said.
Known as the "Boston Conspirators," Foley and her husband, Donald Howard Heathfield, live outside of Boston with their two teenage sons. Foley obtained her real estate salesperson license in Cambridge, Mass., in August 2007 and obtained her broker’s license in November 2009, accoding to state licensing records.
Redfin hired Foley as a contract field agent in February, according to a statement Redfin released on its corporate blog. Redfin reported that Foley’s application said she had worked since 2007 for the real estate brokerages Weichert and Channing Real Estate.
The statement went on to say that Foley "interviewed well" and that a criminal background check the company ran "came up clean." As a field agent, Foley only showed homes to Redfin customers and did not represent them in their transactions, the company said.
"She was well-liked by most of her touring customers, who are surveyed extensively about their experiences with any new field agent. The customer surveys for Ms. Foley described her as friendly and helpful," the company said, adding, "since she has been accused of a grave crime, we have disclosed the facts of our relationship with Ms. Foley here, and would rather not venture opinions beyond that."
According to the complaint, Foley and her husband have claimed to be naturalized U.S. citizens born in Canada. The couple allegedly moved to the U.S. in 1999. Federal prosecutors believe "Foley" and "Heathfield" to be assumed names. In a LinkedIn profile, "real estate, travel, cooking, reading, skiing, art, ballet, fashion, France and Asia," are listed among Foley’s interests.
According to a profile of the couple by the Washington Post, they had just moved into a $900,000 unit in Cambridge a block from Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Foley at one point allegedly traveled on a phony British passport, but the origins of the couple remain murky.
In a separate criminal complaint against her and a another suspect, Anna Chapman is accused of being part of the network of "illegals."
On a LinkedIn profile, Anna Chapman is listed as CEO for PropertyFinder Ltd, which runs a real estate search engine for Russian speakers called Domdot.ru (the site’s English version is at Domdot.net). Government prosecutors report that Anna Chapman is believed to be her true name.
On that same profile, Dan Johnson, owner of TheMoveChannel.com, recommended Chapman last fall after meeting with her to discuss feeding listings to each other’s online real estate sites.
"Anna is an ambitious, forward-thinking professional, who has totally embraced the open, collaborative way of working that has evolved in Web industries. Working between New York, London and Moscow must be extremely challenging, but she takes it in her stride and makes things happen wherever she is," Johnson said.
In a phone interview with Inman News today from London, Johnson said that he stands by those words, even after hearing about her arrest earlier today.
"She had a modern way of thinking, not necessarily a Cold War-era way of thinking," he said.
Still, he was "staggered" by the news, he said. After exchanging several e-mails, the two met once — ironically, he said — in a Russian bar called "Most" under Tower Bridge in London.
"She was easy to get on with. We had a couple drinks. We chatted about the industry. It was a normal, informal first meeting. Nothing out of the ordinary," he said.
She was interested in getting her Russian property listings on his site, while he was interested in the Russian audience for his other European listings, Johnson said.
"We do (deals like) that with dozens of different portals around the world. Doing it in Russia was perfectly natural conversation for us to be having.
"To be honest, it’s a market that a lot of European real estate agents have been looking to as a sort of salvation," he said. "The (United Kingdom) market has been contracting hugely in the past few years. We’ve been looking to Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union for new markets."
In the end, the two did not go on to do business — expanding beyond English-language markets would have required too many resources at the time, Johnson said. He’s said he’s not sure what he thinks of Chapman now and would not venture to judge her before she was tried in court.
"I’ve actually been to Russia — I still can’t pick out a Russian spy. You’re not going to succeed when governments fail" to detect them, he added. "They’re very good at their jobs, you know."
The Russian government called the allegations against the group of suspects "baseless and improper," according to an article by the New York Daily news profiling Chapman.